Online Conversation | The Spiritual Practice of Remembering
with Margaret Bendroth
On Friday, December 11, we hosted author and historian of religion Margaret Bendroth to discuss the nature and importance of memory in the Christian life and tradition. In her luminous work The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Bendroth argues that “remembering is an act with spiritual meaning…the past tense is essential to our language of faith; without it our conversation is limited and thin — and growing thinner all the time.”
The very act of noticing and remembering reconnects us to the Great Story. We hope this conversations helps you to think about the importance of remembering to the life of our faith.
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Kelly and Adrienne Johnston
Richard and Phoebe Miles
The song is “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” by Fernando Ortega
The painting is The Magpie by Claude Monet
Transcript of The Spiritual Practice of Remembering with Margaret Bendroth
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Alyssa, and just let me add my own welcome to all of you joining us today for today’s Online Conversation on the spiritual practice of remembering. I’d like to particularly thank our sponsors, as Alyssa mentioned, Richard and Phoebe Miles, along with Kelly and Adrian Johnston for their generosity in making today’s program possible.
We are obviously now in the middle of the Advent season, the season of preparing, waiting for, anticipating, and remembering the incarnation, the arrival of Christ on Earth. The culmination of the story that we await and celebrate is one that we are repeatedly instructed in the Bible to remember, to meditate upon it, to ponder it, to write it on our heart, to tell our children, to dwell on it, to never forget. Implied in these injunctions is the assumption that what we attend to, absorb, and remember changes us both as a person but also as a people of faith. And so it seemed a particularly apt time to ponder the spiritual practice of remembering itself, and I’m delighted to introduce our guest today who literally wrote the book on precisely that subject.
Margaret Bendroth, or Peggy as she goes by, is an author, scholar, and historian of American religion. She served as the executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, Massachusetts, for over 15 years and just recently retired this spring, and has also served as a professor of history at Calvin College, as well as the past president of the American Society of Church History. She’s the author of numerous books and articles, including Fundamentalism and Gender, Growing Up Protestant, The Last Puritans, as well as her beautifully written book that we’ve invited her to discuss today, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering. Peggy, welcome. Great to have you here.
Margaret Bendroth: Thank you. Good to be here.
Cherie Harder: So let’s just dive right in. Your wonderful book both asserts and is sort of based on the idea that, I think—this is in your words—”remembering is an act with spiritual meaning, and the past tense is essential to our language of faith.” What is it that you mean when you talk about remembering, and what’s the spiritual or religious significance of memory?
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, that’s a huge question, and I’ll just peck at it a little bit. You know, we live in an age of memoir and every, you know, everyone has a story to tell, and we’re all so interested in individual people’s lives. But this book was really written for people in groups, particularly churches and other institutions, that don’t quite know who they are. And so memory—you know, we use the word “remember”—it’s, you know, bringing the members back together that are separated. And so it’s such—we can get into this—it’s such an intrinsic part of the Christian and Jewish tradition when you even look at what’s included in the Bible. But the idea that we are all creatures of space and time and that the great act of sacrifice of Christ coming into the world, as we remember at this time, is coming into time and space and our finitude. And so maybe that’s a, you know, a place to start the rest of our conversation.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Well, let’s dig in because at one point you even said that memory requires a community. So why do we need a community to remember well?
Margaret Bendroth: Well, I mean, of course, we’re all well aware that memory is incredibly subjective and that what I remember—I can be told that I went up in a hot air balloon as a child and someone can doctor a picture, and I will believe it. You know, there are studies that show how subjective our memories are. But, you know, I think there’s so many testimonies from history and from all around us of what happens when people lose their history. And in the book, I actually used a couple of examples of Native Americans and African-Americans brought over here as slaves, that when people are forcibly cut off from their past, from their stories, but from the stories of their ancestors and the community that created them, there are tremendous moral but also psychological and spiritual catastrophes that result from that. And when, you know—I don’t say those stories to use those as examples to be, you know, politically correct or anything, I think that we are all in danger of losing our stories. Our community stories, our larger identity. And that’s not just kind of a personal ache or pain. That’s a tear in the fabric of who we all are.
