Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Malleable Memories and the Gospel

I was listening to NPR Sunday afternoon. They were doing an utterly fascinating piece on memory, and how we construct and tell the stories of our lives. I am completely bummed out that I can’t find a summary of the program anywhere on the NPR website, so I will recall what I can.

The gist of the story was that the more we re-tell a memory, the less accurate it tends to become, and the more removed it becomes from the actual event. Take a couple who shares a first kiss. Except for the first time one of them describes it, that person’s subsequent re-tellings of the first kiss are built, neurologically speaking, on the previous memory of the kiss, not the event itself! What this means is that if any details from the actual event are embellished, left out, or otherwise altered in the memory, they become imprinted and part of the event itself.

Elizabeth Loftus is a psychologist at UC-Irvine and UW who has done a lot of writing on memory and its “malleability”. She is particularly interested in applications to the legal system; a 2003 article she wrote in Nature begins as follows:

"The malleability of memory is becoming increasingly clear. Many influences can cause memories to change or even be created anew, including our imaginations and the leading questions or different recollections of others. The knowledge that we cannot rely on our memories, however compelling they might be, leads to questions about the validity of criminal convictions that are based largely on the testimony of victims or witnesses. Our scientific understanding of memory should be used to help the legal system to navigate this minefield."

Among other things, she has run experiments showing how easy it is to manipulate peoples’ memories, including implanting false memories of events that never took place. Subjects recounting those events, however, were firmly convinced that they had. Fascinating stuff, and much more that I plan to read up on.

Here’s what it got me thinking: I have heard the gospel stories about Jesus be defended as being historically accurate in several ways, including: because they were written by eye witnesses to the events; because they were written within the lifetimes of people who would be able to refute their truth (40-70 years after the fact) [thanks Heather for the correction]; because the written records of the events of Jesus’ life were merely formalizing what was a strong oral tradition at the time.

I don’t know much about oral tradition, though I have heard that it was a very serious discipline of exactly passing on a story, verbatim, from one person to another. (Does anyone know more about this?)

Loftus’s research seems to suggest that it is possible that, over the course of probably countless verbal re-tellings of the events of Jesus’ life, the “memories” could have changed and morphed, either by altering details of the story or even adding events that literally never happened.

Loftus is apparently quite a controversial figure – not everyone agrees with or likes her research. But hers is a pretty interesting research thread that could have implications for how much stock Christians put in the “eye witness account” defense of the gospels.

16 comments:

Spiritbear said...

I think you make a good case to argue against biblical innerancy (which I no longer subscribe to) but its a far cry from proving the gospel to be false. I dont believe because the bible tells me so. I believe because in my heart I know it to be true. Not sure if that makes any sense at all

Slapdash said...

To be clear, I'm not trying to prove the gospel is false...

I hear what you're saying, though.

Heather said...

**I have heard the gospel stories about Jesus be defended as being historically accurate in several ways, including: because they were written by eye witnesses to the events; because they were written within the lifetimes of people who would be able to refute their truth (30-50 years after the fact); because the written records of the events of Jesus’ life were merely formalizing what was a strong oral tradition at the time.**

Actually, that would depend on which scholar-branch you're following. The mainstream/liberal scholars hold to the fact that the Gospels were written from 40-70 years after Jesus died.

Slapdash said...

hey spiritbear, i just checked out your blog. like very much what you have to say over there. plan to do some more reading. :)

Heather said...

Slapdash

This is a complete sidenote, but I went to visit the 'STupid Church people' blog that referenced your post on the abusive cycle. I looked at the comments and wow. It does seem like those critiquing you are missing the point.

You're not commenting on this in terms of your life, such as being passed over for a promotion, or even in terms of a family member's death. What you're doing is looking at situations such as Darfur, and asking how we can keep calling God good and loving and just in the middle of those atrocities. It had nothing to do with you, but rather noticing a similiarity between saying that God is still good even after all those people suffer, and saying that a husband still loves you even after he's hit you.

It's just disturbing, b/c it seems like they're trying to redirect the argument to how you have no right to question bad things in your life, when you're not even bringing your life into it.

Slapdash said...

Yes, the general vein of comments over there has fallen right into the typical responses I mentioned in my De-Conversion: Done Online, Done Anonymously entry. I'm being prideful, or sinful, or asking questions better left unasked.

Quite dispiriting, I must say. Thanks for checking it out.

Heather said...

Slapdash,

**because they were written within the lifetimes of people who would be able to refute their truth (40-70 years after the fact) [thanks Heather for the correction];**

I should clarify that conservative Christian scholars would hold that the events were written by eyewitnesses, so I don't know you want to modify the correction to show it's the platform of the liberal/maintstream scholars?

**I'm being prideful, or sinful, or asking questions better left unasked.

Quite dispiriting, I must say. Thanks for checking it out. **

It is dispiriting, and I think the reaction would play a major role in your not wanting to go back to that mindset. For instance, the people critiquing your view seem to believe that they hold the key to the absolute truth. But if they don't even address or understand what you're actually trying to say, how valid is their interpretation of this absolute truth?

I think spiritbear has the best response -- s/he believes because s/he knows in his/her heart. That's really all anyone can say.

Bible student said...

**40-70 years after the fact**

Heather,
After the fact of Christ’s birth means Matthew written in the early 40’s, Luke 50’s, Mark 60’s and John by the end of the first century. Or am I reading you wrong?

Heather said...

