June 29, 2014

Memory & Narrative, 2

Intentional remembering requires efficiency. That's my primary contention. Our actual lived experience is too vast and diverse. Think merely of all the sensory input you get in a single day, or think of James Joyce's Ulysses, which spends hundreds of pages describing a single day and still doesn't get all of it. If a written account of a single day can't be memorized, then remembering all-of-life day-after-day is impossible.

Apart from the accidentally memorable, then, how do we intentionally foster memories from our life? We reduce the existential, or the experiential (whether lived experiences, vicarious experiences, projected experiences or imaginary experiences) to the form of a narrative. To remember life, we tell ourselves stories.

My contention is that memory needs story. The limitations of human memory have shaped the contours and conventions of the way we construct stories. The story is a type of representation that was perhaps even born from human attempts to maximize what we are capable of purposely memorizing.

Maybe. That's my working hypothesis. Here's how I got to that point.

I'd been impressed by the "memory approach" of Dale Allison, Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith, so much that I wanted to dig deeper. But as I worked through Oxford's Collective Memory Reader (a fabulous anthology assembled by Jeffrey Olick and others, by the way; get a copy!) and was now moving quickly from author to author, I began to feel more and more that the word "memory" was often being used as a synonym for "narrative". Scholars of memory were making points in the early to mid 20th century that sounded very familiar from more recent discussions of narrative. Again and again, I kept noticing this link.

As it turns out, a lot of memory studies are intensively focused on stories - how we modify and adjust stories in the process of re-remembering and re-telling those stories, and how we foster and institutionalize certain versions of stories at the expense of older and less desirable versions of those stories, and how our present needs drive these dynamic engagements with the constant re-remembering of the past... but always, seemingly, that past gets remembered in the form of a story.

Naturally, that's about as unsurprising as a fish doing everything that it does on the inside of some body of water. Fish swim in water like we live in stories. Much of our consciousness and perception and communication exists in the form of a story. Why shouldn't memory also take the form of a story? Of course it should. At least, being smarter than fish, we're aware of our habitat. Therefore memory studies, I suppose, have every right to assume the importance of story just like any other kind of scholarship these days.

Unless it's not merely our atmospheric conditioning.

What if one of these leads to the other?

I kept wondering about a deeper link. If memory is about the past in the present and the present in the past, narrative can also be defined in quite similar terms. To whatever extent both Memory and Narrative are fundamentally methods of preserving the past, what is the bedrock? What is the basic foundation of these two processes? And if there's a deep connection between memory and story, between memory and history, then what about memory and chronology? Chronology, as you may know, is never far from my thoughts in any area of research. And Time itself, as you may also know, is a subject of particular fascination to me.

If the primary benefit of our memory studies (for historical reconstruction of the actual past) is to realize how profoundly Memory distorts and refracts, rather than records and recalls, and yet to embrace that difficult truth as a starting point for historical research, rather than a deal-breaker (as some have sadly done)... and If the primary benefit of our narrative studies (in the field of historiography) is to realize how profoundly a Story is not quite like Lived Experience, how Narrative History is technically always a distortion of actual history, and yet this is also not a reason to quit but another historical process to embrace in our studies... and If I was correct that a lot of earlier scholars of memory were essentially talking about the phenomena of competition among narratives... Then what is the nature of this link between Story and Memory?

With my chronological mindset I couldn't help asking this question in terms of psychological sequence.

Which comes first? Do we construct a story with immediate gestalt perceptivity and then work to remember it? Or do we form short-term memories of experience and then construct a story selectively from among that matieral?

A lot of memory theorists have written extensively about how we memorialize various narratives. What I became most interested in was trying to figure out something I've yet to find anyone else writing about: How do we narrativize our immediate memories?

Is it possible that the nature of Memory is responsible for the invention of Story?

To be continued...

June 22, 2014

Memory & Narrative, 1

A story is a coping strategy to deal with the fact that we'd like to remember the past but there's just too darn much of it. Stories, among all their other myriad attractions, are ways of representing lived experience succinctly.

Memory is troublesome because forgetting is (by far!) the default. Drive the same streets for decades and you still won't be able to visualize all the details in your mind. For directions, we use landmarks. The parts of a journey we need to remember are the points of transition. It is just this same way, I believe, with story-shaped methods of remembering the past.

If the prohibitive volume of experience & knowledge is the predominant problem for human remembering, then the key challenge for intentional memorization must be efficiency. That being aside from involuntary memorization or the accidentally traumatic or the socially imposed set of important remembrances. The limitations of human capacity are beset by the incidental memorability of facts, thoughts, images, emotions, occurrences and stories we've encountered already. Thus, for any deliberate construction of new memories about lived experience, efficiency must be a primary need.

Life, of course, isn't lived as a story. At least, not until we remember it in retrospect.