Cherie Harder: You know, you had this wonderful quote from Miroslav Volf, sort of describes the way that— the communal aspect of memory. I want to quote you quoting Miroslav here. You said, “We experience time the way we hear a beautiful note from the cello. It may sound like a single pitch, but in reality it’s a complex tone, including other voices from the strings, half length, fourth length, eighth length, and so on. It’s similar with the music of our lives. At any given time, we do not hear only the simple, solitary note of the present. Rather, in that present resonate many sounds of past actualities and future possibilities. This is how our present acquires depth.” So in other words, our present-day lives are in some ways constantly echoing those of others around us, both in the past and the future. And I’d love to hear your thoughts, in that when we do kind of experience, whether it’s a civic or communal amnesia, is there kind of a hollowing out or a decrease in density in our own interiority there? Or are the effects felt mostly on a communal level?
Margaret Bendroth: Oh, you know, I absolutely believe that, you know, that history makes you a thicker, fuller person. And as a believer, you know, you have, first of all, all the resources that are available to you in the Christian tradition. You know, you just don’t have to read what’s in the latest magazine. You can delve into the lives of others and their insights, which are, you know, I think— They lived in ages before there was social media and television, and they had perhaps more time to reflect or ability to reflect than we do, so those are resources that we have. But, you know, you think about who you are, who you are and the fact that you are—I love the the idea we are the product of a long choosing and that, you know, the fact that I am here today and you are here today was all—this is from Wendell Berry’s wonderful book Remembering—that we are all here because thousands of other people have made choices about who they were going to marry, [where] they were going to live, what they cared about, and that we are literally the product of, you know, of all those choices that are being made thousands of years before we were born.
Cherie Harder: So one of the themes that your book explores, which I think is quite interesting, is that you argue that in many ways modernity has shaped some of our assumptions, both about time, community, but also memory, that would be quite foreign to our ancestors and in some ways disconnected us from them.
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah.
Cherie Harder: And I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about what some of those modern assumptions are that perhaps have cut us off from better understanding what has happened before or alienated us from our past in some way.
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, I mean, I partly wrote this book because I was in conversations which many of you probably in the audience are familiar with about faith and history. And can Christians— is there a such thing as a Christian history? And what do we as Christian scholars, you know, however we define that, contribute to our profession, to the discipline? And, you know, I think those are worthwhile conversations. But as a teacher, as a church member, as the spouse of a pastor, as a person living in the world, I think the question that came to me was more “why should I care at all about the past?” It doesn’t even matter. You know, of course, these are conversations that we’re having across our society intensely today. “I wasn’t there. Why does it matter?” And we have this sense of disconnectedness. One author describes that we’re “stranded in the present.” And so, you know, I realized that what people really need to understand—and this is something that historians kind of take for granted, I needed to figure out a way to spell it out—is we look at the past as, first of all, behind us. It’s back there or down the ladder, and we’re climbing upwards and that we are ahead of the past. We are above the past. We are more enlightened. I mean, we hear this all the time. “Thank goodness we’ve come so far and we’ve made this progress. We’re not benighted like those people and we, you know, we just have a broader perspective.” That’s really a product of how we have constructed the idea of the past in our minds, you know, and that, by inference, the past is alien from us. It’s “those” people. It’s another world. And also, in a sense, it’s an imagined world. It’s not real. And we can kind of trivialize or manipulate or talk about those people in any way we want because, you know, it’s not as real, as intelligent and smart. I mean, I used to always tell my students, you know, they actually saw things in full color. Because all the pictures in my American history class were in black and white. And you know, students need to realize these are real people who were as morally complex as every one of us is and certainly grappled with many of the same things.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So, you know, it seems to me that in addition to having just different assumptions about the past, one of the challenges we may face now is just something that is fairly new, which is almost unprecedented levels of distraction, in that, you know, presumably forming, preserving, even accessing memory requires some level of attentiveness, but we’re in a distracted age. There have actually been some studies that have shown that the human attention span has shrunk below that of a goldfish. So, how do we— first of all, what are the spiritual consequences of that? And then, you know, as individuals, much less as a people, how do we cultivate the attentiveness necessary to memory?
