A Blast from the Past ©

I have recently finished reading Christine A. Chakoian’s insightful book Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.  I pause in my blog writing to focus on this unusual book.  In particular I want to recommend that Sunday School classes and other learning groups might well benefit by taking time to read and discuss the insights the author offers. cryptomnesiaThe dictionary renders “cryptomnesia” as a hidden memory which has come back to the forefront; “the reappearance of as suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience” (The Collins English Dictionary; Cryptomnesia, p. xi).  The author explains it this way:  cryptomnesia is the opposite of déjà vu.  In cryptomnesia, “our brains are tricking us into thinking we’re encountering something new, when in reality we’ve been here before” (Cryptomnesia, p. xi). What makes this book so worth reading and discussing is the way our current religious reality in post-Christendom America is a repeat of what the earliest Christians experienced in the Roman Empire.  Relearning our past not only gives us courage; it gives us tools for confronting the present and living into a new future. The chapter headings are telling. In the first two chapters – “When Every Thing Changes: Life in America Today” and “Religious Life in the Shrinking World” – Dr. Chakoian (Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forrest, Illinois) compares our modern experience of the rapid pace of change and cultural diversity with the experience of the first urban Christians.  I find it hope-giving to recall that we in the Christian Church have been in this situation before.  There are insights to reflect upon and perhaps employ. Chapter 3, “Shifting Our Inheritance: What to Keep and What to Let Go?”, plunges the reader in the conflict going on in the early church as it emerged from the shadow of the Jewish Temple.  The earliest Christians wrestled with worship as it was evolving, the place of baptism (as an outgrowth of ritual baths, cleanings and new life), whether to eat food for idols, is the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) to be retained as Holy Scripture by Christians?, etc.  She rightly points out that some of the answers are surprising. It is the application to our day that is especially challenging for us!  What are we to keep and what must we let go of?  Think back over the so-called worship wars and divisions about what is central in the worship life of your church.  What to keep and what to let go of are profoundly biblical and theological questions that merit clear headed practical answers.  The reader will easily grasp the parallel struggles between eating food dedicated to idols and circumcision with questions of worship styles and same gender ordination.  A good lesson for a Sunday School class would be to unpack Dr. Chakoian’s concepts of things that are “indifferent” and things that are “essential.”  Step number two would be to start writing your own list and discuss together. In discussing (holy conversation?) she notes four key behaviors we can learn from the earliest Christians.
  1. “They came together to discern.
  2. They took turns testifying.
  3. They listened to each other’s witness.
  4. They looked to the authority of scripture, Jesus’ teachings, and the Holy Spirit.” (Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p. 50; emphasis in the original)
I confess that I wish to argue pretty strongly with the incompleteness of her list, but the concepts are well worth wrestling with in Christian love and care. As a Bishop her fourth chapter sparked special interest for me.  It’s entitled “Authority and Community in a Flattened Age.”  She notes our culture wide rebellion from traditional authority.  However, Dr. Chakoian takes the significant next step of confronting the need for authority.  She writes, “Having some kind of authority isn’t optional; it’s essential for us as social creatures” Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p.58). The partial answer she offers models itself off of the earliest Christians and what they took from synagogues, the schools of philosophy, voluntary associations and the Ekklesia (The Household of God).  Dr. Chakoian challenges us to fully embrace a valuing of each other’s gifts without descending into chaos.  A taste of some of the writing is appetizing:
    • “Theresa Latini reminds us of the need for the church to be a place where we learn and practice community in an age of social disconnection.” (p. 73)
    • “Sustaining intimate, accountable Christian relationships in faith communities is crucial.” (p. 73)
    • “The era of top-down authority is over. But that doesn’t mean there is no authority.” (p.77, emphasis in the original)
There is more here.  Chapters on getting along and “taking the message to the masses” await our investigation and reflection.  I repeat the intention in writing this blog.  Cryptomnesia is an excellent book for a Sunday School class to pick up, read and discuss.  I have points of real disagreement with the author but the overall premise is on target.  We have a hidden memory we desperately need to rediscover.  I believe the Holy Spirit is at work in our recovery from biblical, theological and historical amnesia.  Here’s to good discussions!