Memento, Memory, and Community

Memento, Memory, and Community

I recently re-watched Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film Memento.  Guy Pearce simply kills it.  And the storyline and story-telling are to-die-for.  There’s just so much going on at so many levels in this movie, all at the same time–and (if you haven’t seen it) half the film happens in reverse (chronologically).

At the risk of spoiling it, I want to comment on two of the more obvious aspects of this film.

First, as most reviewers note, this is a film that ever so subtly–and, therefore, plausibly–portrays the inescapable human capacity for self-deception.

Often when we think of the idea of deception, we think of deliberate, conscious and pre-calculated distortion of the truth.  And, of course, deception can be that.  But deception can operate in ways that are far more subtle than that.

And such is the case with self-deception.

Let me give an example from my childhood–one that I (as a parent) have seen “replayed” by my own kids.

As a kid I can remember on numerous occasions my mother asking me if I had completed a specific task X–e.g., vacuuming out the car, mowing the lawn, etc.  In response I would suddenly say to myself, “Oh no! That’s right, she had asked me to do that, and I haven’t done it yet–I completely forgot, and now she’s going to be upset with me!”

So I would say in a discouraged, defeated–and, I would add, deceptive–way, “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry, I forgot about that. I’ll do it right now!”

I can remember my mom having conversations with my dad about this:  should they punish me or not?  Does my forgetting release me from any responsibility?  They believed–and were right to believe- that I was not deliberately deceiving them:  I had in fact forgotten to do what my mom had asked me to do.  And, to complicate matters even further, it would be one thing if I had “forgotten” a task that I do daily (e.g., one of the morning chores), but what about a one-off task that my mom had happened to mention to me on the way out the door to school in the morning?  (“Honey, when you get home, I won’t be here, so start the sprinkler in the backyard!”)

Memory is, of course, much more than a cognitive recollection of data.  It is far less like re-opening a file on your laptop than one might at first think.  Among (many) other things, memory involves our values and allegiances:  we remember things if (or to whatever extent) we find them important:   to borrow from Memento, I don’t recall the license plates of any cars that I followed on the way to the office today, though if I thought one of the drivers killed my wife, I suspect my memory would be better.

To return to the example from my childhood.  In truth, I did not really want to remember the tasks that my mom gave me to do, because, well, they weren’t important to me.  Forgetting was actually very convenient:  it–I hoped–would nullify–or at least qualify–any responsibility I had for not fulfilling the task; I hadn’t really disobeyed, right?

But, of course, I had (at least in my case).  Why?  Because my forgetting was ever so telling–just as telling as my remembering.  Not surprisingly there were some things, as a kid, that I never forgot–e.g., to ask my mom for my weekly allowance or to tattle on my siblings when they had wronged me earlier in the day–or week or month.

And such “forgetting” is one very real way that we deceive ourselves:  there are certain things we would prefer to forget–and do.  And there are certain things we absolutely remember (or think we do).  Fascinatingly, in Momento there is a juxtaposition of the protagonist’s overt amnesia–his inability to create new memories (due to a head injury), and his far more covert…well, you’ll have to watch the film.

Because the film’s protagonist is himself aware of his amnesia, he tries to remind himself of important evidence (concerning his wife’s murder):  he writes notes to himself, ‘tattoos’ himself, etc.  Importantly, at some level we are all aware that we don’t remember everything, and so we set reminders for important things.

And that begs the question:  which things are important to us?  Listen to Proverbs, where a father instructs his son:

“My son,…guard my teachings as the apple of your eye.
Bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart
They will keep you from the adulterous woman…”

Similarly, in Deuteronomy we read:

“These commandments I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them upon your children…. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads…. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD….”

Proverbs and Deuteronomy call God’s people to be acutely self-aware amnesiacs who seek out regular exposure to the external insight and instruction of Scripture, which can then be internalized through memorization and meditation:  “write them on the tablet of your heart.”

So consider the following two questions:

Which is more real to you at this moment–your feelings about X, OR what Jesus says about X?

Which is more reliable for you at this moment–your feelings about X, OR what Jesus says about X?

The reality is that our feelings–including our thoughts, arguments, etc.–are indeed real but must be redeemed by the far greater reality of God’s Word.

So many of the thoughts in my head and heart are a confusing confluence of my own immediate desires and my culture’s immediate cacophony of voices.  To live by them is to live by what is inevitably passing:  by the next day my desires will have changed; and by the next decade my culture’s voices will have as well.  Why will they have changed?

OR I can live by Scriptures that have been followed for over tw0 millennia and are followed today by an astonishingly diverse two-billion-plus people.  I can live by Scriptures that are revered as sacred wisdom–i.e., as giving me access to how the created order really works and where it’s really going.

Hear Jesus’ inestimably arrogant claim:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Now, a second, much briefer observation about Momento.  Critics regularly noted the theme of self-deception in the film, but–at least from the mere eight reviews I read–they didn’t notice the theme of isolation.

The protagonist is overwhelmingly all alone–painfully so.  Yes, characters come and go; yes, others are–at least, it seems–trying to help.  But get this:  he has no community.  He is on a mission all by himself.  And this raises the crucial question:

Is self-reminder enough?