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, I mean, I wish I could say, “let’s all get off social media”—of course, none of us would be here—”and just spend a week in the woods or a year in the woods and clear our heads of all clutter.” And if you’ve been able to do that, you know, I admire you and please, you know, write me and tell me how you’ve done that. I mean, this is the world that we have. And, you know, I’ve become especially distressed about this as a scholar because, you know, when I started out in graduate school in reading and writing, we were using, you know, clay tablets and chisels and the distractions simply weren’t there. And I can, you know, any time my brain gets tired or frustrated, I can click over and see what’s happening on the latest news or if I’ve got any interesting email, which of course, even though you never do, you know you keep checking and checking. And so to me, you know, I’ve been thinking about that really as a question of craft, of the historian’s craft, the writer’s craft, and realizing that anything valuable, any valuable idea, any full idea takes so much time and reflection and conversation. And so, you know, it’s just the antithesis of this kind of instant, you know, “let’s just put these ideas out, you know, I’ll blog about it or I’ll post it on Facebook and ta da, there it is.” When our ideas, I think if we’re all honest and I would hope so, are really the product of a lot of other people’s ideas, a lot of reflection, long walks, conversations with people that we respect and trust.
And so I find that, you know, I really worry about what’s ahead of us in terms of the kind of long reflection that ideas take. It just astonishes me when I’m reading an old text and thinking, this person wrote this out in longhand. They couldn’t back up and erase, you know, and they didn’t have a lot of paper. You know, they had to have those ideas clear and know what they were going to say before they put pen to paper. And so this is a long and rambling way of saying that, absolutely, I think that this is something that we need to talk about, especially among scholars and, you know, people of faith, that it’s not just what’s on the internet or social media, it’s the fact of distraction and how it can damage our ability to concentrate and our sense of where we stand in the world.
Cherie Harder: So I want to ask you about something you said earlier, which is the challenges we face with wrestling with and coming to terms with our past. And a fair amount of your book deals with something that you call righteous remembrance and, you know, kind of granting our ancestors some of the same charity, judgment, space that we would hope to have ourselves. And I’d love for you to talk a little bit about what do you see as sort of comprising a sense of righteous remembrance towards the sometimes mysterious past?
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, I mean, I think that first of all—and I realized this when I was working at the library in these ancient archives, or ancient for U.S. standards anyway— is a feeling of reverence. I remember when it struck me, I was showing a group of high schoolers, you know, a class of high schoolers who’d come to the library, you know, forcibly. And I took them up to the rare book room and I pulled out a book. I can’t remember what it was. It was hundreds of years old. And I just, you know, there were just a couple of kids in that group who you could see a look of awe on their faces. And I thought, they get it. I feel a sense of awe when I am holding anything that’s been passed through the hands of other people. You know, literally the books in that rare book room— I mean, there was one that was owned by a sailor who fought with Nelson at Trafalgar. I mean, you know, you knew all that these books had seen, all the people that they had affected this. These kinds of historical objects, they point us towards the unseen, towards people that we can no longer see or talk to. And that’s the definition of a holy object, you know, that it points you towards the unseen, towards something else. So these are not just our sources. I think that one place to begin is just having a certain amount of awe and reverence for things that are old just because of, you know, that they are that kind of object.
I also talk about history for grown-ups, and in this in particular, you know, I observed because a lot of my job was going to church congregations, and in New England, they tend to be very, very old, and they have a lot of baggage. And, you know, the church fights up here are usually about, you know, changing the picture on the cover of the bulletin. You know, it’s not a doctrinal or it’s about something, you know, “you can’t do that because it’s very old and this is the way we’ve always had it.” And then people would have questions about, “can we sell the communion silver?” or something like that. Well, what it really comes down, to in some ways, is that you’re acting as if your ancestors are either terribly, terribly fragile, not very self-aware, or just mean parents who are out to get you if you make a mistake. And, you know, part of this righteous remembering is, you know, having the courage to be in conversation with them, to not just respect and revere what they have to say, but say, “I don’t agree with that. And here’s why.” And you know, that’s another form of respect and reverence to be able to, you know, to maintain that conversation, as you would with a peer, another grown-up.
