Baker Academic

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Social Memory is a Theory, Not a Method - Le Donne

I have heard of, but not read, Mike Bird's latest book. I hope to get my hands on it soon. I was surprised to learn that Mike has embraced Social Memory theory, as he was previously uninterested in the discussion. Indeed, less than a year ago, he told me that he "couldn't be bothered with it." I imagine now that he said this tongue-in-cheek because one of his star students was (at the time) completing a dissertation that utilized Social Memory in relation to the Acts of the Apostles. I will not be able to speak to the content of his newest book (Mike's books seem to multiply like rabbits), but I think that I will say something about method. 

Mike has recently described his response to Bart Ehrman as an apologetic. I can't help but read Mike's statement about his latest book through this lens:
In a nutshell, I’d say: (1) The Gospels are historically reliable and are reasonable guides to Jesus; (2) The Gospels were probably transmitted in a complex web of oral and written traditions. (3) Social-memory is probably the best hermeneutical framework for understanding the origins of the Gospel traditions.
I'd be interested to know whether he thinks that he is doing apologetics in his latest book. But, whether or not this is a key element of his method, it will be how his book is read by many. Readers will read how they read. I've experienced this very problem with my own writing. But I digress.

I would like to point out that Bart Ehrman is also interested in Social Memory theory and will utilize this research in an upcoming book. What does this tell us? Very simply, the interdisciplinary dialectic that we call "Social Memory" is not a method, nor does it prescribe a method for the historian. Mike is quite right that it is a theory that functions as a "hermeneutical framework." I am convinced that it is indeed quite valuable for the study of Jesus and Christian origins. I've been singing this tune for a while now. But, as Chris Keith has often said, Social Memory does not itself do the work of historiography. It is an undergirding theory. How one adopts and adapts it within one's chosen method is crucial. I look forward to learning how Mike has adopted and adapted Social Memory.

-anthony

12 comments:

  1. This is an important post - there is a frequent misunderstanding of what theory & method "do," as well as their role in something like historiography. This may be because in many programs you tend to have classes that lump them together ("Theory & Method in X") without a clear delineation of either. This misunderstanding tends to lead to others as well, such as the pervasive use of "-ean" coupled with a theorists name to signify what is actually a methodological application of a particular theory, typically with no mention of this.

    The problem that I see here is that this then leads to the very utilitarian question of "how do I do it?" As in, what procedure do I use to apply Foucault, Butler, Halbwachs, et. al to my work? While some would argue that it is important that a theory be connected with methodology, I think the "how do I do it?" question short-circuits the important process that Chris notes; namely, that a huge part of any historiographical project is deciding on and articulating the manner by which theory will influence your particular methodology. For example, this would be one reason why I think folks who do things like a "deconstructive" reading of passage X really misunderstand this distinction. I don't think Derrida ever meant for deconstruction to be a procedural method, it was part of his method for proving a theory on the metaphysics of presence. So it strikes me that we can evaluate the theory that Derrida advances about presence, especially in texts, but recursively replicating more deconstructions doesn't do this. The question here seems to be more one of "how will I allow the point that Derrida has made regarding presence affect the way that I do my work? (even if it is to say that you think he is dead wrong and hopelessly obscurantist)" *not* "how do I do what Derrida does?" The latter might be necessary were you trying to advance a new or similar theory about textual presence, but I don't tend to think many biblical scholars are really trying to do that

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  2. Anthony, can you explain what you mean by "hermeneutical framework"? I understand "method" and "theory." Are you using "framework" as a synonym for theory, to say that social memory is a theory of hermeneutics?

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  3. I read somewhere that Mike Bird has published 153 books. I'm still trying to figure out what that means.

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  4. I'm not sure you can "digress" from a blog post with no direction and no actual point.

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    1. Anonymous, check back in when you're sure.

      -anthony

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  5. Anthony,
    Mate, by "can't be bothered" I meant can't be bothered trying to become an expert in the area and becoming a SM practitioner. Quite happy to lean on the SM work of others like Le Donne, Keith, and soon Sutton!

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  6. I think you are definitely spot-on in saying that SMT is not a method. It certainly tells us something about the data, but it can really only answer a limited set of questions. Now, the answers that it does provide are frequently relevant and interesting, but they cannot determine how the data should be applied as evidence, how that evidence should be interpreted, what questions to ask of the data, what the historian can infer from the data, or what sort of narrative the historian should or may construct. As the father of philosophy of history, R.G. Collingwood once wrote, "history is not memory." What he means by this is that history is not identical to the data or the statements of authorities. History is inferred from that data by the historian. In other words, data is the means, not the ends. Social memory theory operates at the level of the data, and can provide some useful insights, but the historian still has a lot of work to do beyond those insights.

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    1. Jordan,

      As you know, I'm always reading Collingwood through Lonergan and Meyer. It strikes me that in a Lonerganian framework the sort of knowledge about the data that SMT generates lies within the realm of Lonergan's second functional speciality, viz. interpretation, which is antecedent to the work of history. SMT reminds us that when it comes to the gospels the evangelists generated their respective intentions whilst embedded in a web of discourse immanent to early Christian communities, and that this web of discourse was one that had an abiding interest in the events of Jesus's life, precisely because Jesus's life was thought to have theological significance. In other words it helps us, at the level of exegesis, to overcome two antitheses recurrent in gospel studies: that between the writer as author and the writer as community; and that between the gospels as history and the gospels as theology. This is not yet the historical investigation of Jesus of Nazareth, but it offers conceptual breakthroughs that make can better facilitate such investigation.

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    2. Jonathan,

      I agree with what you say here. SMT helps with the interpretation of the data, and provides information that may aid in the determination of the historian's basic orientation towards the evidence.

      I think Lonergan's statement that "critical history is not a matter of believing credible testimonies but of discovering what hitherto had been experienced but not properly known" ('Method in Theology', 195) is appropriate and really hits the nail on the head here in relation to what you are saying.

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  7. I think the anonymous was Michael Bird! :-)

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