If we are not to be lost in self-deception, is self-reminder–i.e., Scripture memory–crucial?  Absolutely.  But is such self-reminder sufficient?

In addition to Scripture memory, I need community memory–community present and community past.

Consider Hebrews.  Having repeatedly shown the crucial role of present Christian community for perseverance, it is only after recounting an entire chapter of those who walked by faith in the past that the author of Hebrews then gives what is arguably the letter’s central exhortation:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

This is huge:  we are empowered to deal radically with even the most entangling and enticing of sins when we are surrounded by witnesses.

The author then sets before us his star witness–Jesus himself, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” who utterly ignored the passing voices of his culture (“Crucify him!”), scorning their shame, and then, once vindicated, sitting at the Father’s right hand.

Interestingly, the author then chides his listeners for having “completely forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son”–and he quotes from…Proverbs (!):

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
for the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

How do we escape the amnesia of self-deception?  By memory.  And community.  By uniting our hearts both to the counsel of Jesus and the community of Jesus.

What will you forget?  Will you be alone when you do?  And what will be the cost?

6 thoughts on “Memento, Memory, and Community

  1. Bruce, you killed this post. SOOOO helpful. The idea of a community that nourishes our memory by rehearsing the drama of redemption was something I was just thinking about today. And really, you are just getting started on this theme. “As of often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim…”

    1. “just getting started” is for sure: not just the lord’s supper, but for someone like me (a lover of liturgy), the community of faith can re-live / re-enact the story of redemption together in the liturgy…

  2. The emphasis on community is so important – and not just any community, but the Church. American individualism has become so prominent among Western evangelicals that their religion might best be described as “me, myself, and my Bible.” Yet how do we protect against our own cultural lenses getting in the way of our interpreting Scripture? How can I be assured that I am not deceiving myself by reading the Bible? It must be done in the community of faith.

    Yet, here’s one of the biggest challenges to my faith, Bruce: there are entire church bodies that disagree about huge swaths of doctrine. That is, they have Scripture, they have community, and they still arrive at different conclusions. Is the Holy Spirit not a spirit of confusion? Yet we have hundreds of denominations divided on many matters – some minor, but some major. Even the biggest divides – between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox – are situated within the contexts of Scripture and community (with the RCC and EO upholding community/tradition to the level of Scripture). You seem to suggest that holding the Scriptures in one hand, and standing side by side with your brother in the faith, you can combat the evil of self-deception. Yet clearly there are many who are deceived and yet adhere to this formula. Is it the PCUSA re: gay marriage? Is it the RCC re: the authority of the Pope? Is it the EO re: theosis? Is it the liberal non-denom Christian re: existence of hell? How do you settle these “meta” issues among different denominations or sects of Christianity? Can they even be settled? Where’s the Holy Spirit?

    1. “How can I be assured that I am not deceiving myself by reading the Bible? It must be done in the community of faith.” Exactly.

      And so to your (very good) question… two (insufficient) thoughts:

      First, I think it’s truly amazing that, for all their differences, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches (of, sadly, countless flavors), which constitute the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world are all able to recite the major creeds–both the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. That has been true for centuries, and every indication is that it will continue to be so for centuries more. We must celebrate just how much is agreed upon in those creeds–not least the fact that there is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

      Second, in the post I mention “the community of faith past and present.” Defining the community of faith in this way transcends not only temporal bounds but cultural bounds as well. While Islam boasts a significant diversity of adherents, it is dwarfed by the cultural and geographical diversity of Christianity. It is quite amazing (at least to me) to live in a time where the vast majority of both Catholics and Anglicans are found outside of Europe. It is fascinating to live in a time when African theologian Kwame Bediako can say that Christianity makes him more–not less–African than he ever was before. My point: while it is true that differences remain on some meaningful issues, it is incredible how much unity can be found among Christians from diverse cultural settings and diverse denominational bounds. This indeed does not settle all the issues you have mentioned (e.g., the authority of the pope), but it does for some–e.g., sexual ethics and the existence of hell.

      Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives us some criteria for identifying false prophets. Interestingly, these criteria are based on fruit: how these persons live their lives; he says twice, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Elsewhere Jesus applies this to all of his followers. In short, at the end of the day those Christian communities who display the evidence of the Spirit, bearing fruit of the Spirit in keeping with repentance, are indeed the true church–a very sobering, but hopefully clarifying, thought.

      But with all that said, I very much ache with you over division within the universal church, not to mention the division often found within local churches.

  3. I was just “on the bridge” from the end of Hebrews 11 and beginning of Hebrews 12, and I incorporated the story of Peter and Joan from John Suk’s Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt. Suk brings it up in talking about the community’s hope for the future because of a certain kind of relationship they had with the past. Of Peter and Joan situation he wrote: “Looking to the future didn’t help them – at least for the moment. The fog of war had obscured the future. All they had left was the past, and that is what they turned to.” (135) We press on in the present in view of the fullness of the future by remembering God’s promises kept in the past.

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