Friday, May 6, 2011

Inheriting a Family Tradition of the oddities of the contemporary situation is that what it means to be a person, to be free and/or autonomous, is to be capable of creating or "choosing" our "identity". Thus, we do not think of ourselves as inheriting a family tradition or a group identity with which we must learn to live. Rather, our particular story is that we have no history and thus we can pick and choose among the many options offered by our culture. I suspect that this may account for the tremendous pressure many feel today in choosing a vocation -- for it is our vocations, or perhaps better our jobs, that provide us with the basic account of who we are -- teacher, doctor lawyer, and so on. And since it seems we "choose" to undertake one of these tasks rather than another we have the presumption that we have created our own story or "self". - Stanley Hauerwas

I help at a weekly after-schools club in Twinbrook, which is on the outskirts of Belfast city. It is a Catholic community, which is its defining characteristic - its identity, really. Such is life in Northern Ireland. I didn't quite know what this meant in concrete terms for the first while, other than there being the presence of a Catholic church in the parish that people attended. But over time I've begun to understand the story that has been chosen for and told to the teenagers with whom I hang out.

The first incident was about 6 months ago, when I asked one of the guys what soccer team he supports. "Celtic" was the automatic response. I asked him how they got on at the weekend. He didn't know. I asked him how they were doing in the league. He didn't know.

The second incident was a conversation with a couple of them. They told me about throwing bottles and stones at police vans that drive through the neighbourhood. I asked them "Why?" One of the guys said to me, "Haven't you heard about the troubles around here?" I said I had, but I wondered how they knew about the old stories from before their time. "My Daddy tells them to me". Here we have a prime of example of "inheriting a family tradition", for better or worse.

The final incident was a walk up to the Catholic church for a youth event. I had never properly ventured beyond the confines of the school grounds. so I didn't have much of a picture of what the community as a whole looked like. On my way, however, the presentness of the community's history became clear as day. There on the side of a house was a mural of a 12 year old girl who was "murdered by British troops" in 1989. On the side of the community centre were drawings of the hunger strikers, who would always be "remembered".

This community lives by the memory of its history. Its members are formed by remembrance. They are each of them story-shaped, living in the richness of a tradition. Hauerwas's critique -- though relevant to not a few of us in the West -- does not touch Twinbrook.

My question since discovering what was right in front of me is this: How do you begin to share the gospel in this place? What does the story of Jesus have to say to the stories that these boys have grown up hearing from family and friends? Are they forced to utterly abandon the narrative that has been so crucial to their formation as people -- a "forcing" that has happened in the Republic among Catholics who have become Protestants Christians? Surely not, I hope. Clearly we are called not to live in denial of the past, but do we "count it all as loss for the sake of of Christ"? But what does Paul mean by this, and how does it affect the outlook we have on our personal history?

Answers, more questions, and anything else welcome in the comments.


  1. How about "Jesus made my story his story so that he could make his story my story"? I heard someone say that.

  2. Here's a comment for you - my first, though I've been reading without commenting for a few months now...

    This entry makes me think of Miroslav Volf's work in The End of Memory. It's been a while since I've read it, but a couple of things come to mind:

    First, it's important that we remember 'rightly,' which is to say that the things we call to mind actually happened the way we recall them. Perhaps some of the community members aren't remembering rightly and are passing on stories instead of histories. Time and certain personal biases can certainly have this impact. Or perhaps they are remembering rightly, in which case their histories demand a wider audience, to prevent others from remembering wrongly themselves.

    And second, Volf discusses the concept of remembering within a broader story of remembrance. I pulled this quote from the opening line of Chapter Six: "To learn the right lessons from memories of wrongs suffered, we need to place those memories into the framework of the sacred memory of the Exodus and Passion..." How do our stories (the stories passed on to these youth, say) relate to the story of God's involvement in our redemption?

    I think there is plenty in the stories of our faith to give meaning to the histories of individuals and communities. Being careful that we don't try to replace their histories with a new story is key...the new story pulls the histories in and makes sense of them.

    And that is, perhaps, quite enough for a first comment...

  3. That's very helpful.

    "...we don't try to replace their histories with a new story is key...the new story pulls the histories in and makes sense of them."

    I really like this. Some of the Christianity I've learned has talked about salvation in terms of God looking on us and not actually seeing us but instead seeing Jesus. Whatever the merits of this way of thinking, it has the tendency to completely diminish our histories. But the goal of salvation is not to diminish our histories but to judge and redeem our histories, and as you say, to incorporate them into the new story of Jesus.