Book Review: The Spiritual Practice of Remembering
Posted June 17, 2014on:
The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth, William B. Eerdmans, 2013, 132 pp.
Margaret Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, and her job is to collect and curate the historical archives of the Congregational church, which includes helping local congregations reckon with their own historical artifacts, records, stories and more. This book is a beautiful theological reflection on that work, the spirituality of engaging our history, and what it is that we are doing when we interact with our past.
The Spiritual Practice of Remembering opens with the wonderful story of a tricorne hat encased in glass in the entryway of a church. By virtue of its age and connection to a legendary preacher, the hat had become somehow sacred. I think any of us who serve congregations with a long history know about those sacred objects that hover in hallways or display cases or even in sanctuaries. Their original users never intended them to be preserved—they were ordinary practical objects—but their age and connection to the past has endowed them with something akin to holiness.
Bendroth’s book doesn’t just probe the spiritual meaning of churches’ old junk, but invites us into a relationship with the past as a spiritual discipline. Judaism and Christianity have a unique relationship as “religions of remembrance,” who worship a God active in history, defined by events in time. However, modernism in Western culture emphasizes a break from the past, freedom to define one’s own identity apart from history, and a sense of time always marching forward. Our relationship with the past, then, is as tourists—we are “stranded in the present,” with the past as novelty or nostalgia, but no depth of relationship and identification. We have moved from a medieval faith in which the past and the present co-existed all around us, with the past able to break through and impact this current reality, to an understanding of history as progress that makes the past always different, other and inferior to the present. This historicism, also found in biblical criticism that privileges factual history over other forms of biblical truth, costs us a meaningful relationship with the saints of the past. Bendroth writes:
History for grown-ups is complicated. It asks us to balance sympathy and judgment, hero-worship and sharp-eyed criticism. It recognizes and respects differences across time, but also looks for honest points of connection. … Our ancestors have a lot to teach us. This is not because they were wiser or more devout than we are or were “better” Christians, though we can’t rule out such possibilities. It is because they can point us toward what is essential. (50)
Bendroth also tackles the commodification of history as both entertainment and possession. As technology externalizes memory (photos, recordings, even Facebook place memory outside of our own identity and community, into an external place), it has become less valuable. It has also come to rely less on imagination.
There is a thin line between approaching people and events through imagination and assuming that they are in fact imaginary. The first assumes that the past was “real,” with a separate integrity all its own; the second that there is no past at all beyond what we choose to see. (70)
One of the most interesting chapters was about the way American culture is built on letting go of the past, and American religion models this “historyless.” Our emphasis on experience over tradition has helped with a more religiously tolerant society, but it has also cut us off from rich resources that can come from conversation with the past. We need not be traditionalists in order to value tradition.
The Christian tradition itself is a long conversation about the declaration that “Jesus is Lord.” … A truly creative conversation builds on what has been said before, exploring nuances and suggesting different interpretations—but never assuming that the people who began it have nothing more to say and can be safely ignored. The living do not own the conversation any more than those past or those yet to come. (94-95)
The communion of the saints is a theological idea that helps us understand this obligation, the way we the living continue to interact with the dead.
The ancestors live on in different ways, sometimes as a deep undercurrent of sadness or disappointment, sometimes as a tendency toward suspicion of outsiders or resentment of authority. They can work in positive ways too, inuring a centuries-old congregation against panic or despair. (113)
When we recognize ourselves as part of the communion of the saints, we know that “all God’s people—past, present, and future—form a single, interdependent whole.” (115)
Bendroth develops and explores many concepts that I have vaguely and inarticulately carried for a long time. As a student of history, I find much richness in exploring the life world of the past, but I had never connected that to my fascination and spiritual connection to the communion of the saints. I am also someone willing to let go of much tradition in favor of connecting with the present and future, and this book helped me think through how to engage the past in a good and meaningful way. Her mixture of stories and exploration combine for a book that is delightful, provocative, novel and engaging. I recommend The Spiritual Practice of Remembering to anyone considering the way the past can invite us to a richer present as people of faith.