Review: Cryptomnesia-how a forgotten memory could save the church

May 24th, 2014

With the church in crisis, traditional religion on the decline, and technology both shrinking and  flattening our experience of the world, pastor and author Christine Chakoian has good news: we’ve been here before, even though we have forgotten it.

This sense of encountering something we have seen before as though it were something new is called “cryptomnesia,” and it offers the guiding premise for Chakoian’s book. The Christian church, she argues, should be able to recognize its current struggles in its early history. The  first-century church also dealt with new means of connection (via the Roman roads), a broadening knowledge of other cultures, philosophies, and religions, and a disorienting rate of change. By looking at how these first generations of Christians addressed their challenges, we might  find answers for our own.

The current manifestation of the crisis is different, of course. Rather than Roman roads, we are connected by modern travel and by the internet. The options for spiritual fulfillment have multiplied as a result, and traditional denominations have seen a precipitous decline.

In this swirl of apparent disintegration, Christians are faced with tasks similar to those faced by our spiritual ancestors. For starters, we must sift through our theological inheritance, determining what things must stay and what can be discarded, much as the early church did when considering baptism and circumcision.

We must also decide how to organize in terms of authority within community. Just as the Roman roads undercut hierarchy, technology and cultural movements have eroded postmodern notions of authority. First-century Christians developed a set of “household rules”—practices such as valuing individual gifts and rooting community life in love—that can inform our own struggles to hold together despite changing concepts of authority.

Early Christians also learned how to become cultural interpreters of their faith. As our world shifts into post-Christendom, most of the faith institutions that have marked Christians over the past several centuries are crumbling. We have to learn hot to re-engage people in a secular, pluralistic climate. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17) shows how the apostle engaged the culture as he found it rather than trying to force it into old models.

Finally, the early church had to find a way to hold together and honor each other’s ministry despite profound differences. The New Testament bears witness to conflict over law and grace, authority, moral boundaries, and so on. While far from perfect, these early believers were able to maintain connection because faithfulness to the gospel trumped whatever differences they had.

How do we translate the wisdom of the early church into our context? Chakoian does not imply it will be easy, but she does offer some clear premises. In particular, she urges patterns of community, humility, and mutual discernment as ways to navigate the strange but historically familiar religious milieu in which we find ourselves.

Christine Chakoian is the lead pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forrest, Illinois. She is a host for the twenty-four-week, video-based Covenant Bible Study and a writer and editor for Feasting on the Word.

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