Biblestudent,

The scholars I'm quoting hold to the view of Mark being written in 70 AD, Matthew and Luke using Mark and the 'Q' document and writte in the 80s, and John written around the 90s-100s.

Brian said...

I concur with Spiritbear. For me, the gospels speak truth because I have found them to be truth through the living of my life. This does not mean that everything in the Bible (or the gospels) is truth for me. As Marcus Borg argues, these texts are history metaphorized and the metaphors that spoke to people in the ancient world don't always speak to me. I don't beleive these texts are primarily history. They are first and foremost theology - an attempt by humans to explain experiences and ideas they beleive speak to the nature of God.

Slapdash said...

Hi Brian, welcome.

Someone else mentioned Marcus Borg and I am really interested in checking his stuff out. I am also interested in looking into "process theology" (does Borg subscribe to that?) as it may be a way out or around many of the issues I have with the Christianity I grew up with. Might be a way to avoid throwing the baby out w/ the bathwater.

But then sometimes I wonder if, by doing so, I am just trying to hold on the concept of God for sentimental reasons.

Do I need a concept of God to follow Jesus' teachings? For there's definitely something about his teachings that strikes a chord with me. But do I need to believe him to be Divine to still follow the teachings? Eh, I don't think so. So why would I continue to believe in his divinity, or divinity in general, when I see so little evidence of an active God in this world?

Slapdash said...

***It is dispiriting, and I think the reaction would play a major role in your not wanting to go back to that mindset. For instance, the people critiquing your view seem to believe that they hold the key to the absolute truth. But if they don't even address or understand what you're actually trying to say, how valid is their interpretation of this absolute truth? ***

Yes, for a few days there I was really, really angry and depressed and angst-ridden over the responses I was getting from a few people. Which has served to solidify the path I'm on -- in other words, I am NOT going to go back to that mindset. Ugh.

lowendaction said...

Hey Slap- (get it? it's a dash after your name...ok, so i totally don't want to be at work today, and thus exibiting some zanier than usaul behavior...please forgive!)

I'm just curious, how you can be taken (term used loosely) by Jesus teachings, but then somehow serate Him from the person of God? I distinctly rememeber my Flannel-Graph lessons teaching me that God and Jesus were one and the same entity.

Seriously though, what's your logic here? Just curious.

Also, exactly were and how would you like to see said evidence of God's divinity in the world? Would it be the suffering in Darfur? Or would it be the close relative dying of cancer? Maybe a little memorie booster on that final exam? I'm not trying to make light of this, but it does present some real problems when you are looking through "your" eyes. What if it was far more subtle? What if God's presence was felt in your life, so that only you really could tell? Why must we demand such grandious signs before we are willing to submit to His reality? Either He created all this, or He didn't. If He did, who are we to demand anything? I'm not saying that we should become mindless robots, how does a spouse really show their love? Is it through elaborate gifts? Or is it through time-tested faith and deep commitment (IOW, things that can't be simply shown through a single event)?

Hmmmm...

good times...

lowendaction said...

HELLO TYPO CITY!!!

sorry.

Slapdash said...

***I'm just curious, how you can be taken (term used loosely) by Jesus teachings, but then somehow serate Him from the person of God? I distinctly rememeber my Flannel-Graph lessons teaching me that God and Jesus were one and the same entity.***

I suppose in the same way that one can be taken by the teachings of Ghandi, or the dhali lama (sp?). Yes, I know all about the CS Lewis Lord, Liar, Lunatic proposition... but it rests on a fundamental proposition that the gospels are an accurate and true reflection of what Jesus actually said. Right now, pretty much everything is up for grabs for me in terms of Biblical trustworthiness.

***Also, exactly were and how would you like to see said evidence of God's divinity in the world? Would it be the suffering in Darfur?***

Yes.

***Or would it be the close relative dying of cancer? Maybe a little memorie booster on that final exam?***

I would want to see God much more visibly intervening in this world, a la OT/NT miracles, conversations with man, burning bushes, wrestling matches, angels walking the earth type stuff.

I find "well, what exactly do you WANT God to do" to be a funny argument. I assume you pray, right? What do YOU want God to do? Do you pray for big things? or just little things? Does he do them? Ever? Is it presumptuous of you to pray? Why not? Is it presumptuous, then, to want God to answer your prayers? Or is it only okay to want God to answer little prayers, but not the big ones that would require him to take tangible, miraculous action?

***Why must we demand such grandious signs before we are willing to submit to His reality?***
Because he was in the business of grandiose signs throughout the Bible, and I fail to understand why, under the 'new covenant' he's all done with that stuff. Jesus, after all, imbued the apostles with the ability to perform miracles. Why was that a time-limited gift? How come the only gift that seems to hang around these days is speaking in tongues, which has dubious merit to begin with (IMHO)?

Heather said...

Slapdash,

**Yes, for a few days there I was really, really angry and depressed and angst-ridden over the responses I was getting from a few people.** I can relate to this. It is always frustrating to be misinterpreted, and then attacked based on that misinterpretation. If we were good God-fearing Christians, we'd say this was a wonderful opportunity to see God working in action in dividing the wheat from the tares. ;)

Lowendaction,

**Why must we demand such grandious signs before we are willing to submit to His reality?***

Because Christianity makes grandious claims about God. It says that God loves, God knows all, God is in complete control, God is just, God can do miraculous things ... and yet we see very little evidence of this in the world. If God did create all this, and then is demanding that all worship him, it is only reasonable to attempt to verify the very claims that Christianity makes about God.