False Memories

Earlier this week, we ate matzah and told the story of Haggadah. Today, we attended Easter services, where we affirmed the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.

Unique among world religions, Christianity and Judaism are obsessed with history. Jewish fathers are commanded to tell Haggadah to their children, and the story is meant to be taken as actual historical fact. Christ’s resurrection is the central historical fact of the Christian faith. As Paul said, if Christ is not risen, the entire Christian faith falls apart. These historical events define the collective identity: By definition, Jews are the people who remember that we were delivered from Egypt, and Christians are people who remember that Christ died for our sins and rose again.

Is Your Life a Lie?

This raises a very interesting issue. Your identity is the sum total of your personal memories and your history within your community of peers. If you suddenly developed complete amnesia, relocated to a place where nobody knew you, and had your brain loaded up with detailed false memories; you would, for all practical purposes, be a different person. If people from your old life somehow managed to find you, and tried to convince you that your new identity was a sham, you would no more believe them than if they accused you of being Napoleon.

Such involuntary identity swaps are quite rare for individuals. Slightly more common are individual identity swaps that begin as fraud, but become indistinguishable from truth in the mind of the impostors. When the authorities first accused Clark Rockefeller of being Christian Gerhartsreiter, he probably thought they were the crazy ones.

Things get especially interesting when the identity swap spans generations. If we weren’t there to witness the Exodus or Christ’s resurrection, we have to trust the testimony passed down to us. Imagine that you are growing up in Buenos Aires, believing that you are the grandchild of a refugee from WWII Europe. One day, you learn that your grandfather is an impostor who adopted a false identity shortly before having your father. Your grandfather was actually a Nazi war criminal known for conducting experiments on twins. What does this revelation do to your sense of identity? What if you learn that the patriarch of your nation was an impostor who stole the birthright from his twin brother, thousands of years ago? What if, like the protagonist of the film “Down In the Delta“, you learn that your family patriarch is actually a nickname for a piece of jewelry stolen violently from one of your ancestor’s slave masters?

Why Not Fake It?

Many Christians who are alive today can trace ancestry back to the Saxons, who in recent history were converted en masse to Christianity by Charlemagne, around the same time that Bulan was converting his people en masse to Judaism. It’s virtually certain that Bulan’s ancestors were not present at the Exodus — but who are we to say that his modern descendants have no right to tell Haggadah> to their children? Perhaps, like the Catholic convert to Judaism who went by the name “Moses Ashkenazi“, these recent adopters of ancient collective memories are the most zealous.

When faced with the realization that our collective memories are often adopted from others, there is a temptation to “improve” things. If Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, why can’t we likewise defraud our way through life? Why not just make up whatever myths we think will be most beneficial to our children, and pass them along?

Paul’s Twist

Paul’s commentary on the resurrection slams the door on this impulse. With Paul, as with Moses Ashkenazi, there can always be the suspicion that he was adopting a secondhand myth out of utilitarian motives. We know that Paul never knew Christ in the flesh. Instead, he based his conversion on his religious experience of a blinding light, the testimony of others, and his belief that all of creation testified to Christ. However, despite never having met Christ in the flesh, Paul felt confident enough to base his entire faith on Christ’s resurrection.

Seen through this lens, 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 takes on new meaning. Paul isn’t saying that his faith in Christ is contingent upon his sober judgment of the historicity of the resurrection. Paul is saying that his faith in Christ convinces him that the historicity of the resurrection is beyond question. The difference is enormous.

To Paul, Christ resurrected is the only history that harmonizes with his personal experience, the testimony of his peers, and his understanding of the natural world. In other words, Christ resurrected is the only history that is consistent with Paul’s identity. If Paul were to reject Christ resurrected, he would no longer be Paul.

This is quite the opposite of Paul making a choice between two options. It is not Paul doing the choosing, but God. Paul is not soberly evaluating the evidence and deciding whether or not Christ was resurrected. Paul’s personal memories, his history with his peers, and his innate understanding of the world, render him incapable of believing otherwise. If Paul were transported by time machine to the tomb of Christ, and saw that Christ was not resurrected, Paul would undoubtedly conclude that the time machine was defective. Paul has not made a choice to become God’s son. Instead, in a flash of light on the road to Damascus, God proclaimed a decree to Paul: “You are my son; today I have become your father”.

What memory could be truer than that?

The Death of Nick Charles

Today I read that a modern Nick Charles, the famous CNN sportscaster, is dying. Nick has a five year-old daughter who he’ll soon leave behind, and he’s using the few days he has left to spend time with her and record messages for her to remember him by. It’s a touching story that most parents can empathize with.

When I was 10 or 11, my father ended up working the night shift for a year. Because of his schedule, we would only see him on weekends. My parents put a notebook on the counter near the phone so that we kids could write letters to dad each day, telling him what happened while he was asleep. When we woke up in the morning, there would be new letters from our father, responding to what we had written, and talking about his “day”. I’m not sure if those notebooks still exist, but I remember them as a case study in interacting with a father who is not physically present.

Our letters and words can allow us to be present even after we’re dead. For parents, the way that Ken Pulliam’s children, Tiffany and Thom, address him in the present tense on his Facebook memorial page, is especially poignant. And what parent hasn’t experienced the impulse to leave something behind for our youngest children, “just in case”? The story of CNN’s Nick Charles highlights this most important fact about being human. Civil Twilight’s song, “Letters from the Sky” captures this fundamental human impulse, and Aaron Carl’s song “Sky” was a letter of sorts to his father, who died while Aaron was still young.

