Monday, January 27, 2014

Nothing new under the sun?


The week between Christmas and New Year's, I spent some of time digitally scanning 35mm slides that my father-in-law had taken over the course of about forty-years. The slides recorded his life's journey. They recorded places to which he had travelled, people he had known, his well-loved family, and his ministry. While I processed the slides, my thoughts drifted not only over the events and people he photographed but also over how dramatically technology has changed in the last two centuries.

Before the Civil War, photography was rare; in the latter half of the nineteenth century, photography remained too difficult and expensive for most amateurs; professionals took the preponderance of photographs. Then, inventive individuals such as George Eastman, founder of Kodak, lowered the cost and simplified the process. Photography soared in affordability and popularity.

Today, film is increasingly difficult to obtain. The Kodak Corporation is struggling to survive. Cameras are almost all digital; stand-alone cameras are increasingly rare as people use cameras built into a cellphone, tablet, or other device. A replacement bulb for a 35mm slide projector – if you can find one – is costly. A few of the sales clerks from whom I sought information about scanners with which to digitize 35mm slides did not know what a 35mmn slide was. Unsurprisingly, I found more information and better prices for slide scanners on the internet.

So, is the book of Ecclesiastes wrong? Are there some new things under the sun?

People take and cherish photographs because human memories are fallible and incomplete. Furthermore, neuroscientists have demonstrated that human memory actually degrades over time. Yet, past moments and the memories of those moments define who I am, what I have done, and help me to recall people I love or who are important to me.

Before photography, people treasured other mementos, items such as a painted portrait, lock of hair, article of clothing, or piece of furniture. People sometimes passed mementos from one generation to the next as a means of preserving their identity and heritage. With the advent of photography, such keepsakes became increasingly rare. Photographs are more affordable, transportable, and easier to share. Perhaps most important, photographs offer a fuller, richer, way to recall precious memories.

This desire to cherish our links with the past seems constant. Technology has changed, but the underlying human motivation to hold on to cherished memories that shape and inform one's identity has remained constant. This is not new.

The anamnesis – the part of the Eucharistic prayer that recalls Jesus' life, death, and resurrection – is important precisely because it preserves our link with Jesus. We have no photographs of Jesus and no keepsakes (unless one accepts as genuine alleged artifacts of the true cross, the shroud of Turin, or other such items of highly dubious historicity). Our connection to Jesus is verbal, perhaps fittingly so given the gospel of John's portrayal of Jesus as the Word of God.

When Jesus seems distant, or unreal, the anamnesis (or, remembrance) that informs and shapes our Christian identity can helpfully center on the life of a saint, i.e., a person in whose life we, or at least some Christians, have seen or heard God's word en-fleshed. In our remembrance, we can experience anew God's presence and love, exactly as recalling other cherished memories enables us to renew that part of our identity and heritage.

My father-in-law died a decade ago. His widow thinks that my digitizing his 35mm slides would have delighted him because the digital images are so much easier to store, see, and share than are his antiquated and deteriorating 35mm slides.

I wonder if these changes are portents of the future. The information age offers hope that the next generation can live more fully at a lower environmental cost. Humans will still need shelter, clothes, furniture, and kitchens. But the cherished possessions that make us who we are – art, music, books, entertainment, memories, and much more – will all be digital, enabling people to live in smaller yet more comfortable domiciles. Perhaps a season of twenty-first century content focused humans will follow the twentieth century's season of conspicuous consumption. This is just one sign of hope that I discern for our creating a better, greener, richer, and more peaceful world.

As the 2014 begins, many of us make resolutions of things we want to do (or not do!) this year. Our memories can transform life's moments from disconnected dots into a ray, a trajectory anchored by birth at one end. What is the trajectory of your life, i.e., toward what (or whom) is your life aimed? In other words, what is your spiritual anamnesis?

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