Cherie Harder: So earlier, you had mentioned a little bit about the suggestibility of our individual memories, the faultiness of them, how it’s— we are vulnerable and even prone to remember things that didn’t happen, through the suggestion of others. And that’s something that a community can help counteract. But there’s another challenge to memory that communities are not always helpful in counteracting and that’s, you know, a less innocent challenge. And that’s one of power. It is victors who write histories. Juries are usually contested. They are usually written in a way to flatter and honor the teller, often at the expense of the vanquished. And so I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we think about our histories. I mean, you’re talking about the spiritual significance of them, but knowing that histories have been contested and histories at times have been unjust as well as untrue.
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah. And you know, right away you make a distinction between, you know, what happened and what we remember. And so there is— we’ll never know what happened, you know, to a T. It’s what sources are kept, what we’re allowed to remember. And of course, you know, I taught women’s history for a long time and my field is in women’s history, and it just pains me, you know, how difficult it is to sometimes just find out, you know, just basic information about people. And so, you know, this is obviously very, very much to the point. I think, you know, in response to your question, also, this is why historians have jobs. If there was like a decree that “this is what happened and we all know and we all agree on this,” I’d be out of a job and I know a lot of other wonderful people would be out of jobs, too. I use in my mind sometimes the metaphor of a spiral staircase, you know, that you’re going, you’re moving, you’re moving up, you’re gaining knowledge and so forth. But you’re always looking down at the same thing, just from a different perspective, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, sometimes higher. And sometimes you have insights because of that, you know, of that particular perspective that you’ve gained that weren’t available to you or to other people at different points on the spiral.
And so, you know, to me, the most wonderful and exciting thing about history is that the story is not set. And the more stories— you know, it’s not so much always saying, “Well, you know, they’ve got it all wrong.” You know, not many historians have the luxury of coming up with the big find that proves everybody else wrong. I think what a lot of us do, like I try to do, are just add stories, add stories, stories of women, and in my case, stories of people of faith that are often left out of accounts or not given the kind of due that they should have. And that’s a real— to me that’s a great source of pleasure and satisfaction to just even bring the name of someone. The book that I’m working on now, you know, is also about women and this is, you know, 20th-century history, which to many people isn’t really history, but you know, it just— it felt so important in the middle of that project to just stop and make sure every time I mentioned someone’s name, I gave her story. You know, who she was or some detail. Not necessarily what she looked like, because that can be demeaning sometimes, but, you know, to bring them alive as people. And you know, to me, that’s an academic task, an intellectual task, but also a kind of a spiritual service to other human beings.
Cherie Harder: So it’s hard for any of us to practice what we have a hard time envisioning. So I’d love to hear from you what a vibrant Christian “re-membering” might look like. And then sort of related to that, you know, whether there are practices or habits that you recommend for cultivating such a Christian remembering?
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah. I mean, you know, I walk a lot. I think a lot of historians are walkers. We just like narrative. You know, we like straight. We like to follow lines. But I walk a lot and there is something that happens when you’re walking down a street that you’ve driven on many, many times. You say, “Boy, this is a lot steeper than it was when I was driving my car.” Or, you know, “What is that?” You know, my husband had a church in an old New England community and my kids and I used to walk by this one little monument all the time. We’re always in a hurry. I stopped, and it was the citizens of the town thanking the prime minister for repealing the Stamp Act, like, oh, it’s just there. But it is a way of meditating on who laid out the street. “I wonder what it looked like when they built that house?” Or the view—this is the same view when I’m, you know, on the top of a hill in woods near my house that someone looked at in the 17th century, the 10th century. You know, just having respect for all the layers of people who have been and the gratitude and frustration for what they’ve given me. But one of the big concerns that I had when I was writing the book and I still have: I was really hoping that it would encourage communities of faith to come up with liturgy, ritual, some way of honoring the communion of saints: you know, all the people. You know, it’s not just the people who are alive that are a member of your church. It’s all of you, if you take Hebrews 11 and 12 seriously. And so, you know, what are some of the easy rituals? You know, when the child is baptized, you know, a lot of times they, you know, take the baby up and down the aisle and everybody gets to look at it. Well, the ancestors, you know, in a way, they’re there too. You know, is there a way to include them in the call to worship, in the celebration of communion and the benediction? Not in kind of, you know, weird, stilted, spooky kind of ways, but just simple rituals.