There are many reasons we prefer to tell stories, but the mnemonic advantage of story, in general, should be considered axiomatic. Efficiency enables memory, and stories are immanently efficient. Narratologist Gerard Genette said "in a certain way, Homer's Odyssey is only a rhetorical amplification of the statement, 'Ulysses comes home to Ithaca'." Mieke Bal defines "Fabula" (an essential term within many streams of Narratology) as "a memorial trace of a story that remains with a reader". In anyone's definition, the vast bulk of all non-fiction stories reduce actual experience to a smaller set of recollected events and details. Plot and conflict, like settings and characters, are every bit as literarily contrived as in fiction, but in non-fiction worthy of the designation they are never contrived from whole cloth. Although exceptions exist - an extended narration of the heightened awareness of a moment, thoughts which take longer to explain than to conceive - the general experience of human history has been that stories reduce a great many experiences into a few key events and their meaningful ramifications. However you slice it, the efficiency of story is an aide to autobiographical memory. There may be parallels also between intentional memory and the incidentally memorable.

I suspect some aspects of human storytelling may have developed precisely because of human limitations in memory.

I hope to expand this hypothesis and explore its possible value in upcoming blog posts.

Anon, then...

June 20, 2014

Narrative as Sequential Art

Stories, music & escalators will always be linear experiences. We shuffle playlists, but not individual songs. If we skip around in a novel, we aren't really reading that novel. If you jumble up panels from Peanuts or Dilbert, you will now be reading a comic jumble instead of a comic strip. When the Beatles recorded the Abbey Road Medley it was a sequential experience from start to finish, as it is when we listen.

When Homer recited his Illiad he began in medias res, and the "non-linear narrative" has thrilled critics since Aristotle at least. Film took a bit longer to do much with the options but recent hits like Pulp Fiction and LOST inspired new explorations of modular storytelling in the audio-visual domain. Still, the most complex "non-linear" narrative, in all cases, remains a linear experience for the audience. A flashback may work like a narrative time machine but the page count ticks on just like Marty McFly's wristwatch or Hermoine's time turner. And that brings us to my actual point.

The events of a story may not be sequentially narrated, but a narration itself is necessarily and absolutely sequential... which is why it confuses me when critics discuss "chronological narrative".

Either way, "chronological narrative" is a fairly imprecise term.

If a narrative sequence conveys story events in a straight temporal course, then those events are being narrated in their chronological order. Likewise, if a narrative sequence conveys story events apart from their temporal course, then those events are being narrated apart from their chronological order. However, strictly speaking, the narrative itself is automatically in chronological order by default because in the act of narrating, narrators always speak one word after the next. In that sense, all narration is chronological.

By contrast, I personally find the terms "linear" and "non-linear" to be helpful because the storyline (or the timeline) is the part that might be told either within logical sequence or otherwise. In short, the story may be told out of order, but we still tell each episode one at a time.

Granted, no one asked my opinion before now, but I may not be the one most confused.


For its part, a classic piece by Meir Sternberg, Telling in Time (part I, from the journal Poetics Today, Winter 1990) appears motivated to defend the possibility of straighforward "chronological" narrative, though I'm still working out what all Sternberg is on about. It may be mostly frustration that Narratology doesn't spend enough time on historical narrative. At any rate, it was in the course of Sternberg's discussing the relations between narrative and chronology that I found the following intra-field commentary.
the narrative field is parcelled up among several disciplines, which tend to work in casual or even studied disregard for one another's very subject matter as well as methods and findings... between a Genette's disposal of narratives articulated by chronology and a Labov's ruling out of narratives based on anachrony, the entire field of narrative vanishes. This is doubtless an exteme case, yet not atypical... 
Behind the special interest in anachrony, it would appear, there is something like a vested interest: the relevant corpus gets delimited, established, indeed canonized by fiat. [IP] If history-telling is passed over in silence because its temporal norm involves "correspondence between narrative and story" - because its discourse as well as its action adhere to the line of chronology - then the argument falls into a vicious circularity... chronology leads only a 'hypothetical' existence in the story... [privileging] a bias for disorder which Genette shares with most of his predecessors and, above all, contemporaries, not least his fellow Structuralists.
If the gist is that Narratology before 1990 was prone to some bias against dealing with straightforward historical narrative, well, I believe I can relate to Sternberg's palpable frustration. Genette being a big name I recognize, I take it the historical reticence must be typical indeed, which isn't surprising given the debates about Narrative in History in the decades before then and after.

From there it gets stranger.
Barthes [spurns objectivity] in his open contempt for "readerly texts," predictably characterized by their insistence on "internal chronology ('this happens before or after that')"... despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that "they make up the enormous mass of our literature," while the "writerly," properly reversible text would give one "a hard time finding it in a bookstore". 
This, I take it, means that Roland Barthes also prefers to avoid critical engagement with straightforward historical narratives, even though he himself suspects that might include most published literature (which is hotly debatable). It's almost hard to decide whether I've got that one straight. Either way, it really doesn't make *me* feel *I'm* the one most confused.

