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Keeping memory and Burger King

26 December, 2007

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Christmas brings memories. Families gather and bring a past and a present — all of which come together in a memory making. Most of the time this is a good thing (there can be bad memories or memories of bad times). This is why most families have their particular (and peculiar?) family traditions at Christmas time. Memories have their own power and authority. Just try and tell children in their 20s they no longer will be having their Christmas stockings put out on Christmas Eve!

The older I and my family get the memories are, yes, richer but, in truth, the memories also get more poignant. It feels like lovely-memories-with-a-sense of loss. My sister, Kate, put it this way. She described her Christmas day (yesterday) as filled with good food, giving and receiving gifts, and seeing friends. Of course all this did not make this Christmas completely different from previous Christmases. But as she looked at her family — her adult children with their children (her grandchildren) — she suddenly realised she was the eldest. There is no longer, in our family anyway, an older generation. We are the older generation. As Kate put it, “When did this happen? No one asked me if I wanted this.” So, right there on that Christmas Day, there was joy, love, warmth but also a touch of loss. Memories of those no longer with us.

I’ve been thinking of memory loss and loss experienced in memory. I wonder if there is another sense of memory loss and loss experienced in memory. Is it something that as a culture we now face at a serious level? With all the technology that gives us immediacy are we in danger of losing our memory? The memory I have in my mind is the memory of morals and virtues. I am not referring to some halcyon era when everyone did what was right; there’s never been any such time. I’m thinking rather of an era when morals and virtues were understood (even if people went against them) to be more than our own individual and private constructions. Morals and virtues (and I use the term virtue rather than values because values suggests a consumerist preference) stood ‘outside’ or ‘above’ men and women.

I fear we’ve lost memories of morals and virtues. Ask young people about how and why morals exist and the overwhelming answer one hears is pretty much along the lines of individualism (solipsism is the fancy word) or functional pragmatics (we do this because it ‘works’). Morals, therefore, don’t have any external point of reference. We’ve relegated them to some ‘Third Division’ — namely, personal preferences. This is memory loss.

And with this memory loss we’ve become a bit like my mother. She experiences things but, because of her advanced Alzheimer’s, she no longer has a working memory with which to interpret — and with interpretation comes identification and classification — her experiences. As a society, even civilization, we experience things (wars, economic problems, crime, environmental crises and so on) but we no longer have a working memory with which to interpret, identify and classify these experiences. We have memory loss.

We have rhetoric; we have ideas; we have opinions; we have narratives; but do we have any abiding memory? Where do we go now as a civilization for moral and ethical points of reference? Do we look to the State? Do we look to the Arts or Entertainment? Or do we hunker down in our own private bunkers and ‘look within’? What will keep us as people from walking around like the zombies or robots we’ve seen in TV programmes like Dr Who or Star Trek who have no memory function and, so, no engagement with the present? Or how can we ease the heartache that comes from what I called earlier the “lovely-memories-with-a-sense of loss”?

We don’t need cultural nostalgia. We don’t need cultural photo-scrap books. We don’t need ‘Golden Hits of Yesterday’ ethics. I don’t want to be part of any ‘moral rearmament’ movement or some kind of ‘back to basics’ agenda. That stuff scares me.

We do need a revival of memory — a memory retrieval. When a people forget, we need the voices of sanity to speak out again. So I’m impressed with how the Bible speaks over and over about people’s memory loss and how important keeping memory is. Joshua (Joshua 4:4-9) calls the leaders to take stones and create a visual aid to remind the people and subsequent generations of how the LORD God has helped his people. The 6th century BC prophet, Jeremiah, called his generation to the ‘ancient paths, where the good way is…’ (Jer. 6:16). The Lord Jesus Christ stressed to his followers how keeping and obeying his word would be the chief means by which the Holy Spirit would keep them (remind them as well) in the truth. The apostle Paul, saying goodbye to church elders in Ephesus, commended them to both the grace of God and ‘to the word of his grace’ (apostolic teaching we now have in the Bible) which ‘can build you up and give you an inheritance…’ (Acts 20:32). In these quickly chosen selections I think I see both the dangers of ‘memory loss’ and the provided solution to this memory loss.

To be sure, wider society will reject, dismiss and ignore references to Biblical promises; but not with impunity. This contemporary “repression of conscience” (Tournier) is precisely what the apostle Paul references in his statement in Romans 1:19-23. Memory loss, in this sense, is the consequence of a deliberate suppression of the knowledge of what is right and true. Memory loss is fundamentally a moral problem and not only a cognitive problem.

One of my other sisters emailed me today some news about my mother. My mother, possibly because her body is falling apart, is no longer able, evidently, to eat solid foods — everything has to be liquidised. Understandably, she doesn’t like what’s put before her. So, on a whim, my sister went out to Burger King and bought my mother a burger, fries and soft drink. Desperate times call for desperate measures. My mother ate with gusto! Go figure. Did the meal (should we really call it food?) bring back memories? For the sake of argument, let’s say it did.

Because, in a remarkably similar way, film, music, and literature sometimes reminds us of what we’ve forgotten. Sure, not every example does this. But sometimes there is an ‘echo’ or a ‘memory hit’ that these art forms create in us. They serve to remind us of what we’ve forgotten (as a society) and what we long for (as a society) but have lost the language with which to express our desire. When this happens, there is a resonance with what the Bible tells us — not an endorsement but a resonance. So, bring on Doestoevsky, Shakespeare, Cockburn, Kieslowski and others. I may even go out to Burger King as well!

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