I’ll give you one example that’s my favorite. There was— you know, churches in particular, they all have their story. Oh, yeah, you know, “We were this, we were that,” you know, and you read their records and find out, no, that’s not really true. But people, you know, the story gets passed on of who we are and why that minister was, you know, so wonderful or so awful. So there was a congregation that— they told their story, that there was at the time a group of divisive malcontents who were going to split the church and fortunately left. And so they always viewed themselves as kind of a righteous remnant. You know, “thank goodness that we were able to carry on the faith while those divisive people left.” Well, you know, churches usually remember their history every 50 years, you know, when there’s an anniversary and there’s a church supper and all these other things that happen. Someone actually read the records. They were not the righteous remnants. They were the kicker-outers. They kicked those people out of the church. And so it immediately altered their sense of who they were. And so they developed this little ritual. In a church meeting, you know, if it was starting to get hot, if people were starting to disagree, someone would just quietly without saying anything go over to the door and slam it. You know, and that’s a ritual. All they had was a reminder: “You know what, you did that to other people and you could do it again. That’s who you are.”
So, you know, I think there’s so many creative ways that communities can engage with their ancestors—instead of this kind of, you know, lists of pastors or when we did that particular church building project—that I really would hope to see. Because I find that it gives people— you know, if you’re interested in church renewal and church vitality, having a story, that you’re not just kind of generic Protestants or something: “You are this and these were the fascinating people that—you know, good and bad—that created you.” I would love to go to a church like that. People are proud and excited and sobered and humbled and inspired by that.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. That’s fascinating. Well, we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers now. And as Alyssa mentioned earlier, you can not only pose a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that gives us a better sense of what some of the most popular questions are. I see there are already quite a few lined up, so the first one we’ll take is from Janice Freitag and Janice asks, “Are all communities of memory of equal worth? How do we remember in a healthy way if our past is painful or sinful? For example, remembering Confederate leaders or racist, sexist positions of Christians in the past?”
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I wish I had the simple answer to that. But, you know, I think part of what— it’s good to have that conversation and to bring those stories out. I mean, I— absolutely, you know, we can’t whitewash the pain of other people. And in a sense, you know, we who have not experienced that pain and that being silenced, you know, we have to help tell those stories. I mean, we can’t always authentically bring that experience back alive. Sometimes we just need to shut off a little bit so that other stories can be told. You know, I think that, you know, historians always wrestle with “what’s the narrative here.” Our kind of mental ability is taking lots and lots and lots of material and deciding what’s important and what’s not important and how we’re going to tell the story and what to include and what not to include. That has to change all the time. And we have to be humble enough to alter that.
So, you know, I think there are many, many smart people who are dealing with this question of, you know, monuments and renaming buildings and so forth. My feeling is if we had to, you know— Any famous figure who has a statue or a building named after them— You know, what did they say about race? What did they say about women? I mean, my goodness, we wouldn’t have many statues out there. And you know, I think in some ways, we just need to find a way to force those statues to explain themselves. You know, they can’t just stand out there. They have to be held accountable in some way. What are you really trying to say? And, you know, give us a chance to refute that. I know this is all very abstract. I think any historian is really kind of leery of anything from the past disappearing. You know, we can’t erase things. I mean, that’s— you just can’t. It’s just always going to be there, whether there’s a statue for it or not. And it has to be faced by everybody. But, you know, I think on some level, I’m just glad to see the conversation going on.
Cherie Harder: So we have an interesting question from Jonathan Patluk, who asks, “You might recall that the Hebrew word for male or ‘zakhar’ means ‘remember.’ In your experience, is there a difference between men and women in the act of remembering?”
Margaret Bendroth: Oh, well, let’s see my husband’s downstairs, so— I never really came across anything like that. I mean, I think that— it depends on— What you remember depends on what you see and what kind of looms largest in your world. I don’t think that there’s any mental mechanism that causes women to remember better or, you know, or better details. I think that varies person to person. But I think that’s another reason why, you know, our family stories can’t just be told by one person. I mean, I remember—I would say more truthfully—what my children were like when they were small because I was with them every day. But you know—and I can correct my husband on a lot of family stories—but that doesn’t mean that this is the only way to tell the story of our family.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Michael Lundy. And he asked, “How can we preserve the freedom to both admire and criticize our predecessors, especially when the past doesn’t meet the moral standards of the day or, conversely, to so venerate them as to place them beyond criticism?”