There seem to have long been be a great many theorists hard at work proffering theories, but while their terms of discussion diverge, Sternberg sees a consistent bias against "chronological narrative". (Bold words below are my own emphasis.)
Genette's "story" thus bears the same relation to "narrative" as (mimetic) content to (poetic) form, signified to signifier, what to how. The terms for the first pair of concepts vary widely - e.g., the Formalist fabula vs. sujet, Barthes's (1977: 79-124) fonctions-actions vs. narration, Ricardou's (1967) fiction vs. narration, Todorov's (1966) histoire vs. discours - but their antithesis persists... For anything like artistic status, "narrative" must supposedly break away from the lifelike "story" because art works by deviance and disharmony... Hence the imperative need for dislocating story into narrative, so that the one will be pushed underground and the other pulled to the foreground... [an] inversion of temporal into higher priorities...
Perhaps summarizing this position in a phrase, Sternberg elsewhere says that for these Narratologists, "breaking time counts as making art", and this phrase itself was the spark for my little blog post of the moment.

While I strongly suspect these opponents of "chronology" were largely more interested in justifying the practical boundaries of what they found to be politically feasible for academic work at the time, it still seems worthwhile to stop here and remember the illustrations with which I began this reflection. Songs, novels, playlists, comic strips, medleys, Homer and Pulp Fiction are all linear experiences for the reader, if not entirely "straightforward". The critics essentially seem to say these are not sequential, or they are not artistic. But really, now, I must protest their expertise with my own viewpoint.

Can art not be linear?


In movies, I've become a big fan of the new explorations in modular narratives, the creative non-linear storytelling. In history writing, also, I'm of the studied opinion that narrative accounts of the past can indeed utilize flashbacks and in media res. History can be taught in random segments. Annals can be read individually like encyclopedia entries. More practically, oral histories are frequently narrated in achronally segmented phases, with flashbacks within flashbacks, or by retracting gradually away from the familiarity of our present day into "What happened before now?" inevitably starting from "How did things get to be like they are?" and ultimately working towards "What was the distant past actually like in those times?"

In such atemporal retractions there is both selectivity and non-linear temporality, with creative decisions on periodicity. Yet, in such oral histories, there are unambiguously segments of straighforward non-fiction narrative. Most importantly, once again, the entire narrative itself is, as always, deliberately sequenced.

Historiography is neither purely art nor science but it definitely needs to rely upon both at some times. I've no doubt there's currently much more creativity in our historians than we might be prone to acknowledge or to look for, perhaps much less to encourage. The linguistic turn in the humanities has thus far only adjusted our vision for research and made us fearful of writing. It hasn't yet urged many people to attempt new styles of historical writing with boldness. More crucially, it has not retroactively altered our historical texts. For example, Suetonius' biographical style remains temporally mixed up in its study of character, just as much now as it was two millenia ago. And was Matthew not artful in his presentation of Jesus' bios, set in his audience's recent past? And was Josephus' narrative critique of the Herodian dynasty not artful in its presentation under the Flavians? And what of Livy? And so on and so on...

Historical narrative has never been non-creative. There are many more such examples.

Perhaps Sternberg's defensive-aggression on behalf of "chronological narrative" is because of his faith based working interest in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) but I'm not sure Genesis 1-2, or the Psalms and Solomon, or Isaiah, are "chronologically sequenced" in the entirety of their content. For that matter, when Daniel quotes Gabriel's prophecies, is that not ostensibly an achronal flash-forward? Personally, I'm a New Testament student, and while I do tend to think the Gospels and Acts are mostly straightforward in their relation of temporal events, no one can deny that John the Baptist's death happens in flashback as does the founding of Antioch, and so on.

Instead of straightforward narrative being possible or impossible, one might instead merely ask whether it's really so common. Depending on what counts as a flashback, there might not be many narratives (set in past times) that don't include one or two temporal digressions, or belated references at the least. I can easily believe that both Genette and Labov might make solid arguments defending their position. That does not convince me, however, that neither is missing the point... because they do seem to lack concern for the major point I do agree on with Sternberg.

In the end, I've a hunch it may not be that "chronological narrative" is what Genette and those like him are so much against, as "historical narrative". For that category, my personal definition is "a story set in the past", but for Genette (etc) it might be more like "stories with potential historicity issues". Truly, I do understand. One thing at a time is a reasonable defense, and this piece only brings me to 1990. More to come, posts to follow, I promise. But rest assured I am not a fan of neglecting historical narratives. To that end, I will continue happily working my way through Meir Sternberg's three articles about Telling in Time. If nothing else, I expect it to help direct me towards others who do and don't give much thought to these issues, to all and any issues that arise when considering narrative and chronology. Not that they consider these issues like I consider these issues... but on that point, of course, time will tell.

