Remembering and imagination

© Revd Rex A E Hunt
Director of Communications
Assembly Communication Unit

• Published in Ministry Magazine (Winter 1993) on the theme, The bible in ministry, but under a different title.


My desk was a mess. Unopened mail and memos all over the place. That's the price you pay for going on holidays!

As I ploughed through my correspondence over the next couple of days, one letter seemed to keep coming to the top of the pile all the time... "I've been asked by a Christian magazine", the writer said, "to write a story on Christians who have been able to memorise large chunks of the Bible".

Well, that doesn't exactly fit me, but... "Since you are co-ordinator for a network of biblical storytellers I wondered if any of your storytellers have acquired the unique ability to do this".

Now I was interested!

There is much in biblical storytelling as suggested by the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NOBS) which has to do with memory, but there are other aspects to it as well.

(i) For instance, telling a biblical story is more than just reading it from some manuscript. It also involves remembering it. But the story is told orally to enable the sounds and the words to be heard and become an event in our present experience.

One of the co-founders of NOBS International, Tom Boomershine, describes oral biblical storytelling as being similar to an archeological dig.

"We are seeking to hear an ancient story so that we can retell it appropriately. A biblical text records the story's sounds. And as you become sensitive to the patterns of the stories, you can discern the clues to the sounds" (Boomershine 1988: 31).

According to Boomershine until we have experienced the stories "as stories, all arguments about the meaningfulness of 'telling' the stories will be... meaningless abstraction" (Boomershine 1988: 17).

The Christian story came from an oral culture. When the stories were written down it was to assist in the telling of the story. But with the refinement of writing and the advent of printing the 'telling' was silenced, or reduced to a formal and regimented 'reading'. We lost the biblical 'sounds' and 'rhythm'.

(ii) Similarly, memorising the story is for the telling and the retelling, and making connections and resonating with... not for the purposes of mindless regurgitation or to act as a weapon to 'proof-text' someone into faith - like the shopping centre and street corner evangelists still do.

I feel it is safe to say that all of us reading this article have been brought up to traditionally associate memory with the storage of facts. Influenced by both the book and of late, the computer, it has become very easy to describe memory with mechanistic metaphors.  On the other hand, from Sunday school on, memory or memorising meant learning by rote. We even made up some sayings to help us get that prize at the Anniversary service. Take this one for example: 'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Hold my horse while I get on'.

It 'taught' us to remember and to recite the first four books of the New Testament.

Not that we were doing anything original. People like the rhetoricians of Graeco-Roman times had to develop a similar technique to remember their speeches without the use of written notes. So they developed a pattern or formula to enable them to remember - to make the right associations. Our 'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John ditty is such a formula.

So... what is memory7

Memory is active rather than just a passive security box or filing cabinet for things past. We also distort, combine, and reorganise our memories. "Remembering," notes Edmund Bolles, "is an act of imagination... (it) is a creative, constructive process..." (Bolles 1988: xi).

Bolles' work on memory as an act of imagination is interesting - and liberating.

While he offers a valuable history of 'memory studies', it is when he begins to offer some comments on memory's role in enabling us to make sense of our worlds of experience that he is the most challenging. To do so he initiates a conversation on memory in three steps or links of a chain:

(i) Emotional memory,

(ii) Factual memory,

(iii) Interpretive memory.

(i) Emotional memory. Memory is like a chain. Emotional memory is the first link. It creates a desire to know. Thus we remember what we understand; we understand what we pay attention to; we pay attention to what we want.

Memory begins with an 'emotional association' - of pleasure or pain. It helps us learn about ourselves. But memory doesn't stay there.

(ii) Factual memory. Factual memory is the second link in the chain. It allows us to associate things/events outside ourselves. We see something and it reminds us of something else. Recall and recognition, while remaining separate, play an important role.

Factual memory does not enable us to learn about ourselves. "It takes us as we are and judges the world in our terms" (Bolles 1988: 58).

(iii) Interpretive memory. Interpretive memory remembers meanings rather than experiences. Bolles suggests:

"(p)eople interpret events, and they remember their interpretations rather than some more objective account... We remember things according to our understanding of what happened, not according to the way something really occurred" (Bolles 1988: 66, 72).

Thus, interpretive memory organises both the past and the present. And the way people do this organising is through what has been designated as 'chunking' .

Bolles again is helpful:

"(w)e have many tools for preserving the past, but chunks imply that, at best our memories can do no better than our insights. When we remember something, our minds do not consult some file cabinet to check a dossier containing a fixed truth. We imagine what happerted in the past and then we believe our own construction" (Bolles 1988: 83).

It is interpretive memory which makes humans different from other creatures. But it is the chain of emotional, factual and interpretive memory which surprises and enriches us as humans as we seek to cope in the present.

Intrigued by Bolles' comments on memory, a group of six storytellers belonging to the Maine (USA) Chapter of NOBS (Parker 1992: 47) decided to participate in an experiment. They agreed to look at one of the Old Testament stories - the healing of Naaman the Syrian (ii Kings 5).

The experience raised some "provocative questions" - most of which go beyond the scope of this introductory article. However, at the end of their experiment they concluded that memory as imagination rather than as storage "fits much of our experience as a network in learning stories" and "the stories were told... without an intense period of storage followed by anxious retrieval" (Parker 1992: 50 - 51).

And what is the 'experience' of learning stories? May I offer a few pregnant suggestions.

First, storylearning and storytelling are about sharing and resonating. As such they are a 'multivocal' activity.

That is, it has built into the experience the freedom to arrive at more than one opinion or interpretation.

Second, being a present experience, they attempt to take seriously the 'authorship' quality of stories both past (including biblical stories) and present. And this 'authorship' is shaped to a large extent by the many experiences and interpretations of the worlds of the author, rather than suggesting there is only one world to be experienced, and therefore only one story to tell.

And third, they respect the hearers of the story as being capable of and deserving the right to arrive at a conclusion which is their own, and not just that of the teller's (Craddock 1979: 62).

All these suggest a different purpose and educational experience from that commonly associated with the street corner evangelist or, for that matter, with traditional Bible study.

Storytelling and remembering go hand in hand. That is the experience of biblical storytelling, NOBS style. But the remembering is more than mere 'rote' and information. It is about sounds and rhythm and making connections and redescribing and a process which is creative and inventive .

But more important, storytelling and remembering is about 'likelihoods', and being 'open-ended' and 'keeping the conversations going' rather than closing them down with persuasion by argument - even so-called pious biblical argument based on a proof-text zeal.

"I am not after conclusions", writes Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves. "Conclusions are meant to shut... Every conclusion brings the thought process to a halt" (Alves 1990: 9).


Alves, R. A. (1990). The poet, the warrior, the prophet. The Edward Cadbury lectures, 1990. Gt. Britain: London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International.

Bolles, E. B. (1988). Remembering and forgetting. Inquiries into the nature of memory. NY: New York. Walker & Company.

Boomershine, T. E. (1988). Story journey. An invitation to the gospel as storytelling. TEN: Nashville. Abingdon.

Craddock, F. (1979). As one without authority. TN: Nashville. Abingdon.

Parker, K. et al. (1992). "Memory as imagination. An application of Bolles' theory of memory to storylearning" in The Journal of Biblical Storytelling 3, 1, 47 - 52.

 PAGE \* Arabic 1