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah. I mean, I remember in graduate school for the first time reading 19th-century texts and I was startled and appalled by how racist they were. You know, just in a very casual, condescending way. I was astonished. And, you know, I don’t I mean— Unfortunately, I think a lot of this coming to terms takes, requires reading and thought and acquaintance, direct acquaintance with our resources from the past. I always, when I write about people, I try to give them room. You know, that I don’t feel like I need to excuse them because they were in a more benighted time. I don’t need to condemn them because they don’t see what I see, but I need to know what it was that they had available to them at that time. I mean, we talk about, you know, what’s the limits of your conversation? You know, every age, every culture, every time period, there are certain things that you can say and that will resonate and get heard. And there are things that you can say, but somehow they just don’t resonate. And so, you know, that—we need to be aware of that for our own time, of what is permissible and what needs to be said and is not part of the conversation. And that’s true of other times in the past as well.
I mean, I tell people I started with history because I was, you know, kind of shy and socially awkward, and I realized that dead people were a lot easier to deal with. They didn’t fight back or argue with me or, you know, make me feel awkward. And so I, you know, I like to read. I remember reading Thomas à Kempis: “Oh, this will be great. I’ll get so much inspiration from this.” And yes, I did. And then I realized I was reading something from an alien world. There’s so much in what he was writing about and his assumptions that I didn’t understand, and I would not understand that book, that text, unless I understood the context, the world in which it came. You can, you know, get to know that world for the rest of your life and always get new insight into, you know, a book or any book like that.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. So George Abdo asked, “Could you speak specifically to recovering the history and personal stories of African-American Christians, which may not be in documents or archives?”
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, I mean, it’s, you know— it’s they are in— They are in documents. It’s just knowing how to read them. And, you know, the direct experience that I have that I can relate to, an example, are New England church records. And when we were at the— The Congregational Library has a project. We call it “New England’s Hidden Histories,” and we digitized church records. You know, in New England a lot of the church records were, you know, in the basement with the Christmas decorations. I mean, you know, stories that make your hair curl. Anyway, church records sounds like the most boring thing that you could imagine, but recently one historian, he actually—and this is happening in a lot of churches in the Boston area—going through their records line by line. And he— you know, there’s membership lists, there’s baptismal lists, there are, you know, these records also told a lot of stories about decisions that were made and congregational discussions and debates and so forth. They’re very juicy, actually. But he went through all of those records, you know, and it takes years. I don’t know how he did it. And found all the African-American and Native American people in those churches. It took incredible combing. You know, sometimes it’s just a random, you know— “Oh, that guy’s name is Coffy. Well, that was a slave name.” Or, you know, you can figure out what neighborhood. I mean, it’s painstaking work. But what he discovered is that those records, from those records, is that there were more African— that Boston’s churches—congregational and Anglican—back then were more integrated than they are now, you know. And that there were African-Americans, slaves and free people, in those churches. And what they were experiencing, what they heard, that’s an even more interesting story. You can delve into the records and find some of the instances where, you know, an African-American left the church that his master was because he didn’t agree with the theology. I mean, you can tease out where people have agency, but it really requires being, you know, extra extra painstaking with those records and using things that are available. I mean, this is just the one example that I have in ways that, you know, we don’t have.
I’ll just use this also as a moment to put in a pitch for archives. You know, that this is— You know, when the school budget is tight or when people are in a hurry, we stop keeping those records. Or we think, “Oh, that’s not valuable. Why should we keep that?” It may well be. And so I was always the voice at the library that said, “I don’t know if you want to throw that out because someone might find that really valuable sometime in the future.” So, you know, a part of the problem is that we just have to keep records. We have to keep looking for them, and we have to be extra, extra creative in the way that we use them.
So, again, there’s no magical answer to that. But, you know, I’m in awe of people who are willing to go to that extra depth to unearth those stories. And they’re wonderful stories of people in duress, in slavery, you know, enduring poverty and prejudice, exercising agency, you know, and having kind of a moral presence in history. That’s exciting.
Cherie Harder: So a somewhat related question comes from Christopher Marlink, and he asked, “Which faith communities in the U.S. seem to do the best at remembering their own history, absent the kind of hagiography that you’ve mentioned?”