To close this little blog post, however, I will repeat - can art not be linear?


Frank Miller's 300 was a graphic novel, a brilliant artistic rendition of a historical saga, and it was not purely sequential, in the temporality of its content, but it was entirely sequential in its gorgeous splash panel progression.

The Beatles' Abbey Road Medley is a hodge podge of sorts, but Sequential Art nevertheless. From "Once there was a way" to "Carry that weight" to "And in the end", the absurd sequence builds up as art. A different sort of logic presents itself in the progression of feeling.

My favorite TV show will always be LOST, which succeeded for so many reasons but not least because it merged plot and character so effortlessly, because it introduced modular segues with clear temporal contingency but *also* tied the segue itself so clearly to dynamic themes and observable character development. The nonlinear aspect was temporal but the thematic tensions were drawn out right in line with the viewers' discovery of character. That's what drove each progression in storytelling, while a logical sequence of material (theme and/or contingency) was always being presented to viewers - one episode, one segment, one contingency and emotional segue at a time.

In their own ways, each of these narrative experiences was both linear and non-linear. From the Illiad to Pulp Fiction, the writer jumbles her content but sequences her presentation as a chronological gift for the audience.

I repeat my idiosyncratic protest. All narratives are "chronological" in that sense.

All narrative art must be linear... even if, content wise, its almost impossible to stay perfectly straightforward.

Consider three popular fictions - Harry Potter, Les Miserables, Lord of the Rings. Each was a series of novels and movies (okay, Hugo's wasn't serialized, but it probably should have been!) and each proceeds with a straightforward outline that advances clearly from beginning to end. Harry Potter grows up, as does Cozette, and Frodo walks from the Shire to Mordor. But each "historically paced" or "chronologically oriented" storyline is chock full of exposition, digressions, introductions, and (yes, even) flashbacks. These devices nod respectfully to the undaunted flow of the storyline, making their narrative contributions straightforwardly, for the most part, and yet, also not.

When Hermoine remembers an important clue from much earlier, when Samwise pines for the Shire, or when Val Jean reveals that he still has the candlesticks, such a moment is every bit as non-temporal as any flashback, because memory is narrative time-travel also. Still, the remembered experience of these popular books is (I contend) entirely focused on the primary action, on the foregrounded narrative, on the basic plot and straightforward progression of characters proceeding apace through their series of challenges, rising to each occasion and developing new depths of personal character at each step of the way.

In these works, the non-linear aspects are largely extended pockets of reference material, plainly subordinated to the overall thrust of straightforward linear storytelling, and yet these pockets of temporal zig-zagging aren't what makes them "artistic". I've not found critics acclaiming Rowling, Hugo or Tolkien for their innovation or their daring choices in narrative style. Rather, the very powerful artistry of these works is that they do what they do well, and with great passion for telling about dear companions embroiled together in testing fate, striving honorably, engaged in a meaningful saga. In short, the art of straightforward works like these three is in their representation of  these true aspects of real life. They are not less artful due to reliance on classical techniques or their predominance of temporal sequencing.

To narrate *IS* to sequence. The selectivity of sequencing - words in a sentence, sentences in a paragraph, concepts in a discourse, episodes in a story - represents a series of artistic decisions, arranged in hopes of producing a particular and poetic effect on an audience. That same selectivity is what makes all narrative writing an artistic and creative act, but that's precisely my point. This applies equally to *ALL* acts of narrative writing. A narrative that selectively 'plods' through contingent events (perhaps in an attempt to represent under appreciated aspects of chronological experience) is no less an artistic creation than any non-linear narrative. Therefore, sequence is not automatically suspect. To sequence is not necessarily to gerrymander chronology. Sequence is presentation. It is narrative's chief mode of artistic presentation, the mode of realism being one viable option.

Speaking of realism and art, I suspect Andy Warhol was being sincere in his work because those Campbell's Soup cans actually did a good job of highlighting the "glory of the mundane" for a large number of people. Others felt there was no point in seeing "art" if it was merely going to shine an admiring light on the everyday aspects of our normal surroundings.

As the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste, but the plodding straightforwardly temporal narrative is an artistic expression as valid as any other, perhaps even worthy of greater attention.


The art of narrative is not exclusively to be found in whether its temporal content is sequenced temporally or not. The art of narrative is in the way it sequences the vicarious experiences for an audience.

All narratives are "chronological" for an audience. All narrative art is "sequential".

