The Legacy of Memory and the Church Now
Memory shapes our psyche, resurrects our joys, haunts our thoughts, and forms our identity.
We commit important information to memory, we try to jog our memory, and we sometimes travel down memory lane. The early church took its own memories and digested them in order to recognize its own unique identity. It began to accept its differences with Greco-Roman culture and Judaism, processing the teaching of Jesus, the conflict with culture, and its own place in the ancient world. And just like other eras of history, including the early church, now the contemporary church has moments of struggles in identity crisis. Looking back provides insight and perspective into the present. Memory helps us know ourselves.
In Retrieving History: Memory and Identify Formation in the Early Church, Stefana Dan Laing explores the identity-forming memories experienced by early Christians from the end of the apostles (AD 96) to the landmark Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). The reader travels back to antiquity to discover “how Christian identity has been challenged, shaped, and strengthened by those circumstances in the first five centuries of the church” (195). That era is a world away, a place that feels like myth more than reality. It is a place of imagined stone pillars, philosophers, gladiators, slaves, and wooden ships.
Yet, it is a place of people, including a rising subgroup which supposedly worshipped a Galilean who was rumored to do miracles but was crucified. The ancient world clashed with this new faith, misunderstanding it as Christianity reciprocated the efforts in understanding. The process led early Christians to begin to record their history from their own vantage point. Four genres of writing emerged.
Apologetics recorded how this new faith was articulated in relationship with the old ways—sometimes strategically compatible with them and sometimes unapologetically incompatible. Martyrology recorded the noble example provided by the persecuted, believers who faced tribunals of law or wild beast of an amphitheater. Hagiography elevated their stories to lessons in discipleship, holy biographies that inspire generations even to today. Church histories chronicled the stories of the church in a more formal form of recording, but they were written with a perspective toward the triumph of Christianity. Laing lays out each genre with detailed specificity and with clarity.
This work is scholarly, but not out of reach for the regular reader. It contains a treasure worth unearthing: framing an understanding of the memory and identify formation by the church in its earliest history. Laing creates a sense of urgency for historical understanding that motivates a Christian reader today. She writes: “When we value the historical writings of early Christian historians, we acknowledge the importance of God’s outworking in time and space of a providential plan for the cosmos” (167). Forgetting the past darkens the perimeter of the present. Narrowing our view in the present weakens our ability to succeed in the task that the church has before it. Jude reminds us this way: “It was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that you should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (v.3).
Laing offers an inspiration that makes one want to grasp the legacy of the early church to fuel the work of the Kingdom for our own generation. Most impressive, she composes this historical method book to place history in the divine theater—the work of God among his people, generation after generation. “As we remember our forebears, we ought always to look to their God, the God of history, of whom they bore witness, our great God who has accomplished his work through women and men in every era to build up the church” (199).
Early Christians celebrated and articulated their memory to establish the church. We inherit their gathering of scripture, their troubleshooting of doctrine, their ministry to the needy, and their establishment of a church. We now are that same church. May we better remember our identity—for our own sake and for the sake of the world.
Learn more about the early church in Retrieving History: Memory and Identify Formation in the Early Church (Baker, 2017).