Margaret Bendroth: That’s a good question, and I think about that a lot. I think— You know, I worked for the congregational churches. We were their archive, you know, kind of a freestanding archive, and they had hundreds of years of history. But yet, you know, you go to any denominational website and their “who are we” or history section: “We were the first to do this. We were the first to do that. We pioneered that.” It doesn’t matter at all. You know, the congregationalists ordained a woman in 1853, but that was kind of the last time for a while. It doesn’t really matter if you were first at something. I think that probably more communities like Lutherans who have more of kind of an ethnic glue than your average, you know, mainline Protestant or evangelicals. I mean, I think evangelicals, you know, are— I think groups that have a strong—I will say this and I people might not agree—but a strong sense of denominational identity. You know, what is a Presbyterian? What does a congregationalist believe? Who are Lutherans and what makes them distinct? We just lost that. And you know, that’s— if you have that— You know, I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, and “sorry, everybody else,” you know, “we were there, we were the best.” And so we had a lot of stories to tell because we had a strong sense—at least, you know, back in the Stone Age, when I was a child—of who we were and why we were distinct and different and, of course, better. But that’s another story.
Cherie Harder: So an interesting question from Richard Campo, who asked, “What or how can a community of faith do to help people with memory loss and dementia to remember and to be encouraged by the love and presence of Christ in their lives?”
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, I mean, again, you know, that’s a little bit beyond my my expertise. But I would say, we’ve probably all seen videos of people with Alzheimer’s or, you know, elderly people who you play a hymn or a fragment of a hymn or the 23rd Psalm or something, and those things that have been repeated and repeated, you know, there they are in there somewhere. And that brings people so much comfort and joy. You know, I, you know, certainly some— you know, having gone to nursing homes and played gospel hymns, which, you know, “oh, I would never do this at home,” but it gives people a lot of joy and remembering of something that’s special. And so, you know, when we try so hard— You know, my parents are part of a church that does praise songs. And, you know, I think they would give their eye teeth to do something from the the old Psalter, some boring hymn like— We’re just so convinced that people want something new and up to date. You know, I think we lose a lot of the ballast—and the memory and the joy—that these old, old hymns and old practices give to people who we need to help remember.
Cherie Harder: Speaking of artifacts, Ginny Savage asked, “Do physical objects help us in remembering, similar to what some call an Ebenezer Stone?”
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, I mean— Well, you can kind of see my office behind me. I’m a little bit of a hoarder. You can kind of tell from that. And, you know, I have objects. I do keep objects that I can look at that and I get immediately transported back to, you know, when my child drew that or when I found that, you know, on a beach or a walk. And I think of the story from Joshua, where the Israelites were crossing the Jordan and instructed to set up stones of memory. Not just a pile of rocks, but big heavy boulders that would always be there, that might be in the way, but that would just be there to remember. I said there’s a difference between keeping and hoarding. And, you know, we live in a culture that in some ways, you know, “Americans, oh, they’re just— amnesia. They don’t remember. It’s always the new-improved.” Yet at the same time, we are obsessed with losing the past. You know, the history channel. You know, all these museums, you know, for every possible— Tupperware, lunch boxes, string. You know, there are more museums, there’s more sites that you can go visit. Up here it’s Plymouth Plantation. In some ways we’re obsessed with losing something, but we don’t know what it is that we’re going to lose. We’re not quite sure what it is. So we just keep everything.
I think, you know, as I finished my career at the library, I was sorting through, you know, decades of stuff. A lot of it just needed to go, but what am I going to keep so that my children and their children will know who I was? You know, that was a wonderful project to think of. So, you know, hopefully they’ll tell good stories about me, but, you know, all the other kinds as well. I think, you know, this is the age of Marie Kondo. If it doesn’t bring you joy, get rid of it. I struggle with that because, you know, we need those things. We need to have placeholders for ourselves. A little bit of clutter I think is a good thing. And, you know, sad to say if you’re trying to keep your place clean and neat.
Cherie Harder: So an interesting question from Marlene Cameron, and Marlene asked, “Can you speak concerning the practice of writing your spiritual autobiography, such as in the Ignatian ‘graced history,’ in light of our tendency to reimagine or rewrite our own past? How can we curb that tendency and begin to trust our memory with our own story?”