Scott McCloud has popularized the term "Sequential Art" after borrowing it from Will Eisner, who apparently had conceived of its meaning as a way to differentiate comic books and graphic novels from other types of primarily visual imaging. McCloud, for his part, took a broad view of words and images juxtaposed as an artistic medium, from cave paintings to hieroglyphics to medieval manuscripts to triptychs to the Sunday funnies to Superman. McCloud brilliantly showed that all of Art can be traced on a triangular continuum between the abstract, realistic and ideological aspects of expression. But for my part, its worth pointing out that the term "Sequential Art" may as well be expanded to Narratology and Music and perhaps even speech making and stage drama.

Sequential Art is any representation of life or any expression of feeling that presents its artistry partly by how it arranges its components into a deliberate order of presentation.

By that token, all sequencing of presentation is artistic. All narrative is, indeed, art.

In any stringent analysis, there may not be too many novels or histories that technically fail to break temporal progression of content at some point or another. Again, the slightest reference to memory or prior knowledge could be considered a flashback of sorts, and this includes all exposition. Where the critics go too far is in their exclusion by fiat. Where the critics do wrong is in refusing to take up the more difficult challenge.

However, if its also fair to surmise that Sternberg's Narratological antagonists have been wantonly lax in considering History, and grossly negligent in considering Time, then these are major deficiencies that we ought not to tolerate. At some point, the study of narrative must engage with attempted non-fiction narratives of the past, or else it cannot properly continue to label itself as a study of all narrative.

As I continue to explore this perplexingly diverse field of Narratology, now with the help of Sternberg (and hopefully soon, also Genette), I will hope to find the studies that engage in practical ways with Time and History in Narrative.

I will find such a way of proceeding, or else I will do my best to create one...

June 18, 2014

Archelaus' brief reign and the district of Galilee - an exercise in rhetoric, irony and remembered chronology

In three paragraphs, I will now summarize the past two years of my work.

Instead of debating accuracy, let’s consider artistry. While it’s clearly a stretch for Matthew’s verb basileuei to suggest Archelaus was reigning as king, the rhetorical maneuver evokes a particular time period, for the knowledgeable reader (or audience). Shortly after King Herod died, when nobody could imagine that Galilee would become independent, Archelaus was widely acclaimed as the presumptive king, waiting on Caesar’s approval to inherit the whole kingdom, within which two of his brothers would each manage their subordinate tetrarchies. Obviously, the evocation of this brief era works diachronically for the knowledgeable reader, who realizes what Joseph will presumably discover, and what God presumably already knows. In the world of the story at this moment, God’s providence is a matter of foreknowledge, but the courageous Joseph is expecting Archelaus to reign over the entire kingdom, including the subregion (merh) of Galilee. An unprecedented separation of previously subordinate tetrarchies is future knowledge for Joseph, as Matthew winks at the reader, who knows it was Archelaus’ trip to Rome that broke up the kingdom and rejected Herod’s longstanding vision of dynasty. If Archelaus is kinging in Judea, he cannot yet have sailed off to Rome. (Cf. Lk.19, Mt.25) Ergo, the district of Galilee was not yet declared independent.

This dramatically ironic new reading becomes self-evidently plausible from a literary perspective once a fresh exegesis permits the necessary historical context to be assumed, but the potential validity of this new interpretation raises a number of difficult questions. First, context – was the order of major events in the years 4 to 3 BC, indeed, as here described? Second, rhetoric – could Matthew’s original audience be expected to know so much about change in particular sequence? Third, memory – can a plausible trajectory be traced from the likely impact of historical events to a social memory of events that retains the necessary contextual information. Fourth, history – if the proposed understanding of Matthew’s background material is accepted, and allowing for various judgments on the historicity on Joseph’s fearing Archelaus, what are the possible ways to reconstruct Joseph’s movement with Mary and Jesus (Egyptian sojourn aside). And finally, in full circle, the text – depending on all the above, what are the various alternatives for explaining why this kind of story about Joseph would be remembered, passed down, and/or constructed as such?

It is easy enough to propose this ironic reading as the writer’s original intention and easy enough to respond with a tentative “how could we know”. What may not be so easy is to determine for oneself whether one really thinks the historical Joseph may have moved from Judea to Galilee – from Judea, that is, if not Egypt. Perhaps Jesus was born in Bethlehem and they only left after the infamous massacre. The possibilities are more than binary, to be sure, and a responsible critical treatment should consider all combinations of possible facts mixed with reasonable interpretations. However, in the final analysis what may be most captivating is how this investigation raises possibilities for understanding the past through Gospel texts. What is the rhetorical nature of the way historical narrative relies upon reader memory? How often does dramatic irony require reader memory of contingency and/or chronology? And last but not least – how else could writers (of narratives set in the past) ever hope to chronologize their historical backgrounds, to provide what is known as “historical context” unless readers are indeed capable of remembering enough major events from the actual past, and/or purported events from the memorialized past, in order to recognize the literary background of a narrated story as being precisely what anyone might consider ‘the’ historical past? In sum, doesn't an ironic historical emplotment require of reader memory a previous baseline of the agreed upon chronicle (narratologically: an historical fabula), and isn't that chronicle (fabula) necessarily constructed of major events? Surely, to some degree, yes. But how can we determine how much readers of a particular era might have been expected to remember? I am confident we may have tangible options to pursue on this last point, and that's as far as I've gotten.

