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Collective Christian Memory

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” it is said, and a background in literature has taught me that in earlier periods writers often borrowed from one another without compunction or complaint.

But I was shaken, early in my activist writing career, to discover another writer had “borrowed” something I had written for her Methodist curriculum. She put her name as the author because she had “adapted” it. I had felt similarly offended when I noticed Cat Stephens failed to acknowledge on an album that “Morning Has Broken” is an old hymn that he “adapted.”

About the same time, someone told me that a mutual friend had used one of my stories as his sermon. She thought I’d be thrilled, but no, he hadn’t credited it to me, claiming to have “found” it, a rhetorical device to add to the piece’s mystery. What concerned me at the time was that his large high-steepled not-yet-welcoming church might have become more welcoming if they knew it had come from a gay Christian.

Reading a book decades later, I discovered a sentence I knew to be mine, and then another and another, and checked the footnotes at the end of the book to find the author finally attributed a quote from the same article to me in the chapter that followed. When I shared my dismay with another writer, I was advised not to take it too seriously, as it was probably “just poor scholarship.” I never brought it up when I later worked with the author, but ironically heard his own complaint of another writer borrowing liberally from him!

I’ve mentioned on this blog my own failure of attribution when I wrote somewhere, “We know God through our bodies or we don’t know God at all.” I had no idea the quote originated with body theologian James B. Nelson because I had not yet read any of Nelson’s work or heard him speak! When I happened on the sentence in one of his early books, I was chagrined, to say the least.

All these examples came to mind when I read two chapters on memory in Oliver Sacks’s last book, The River of Consciousness. He concludes, “Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

He cites one of his own memoirs as an example, in which we recounts an experience at his family’s London home during World War II. After publication, a brother explained to him that he and Oliver were away at school when the event happened. Another brother had written to them about the incident, but apparently with such great emotion and detail that Oliver had incorporated it into this own memory bank.

Even more memorably, Sacks describes the “plagiarism” controversy surrounding the beloved public figure Helen Keller, just 12 years of age, when a story she wrote paralleled another written by Margaret Canby. Keller did not remember Canby’s story, but realized she was more prone to think a story hers if, in Sacks’ words, it “had been ‘read’ to her, using finger spelling onto her hand.” To Canby’s credit, she defended Keller, writing, “What a wonderfully active and retentive mind that gifted child must have!”

All of this prompts me to compare our collective Christian memory, one that began with the first encounters of Jesus all the way to us “latter day saints.” As we follow the church calendar, reliving Jesus’ life from his advent to his elevation, following him in baptism and Communion and ministry, his story becomes our own, much as Helen Keller’s tactile reception of Canby’s story.

On a television program promoting my first book, Uncommon Calling, an evangelical pastor countered my “revisionism” of the Christian story, as I read biblical stories in the light of contemporary experience. I explained that was the task of every generation, to make sense of Jesus and our faith for the present times. (Though I did not say this, even his fundamentalism was a 19th century example of this.) Revisionism, I said, was quite traditional!

No less for progressive Christians, who are making sense of Jesus and our faith in a world that has a grander and more accurate perspective of the cosmos, thanks largely to science and Christianity’s intercourse with other faith traditions.

Citing Freud, Sacks explains, “remembering…was essentially a dynamic, transforming, reorganizing process throughout the course of life. …Memories are continually worked over and revised and…their essence, indeed, is recategorization.”

And so with collective Christian memory in the course of the church’s life. To repeat, “Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

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