Margaret Bendroth: I, yeah, I’ve never actually written a spiritual autobiography. I’m not old enough. And again, you know, I learned a lot from the congregational tradition, you know, that comes from the Puritans and up through the 19th-century. And the central tenet of that faith—you know, Puritans have been denigrated and stereotyped—was that, and this is how I explain it to be, that God speaks most clearly to people gathered under covenant. And so, you know, I’ve read, you know, been on committees, read ordination papers and spiritual autobiographies, and I felt like, you know, well, this should have started out, “Well, God and I sat down and decided what I believed.” And you know, you need the witness of the community. You know, you need other people to help you know who you were. You know, you just can’t sit down in solitary and do it. And we’re all kind of too proud to do that, I think in some ways.
And so I’m a little bit leery of, you know— We all have this idea of, you know— I struggle with this authenticity. You know, that to find the authentic me, I need to get rid of everything out there and just delve deep into myself and, you know, and just find that nub of who I really am. And now to the ancients and to people a century ago, they’re like, “Why are you doing that? If you want to know who you really are, look at where you stand within your community, what you give to it, what you mean. Where you contribute, where you might not contribute.” And so authenticity, you know, is something that other people give to you. That they recognize you, they see you. You’re authentic, like a coin. You know, someone else has authenticated that. And so, you know, I’ll probably never write a spiritual autobiography because, you know, it wouldn’t be edifying for me or anyone else. But, you know, we just have this idea that we’re so individualistic in the way that we think about faith. And, you know, we’re all, you know, this is part of the parameters of our conversation today that, you know, I think that— it’s hard.
Cherie Harder: So we’ll take one more question, and it’s always a good idea to end with a discussion of love, and our question from Sarah George enables us to do this. She quotes 1 Corinthians 13:5, which describes love as keeping no record of wrongs. And Sarah asked, “I appreciate the dangers of forgetting history, but do you think there are occasions where love requires leaving a page or two blank?”
Margaret Bendroth: Yeah, yeah, I know. And I’m married to a minister, and I’ve given my talk on the spiritual practice of remembering in churches and, you know, talking about remembering, you can just see the color leaving the minister’s face when you’re telling the people that they need to remember. Because, you know, the people have a hard time letting things go in churches and in our lives. And I, yes, absolutely, there, you know— the spiritual practice that I think has spoken to me a lot lately is just letting go. You know, how do you engage in contemplation and deep prayer? You have to let go, let go, let go, let go, let go. And, in some cases, bring forgiveness, you know. You don’t forget. You never will. You can’t. It’s there, it happened to you, it’s in your bones. But you can approach it with grace towards yourself and towards the other person. You know, this is something that we’re all learning constantly. And you know what a wonderful question, Sarah, to kind of wrap this up on. Yes, this all has to be done with grace and love. I have a— one of my “spiritual practice of remembering” sermons that I do is on 1 Corinthians 13. You know, what would it mean to love your ancestors? And I think that’s a wonderful, you know, that’s really the nub of it in some ways.
Cherie Harder: Well, Peggy, thanks so much. This has been a delight.
Margaret Bendroth: Oh, well, when I was thinking about this conversation, what came to mind was a piece that C.S. Lewis wrote in 1939. It’s in that book of essays The Weight of Glory, and it’s called “Learning in Wartime.” And he was speaking—this is 1939—he’s speaking to a group of Oxford students about the life of the mind and being well aware that this is, you know, not a time— There’s so much horrible things going on. You know, how can we even contemplate living a life of reflection and particularly history? And so he— I’ll just read a little bit of it. He said, “What is the use of beginning a task when we can have so little chance of finishing? Or even if we ourselves should not happen to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we? How can we continue to take an interest in these placid operations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?” And he’s, you know, he found spiritual comfort in the historical long view. History was, you know, we need this more than ever. He said, “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. If our ancestors had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until all was secure, the search would never happen. Most of all,” he said, “we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future and yet need something to set against the present to remind us that what seems utterly certain today is merely temporary fashion.” And I repeat that to myself many days when I wake up and read the news.
Cherie Harder: Peggy, thank you. It’s been great to talk with you.
Margaret Bendroth: Thank you so much.
Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you joining us online. We hope you have a very happy Advent season and a great weekend.