All in all, these questions provide many valuable reasons to consider the impact of Matthew’s artistry in representing a potentially historical relationship between Joseph, Archelaus and Galilee. The ultimate ramifications of this project may indicate new ways of analyzing the Gospels’ historical content, an outcome which, I daresay, we should greatly desire.

Any help or correction in these continuing efforts will be GREATLY appreciated…

June 14, 2014

Early Jesus FAQs

How did Jesus engage thousands? Consider the twelve. When asked about Jesus, what would they say? What *could* they say? Although we can't know whatever they did say, their immediate options are obvious. They could talk about him. They could try quoting him. When people asked about Jesus, what else would the twelve talk about. I think their most likely response was telling stories about Jesus.

First, let's realize that TV and movies usually present the Galilean crowds as passive listeners, like a congregation hearing a sermon. But even if that was sometimes true, every moment around Jesus wasn't always a sermon. At the very least, there was not a recessional march afterwards to clear the hillside of listeners. More realistically, the gathering crowds would have been milling around and having side conversations before and after any presentation, probably more like the attendees at a conference or convention than a platform speech or a concert. There were plenty of times it was all ears on Jesus, but it was not that way constantly.

Next, although many people may have been quite content merely to see Jesus, just to be a part of the crowd where something special was happening, there must have been many (especially among those who'd walked many miles and/or risked social catastrophe to approach the radical preacher) for whom the experience would not be complete without a personal audience. What I find difficult to imagine is that there was not frequently a large push to get "backstage" after the "show". If even ten or twenty percent of a crowd wanted personal access, then days with large crowds were days when Jesus did NOT get to see all such petitioners. 

But as often as anyone was waiting to see Jesus, there were always the disciples. 

In side conversations, what would people engage them about? There's only one obvious topic of interest they would all have in common. These days, people might chit chat, "Isn't Jesus great? What do YOU think about Jesus?" and I can see that happening, in some sense or another. What seems certain is that there must have been a lot of newcomers with a lot of basic questions like "Who is this guy?" and "What does he have to say about (___X___)?" One might suppose other frequently asked questions ran somewhat along the lines of "Where is he from?" and "Who taught him?" or "What do the authorities say about him?" 

And what could the disciples say? Certainly, they could all give their opinions, but I doubt many pilgrims to see Jesus were thrilled to find out what Bartholomew thought about the Law, Life, and God. No, if they'd come to see Jesus, then they wanted to find out more about Jesus. And what, really, could the twelve say to such people?

The most natural response would be telling stories about Jesus and repeating his words. "Does he really heal people?" I've seen him heal lots of people. "Is he going to be our next king?" He talks a lot about the God's kingdom. "Has he said anything about Herod?" He once called Herod a fox. Obviously, these pretend quotes I just made up are simply one idea of the kinds of Q&A topics that might have come up.

Hopefully it's just as obvious that these are only for illustrating the point. Actually, I think we can do better.

The Gospels record many questions being presented to Jesus. Suppose some were asked frequently.

Further, suppose some were asked indirectly.

The more frequent the question, the more likely it seems that such a question at times, often times of necessity, could only have been posed to Jesus indirectly, by posing it to his disciples. Regardless of whether these FAQs came more often to Jesus directly, being overheard by the disciples, or came more often by proxy, being posed to the disciples, it seems likely in the overall aggregate of experience that these FAQs would have generated, among the earliest Jesus community, what FAQs always generate among genuine community. The repetitive questions likely developed a few standard responses, a few stock stories, a few representative teachings, a few solid quotes that seemed most worth repeating, or something very much like all of the above.

In short, if the earliest Jesus community received visitors as frequently as the Gospels suggest, and if the earliest Jesus community followed Jesus as much as the Gospels suggest, then the earliest Jesus community must have spent plenty of time overhearing one another responding to visitors' FAQs.

While I feel certain their actual responses must have included some variation, possibly a very wide variation, I also feel that within some limits this must be the proper context which provides us with the very earliest beginnings of oral tradition. What else could we suppose were the earliest re-tellings about Jesus? Preserved or forgotten, the earliest stories ever told about Jesus were the stories people told one another about Jesus while Jesus was still alive.