These examples reveal something deep about human nature. We hate to think of young children being raised without their parents. Our deepest desire is to find ways to always be truly present, even when physically absent.

The Amiri Baraka piece is a letter to his child, but an exceedingly odd sort of letter. His poem, “The Death of Nick Charles”, is part of his “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note”. The preface to the preface is a letter to his daughter, but the book of poems is a preface to a suicide note. And it’s not just any suicide note — it’s a note that will take twenty-volumes. Most parents can identify with CNN’s Nick Charles, who is recording letters for his daughter to read after his death. But few parents easily identify with Amiri Baraka, who plans a twenty-volume suicide note for his daughter.

Last week, my wife watched the movie Gattaca for the first time. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, featuring a dystopian future where DNA completely determines people’s futures. The protagonist is a genetically inferior “in-valid” who purchases the superior DNA of a frustrated “valid” to accelerate his own career. My wife enjoyed the movie right up until the end, where the frustrated “valid” (with the superior DNA) immolates himself, after extracting enough biological material to allow the “in-valid” to live for the rest of his life. Before immolating himself, he writes a letter to his client/friend, explaining that he is leaving behind enough DNA to last for “two lifetimes”, and saying that he is going on a long trip. At this point, my wife was incredulous: “Why would he do that?!? It makes no sense!

DNA is a sequence of only 4 bases, represented by the letters G, A, T, and C. In storing two lifetimes worth of biological specimens, the “valid” is composing a sort of twenty-volume suicide note, made of his DNA. After the “valid” kills himself, these letters remain with the “in-valid” protagonist, guaranteeing him a better life. Throughout the movie, we grow more sympathetic to the “valid”, and his final suicide shows him definitively to live up to the promise of his superior genetics. It’s the most heroic scene of the movie.

Of course, the letters presume that we can freeze things in time. CNN’s Nick Charles can’t guarantee that his daughter will be the sort who cares about what he has to say, and his recorded messages may not be so relevant in 15 years. A tragically predictable example of this is the sexual abuse scandal recently brought to light within ABWE.

Twenty years ago, a 12 year-old missionary girl in Bangladesh was sexually abused by a trusted missionary doctor, who apparently had abused many other children without being caught. When the girl exposed the abuse at age 14, the missionary leaders forced her to sign a “confession” admitting that she was to blame, and relocated the pedophile doctor to a place where he continued to practice medicine on children. While extracting the “confession” from the victim, the church leaders isolated her from her parents and refused her requests to talk with parents, while lying to her about her parents’ role. The girl was being victimized by someone she should have been able to trust, while her parents were kept absent. When the full details of the scandal came to light a few weeks ago, people were understandably outraged. The comments section of that blog post is like one long extended letter from all of the people who knew the girl, apologizing to her for letting her down, and crying out for justice on her behalf. Her parents, especially, expressed anguish at having been separated.

The predictable part, however, is what happened when all of these people tried to contact the girl, 20 years after letting her down. Everyone remembered the 14 year-old girl, and wrote the letters that they thought she needed to hear. But they apparently didn’t consider the fact that she might have moved on. When they finally reached her, the only response they received was, “The man never hurt me. Please don’t contact me ever again”

When you write letters to your children, you’re writing to whom you imagine that your children will be. And you’ll likely be wrong. Writing the letters may give us an illusion of control (and self-sacrifice provides the ultimate illusion of control). Such action may signal something about ourselves, but rarely have the impact on our children that we expect.

Far from being a cause for hopelessness, though, this explains a primary reason that I chose to have children. To help illustrate the point, we need to take a short diversion to James Gleick’s new book, “The Information”.

The book is a tour de force, chronicling the rise of the most significant thing to happen in human history: our dawning awareness of “information”. From the ancient acquisition of language to poetry and metaphor, talking drums, and on to signals theory and bioinformatics. Our dawning ability to see the unity (the word “information” didn’t even exist 50 years ago) is a phase change in human existence. Many people still don’t realize what has happened, and it’s astonishing to think that this new phase was groaning and straining to be born since long before humans existed.

One person who saw clear glimpses of this future was Ada Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron. Gleick’s book shares some of the letters she wrote to Charles Babbage, showing that her vision extended far beyond Babbage’s revolutionary “analytical engine”. Ada was a tragic figure. Her father abandoned her shortly after birth, and she never met him, and cancer left her unable to have any children of her own. Perhaps his poems gave her a sense of what kind of man he was, and what letters he would have wanted to write to her. And perhaps the intensity revealed in her letters was motivated in part by a desire to make him proud. And you can also imagine the letters being written to the future – to the child she could not know.

Abandoning your own child is a terrible thing, but having a child is ultimately an act of praise and affirmation. You know that your child will face hardship, suffering, and will eventually die. By choosing to have the child anyway, you are affirming that goodness endures; that it is all worth it in the end. This is what the faith of our fathers told us, and it is what we can now see clearly in “information”. What is good was there all along, although we could not see it. It cannot be unborn, and it endures. The very act of having a child speaks volumes, and is the first and best letter you ever write to your child.

Gleick sums it up nicely when he explains that it is pointless to grieve for the lost books burned in the library at Alexandria:

Vengeful conquerors burn books as if the enemy‚Äôs souls reside there, too. … You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.