Recognizing this truth, there stands every conceivable chance that those earliest stories were preserved, in some form or another, and that this process, thus originated, eventually led to the bulk of the source material that informed all four Gospels. My point at the moment, however, is merely that this early origination of that long-term oral transmission process may have begun as something which was driven partly or largely by the community's experience of having to respond ad nauseum to the most pertinent FAQs.

Finally, let's consider the Gospel texts for what evidence they might provide, in considering my proposal.

For present purposes, let's forget about how "accurately" the entire tradition might have been kept, or how closely any FAQ responses might have preserved Jesus stories, and saying, or whether such things were kept "verba" or "vox". For now, rather, let's merely consider these hypothetical Frequently Asked Questions themselves. While occasioned responses might differ a lot, the FAQ's (by definition) would be inherently representative of the kinds of questions people wanted to ask Jesus, or to ask the disciples about Jesus. Considering the nature of FAQs as being a representative sample (in themselves showing variation from the very beginning, but a much slighter variation than the responses provoked) we might reasonably deduce the basic topics some of the historical FAQs might have centered on, and we might do this by loosely categorizing the types of questions being posed to Jesus in the Gospels. That is, questions in the text ostensibly being posed directly to Jesus, either by visitors or by the disciples, may be taken as reflections (or refractions) of the kinds of questions that Jesus and his disciples were actively fielding together, during their travels.

And so, without further ado...

Here is my loose rephrasing of some questions in the Gospels that seem to drive the story and/or dialogue. Regardless of which Gospel characters ask these types of questions in the Gospel texts, I have re-framed each of these loosely rephrased questions to sound like questions being posed to the disciples from visitors. I have also sorted them into the following five categories. Judge for yourselves how plausible and/or probable it might be that precisely these kinds of questions were being asked frequently of the disciples.
Questions regarding Jesus' identity, background and credentials:
 What was his connection to John the Baptist?
 Where did he get this wisdom? These powers? Where did he come from?
 Is he educated? Does he know the Law? Where did he study?
 Does he really claim to forgive sins? Who does he think he is?
 Where does he get his authority? What sign or proof does he offer?
 Does he have a demon? Is he working for Satan?
 Does he think he's greater than Abraham?
 Is he the Christ? The messiah? The son of God? Who is he?
 Who is he really? Who do you think he is? 
Questions regarding issues of Law, Custom and Morality:
 What does God want us to do? What must I do?
 What does Jesus say about ____ in the Law?
 (sin, forgiveness, marriage, divorce, sabbath, commandments, etc...)
 Where is he going? Is he going up to Jerusalem? Is he going to Passover?
 Why is he with tax collectors and prostitutes?
 Does he really speak with Samaritans? Gentiles? And even their women?
 Who is the worst sinner? Who sinned? Who can be saved?
 How can I enter heaven? Be saved? Receive eternal life? 
Questions regarding some of Jesus' specific teachings:
 Why does he speak in parables? What did he mean when he said ____?
 Are there only a few people who understand him?
 Is he crazy? Do you really believe these things? Who actually listens to him?
 Does he teach you guys different things than he teaches everyone else?
 Why does he keep a small circle instead of telling the world? (Instead of going to Jerusalem?) 
Questions regarding Authority and Politics:
 What does he mean about God's kingdom? Is he going to make himself king?
 Does he answer his critics? Does he know what they say about him?
 Do the Pharisees like him? You know the Pharisees don't like him, right?
 Are they trying to kill him? You know they'll probably kill him, right?
 Aren't they trying to kill him? Why is he going there? 
Questions regarding the Jesus Community's Group Experience:
 Why don't you guys do ____ like John's disciples, or like the Pharisees?
 Did you really leave everything to follow him?
 Doesn't he care that my brother/sister/father has left us at home, to travel with you all?
 Why are you spending money so he can travel and preach? Why not give to the poor?
 Which of you disciples are going to sit at his right and left? Who will be great in his kingdom?
That's quite a list, in my humble opinion. Judge for yourselves.

If the kinds of questions being posed in the Gospels seem like good candidates for being the kinds of questions that people naturally and frequently would have been asking of the historical Jesus' actual disciples... then my proposal is that scholars should consider more rigorous ways to test this basic, simple hypothesis.

The earliest stories being told about Jesus were being told by people while Jesus was still alive. If the kinds of questions that drive Gospel storytelling match the kinds of questions people would have asked his disciples about him, then the most likely origin of oral tradition is with Jesus' earliest followers, probably in Galilee. The earliest occasion for repetitive storytelling on particular topics would have most naturally arisen as the Lord's followers found themselves regularly fielding frequently asked questions.

By the time the entourage moved from Galilee into Judea, and faced the prospect of addressing a whole territory full of new strangers, undoubtedly bringing many of the same questions they'd regularly fielded in Galilee, the five percent of Jesus' 120 (or so) closest followers who could read might even have thought about getting somebody to begin writing some of their FAQ responses on paper! (?) (!!!)

But of course, that's a whole other issue.

Please, somebody-other-than-me, please make this your thesis project.


June 1, 2014

Purported Causation, as Evidence of Correlation

Bad history often builds on good chronology and historical fallacies often depend on recognizable sequence.

For starters, consider the 'great man' theory of history. Alexander the Great was not solely responsible for the ancient near east becoming a Hellenized region, but his contribution to that result is the most recognizable factor, aside from whether it should also be judged most significant. Of critical importance for this opinion is timing. At the very least, Alexander's campaign in the East appears to be the *first* significant factor which *began* a long process of gradual Hellenization. To inflate Alexander from a necessary cause to a sufficient cause of this widespread change, the erroneous historian must have readers who will not contest that Alexander's campaign at least did appear to accompany the beginning of memorable and recognizable change.

Consider also the Television and American Politics. It may or may not be demonstrably true that TV appearances helped John F Kennedy beat Richard Nixon for the Presidency in 1960, but the fact that this claim has been proffered with such popularity does at least indicate that American Televisions must have become somewhat ubiquitous before that pivotal election year. But of course, TV in the US is a lot older than that famous JFK-Nixon debate.

Occasionally I have heard it remarked (erroneously) that JFK was the first president on TV. Actually, that would be Franklin D Roosevelt, at the world's fair in 1939. Throughout the 40's, variety shows like Milton Berle's and Ed Sullivan's were broadcasting to less than 7 million TV sets. In 1953 an estimated 44 million tuned in for the first glimpse of Little Ricky on "I Love Lucy". Dwight Eisenhower even campaigned for reelection with several TV spots in 1956. But the famous 1960 debates were viewed by approximately 70 million of about 179 million US citizens. Less than half of America was even watching that night, but the growth of television had passed some sort of tipping point. 

Evidently, the memory of those televised debates became more significant at that point even for those with no TV at home because of a widespread discussion going on in the newspapers and elsewhere. The Nixon/Kennedy election was very close, and their first televised debate had been much talked about due to Nixon's poor appearance. When Nixon lost, narrowly, discussion gravitated toward Kennedy's TV advantage, and those talking points naturally blended with the previous memories of discussion during the debates, and a widespread impression was collectively reinforced. The story became popular that Kennedy won *because* of TV, and so JFK and Television became somehow joined together in America's collective memories. He was not the first televised president, but the popularity of this false impression does reflect something about the timing of television's development. 

Kennedy may not have won *because* of TV, but he did win *after* TV became commonplace.

And so, remarkably, a dubious story reflects a reliable chronology.

There's a well known fallacy called "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc" (after the fact, therefore because of the fact). Equally well known is the reliable mantra "Correlation does not imply causation". And narratives of all types have become dubious things to consider because to narrate is to sequence, selectively. But on the other hand, all these principles can be applied in the converse toward a minimal positivism... and that, at least, may be the process which has always provided us with the reliable *chronicles* that make outlines for our histories.

The best lies are based largely on truth, so a biased narrator or spin doctor will be most effective if they maintain a recognizable sequence of historical events and expend their artful efforts on massaging the significance of those events and inflating their causality. Ronald Reagan can only be praised for dismantling communism if people *at least* recognize that his engagement with Russia preceded Glastnost and Berlin's reunification. Yoko Ono cannot be blamed for destroying the Beatles unless everyone remembers that she did *at least* get involved with the band before their break-up actually occurred. Elvis Presley cannot be miscredited as the inventor of "Rock and Roll" except that several million people became aware of that musical genre only through Elvis' extreme popular acclaim and nationally televised showcase appearances. In two of these three examples, the bad history depends on precise chronology, and in the third case it's close enough to fool all but the specialists and aficionados

But the fastest way to discredit a claim of causality is to dispute the event sequence. If anyone could say, "Wait. Reagan wasn't president until after that happened!" or "John Lennon didn't meet Yoko until later." or "Elvis? Dude. Google Bill Haley." then the ability of the narrator to spin that particular bias would be severely compromised. However, in the case of Elvis vs Bill Haley, the question of which came first is rather different than the question of which was the first to became famous, both widely and wildly. As with Kennedy and Television, sometimes an imprecise chronology is an accurate refraction of historical development, from some particular angle.

But my overall thesis is quite simply this:

Narratives which are disputable simply in order and sequence do not tend to survive, and since the best spin doctors are always trying to build credibility, their best option is to build upon recognizable continuities and a recognized sequence of things. 

And my prediction is this:

Should anyone begin to catalog these kinds of things, it may well become demonstrably evident that an awful lot of dubious history displays chronological reliability in its major aspects of narrative contingency.

Somebody should start working out theory and methods to this possible end, ASAP.


What are you waiting for........?

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget