College Students and Cultural Memory: Bible-Believing Christians and the Academic Approach to the Bible

By Paul V.M. Flesher
Religious Studies Program
University of Wyoming
July 2011

Those of us who teach academic courses in Biblical Studies—whether we call them the History or Archaeology of Ancient Israel, the Formation of the Early Church, or just Introduction to the Old or New Testament—are familiar with the phenomenon of students with a strong Christian background and much personal Bible study who take our courses and suddenly find themselves struggling. Often the struggle is accompanied by resistance, not to the material per se, but to the way it is presented. The historical, literary, and/or archaeological approaches used in the course, so familiar to us, seem to repel these students.

It is easy to dismiss this phenomenon as religious naiveté or an inability to take an objective view. But as teachers, our task is to educate all of our students to the best of our ability, whatever their intellectual or emotional starting point with the topic. If we could better understand the dynamics of their interaction with the course, we could ease their difficulties a little.

For Bible-believing students, an academic approach to the study of Scripture may constitute an attack on their personal identity. It works to recast their “cultural memory”—a key component of their psycho-social makeup which identifies their past (their personal pre-history, if you will) and locates their place in its progression. A course presenting a literary or historical Introduction to the New Testament, for example, can become for these students a threat to their self-understanding and to their ties with their religious community.

The sociological concept of collective or cultural memory first described by Maurice Halbwachs in the 1950, in his book, The Collective Memory [edition: New York: Harper Colophon, 1980]. It has since gained traction in a number of different fields, sometimes under related terms such as social memory, collective memory and mnemonic memory.1 We will use it here to explicate how a Christian student who has faith in the Bible—often from an Evangelical background—finds that an academic Scripture course challenges them not just by presenting alternative interpretations of the Bible but by undermining the cultural memory which they share with their fellow believers.

Memories shape an individual’s identity. Frequently we think of memories as recollections of events, activities, or experiences that happened in our own lives. Some of these experiences happened to us alone and constitute private memories, while other events were experienced by other people and thus comprise shared memories. Often many shared memories take place with identifiable groups of people, whether small groups like a family or kindergarten class or large groups such as citizens of a nation, members of a religion, or even fans of a World Cup soccer team. These experienced memories are not cultural memories, although a few may ultimately enter that classification.

Most cultural memories, by contrast, do not recall experienced events, but instead refer to events that happened in the past, usually to people conceived of as one’s ancestors or forerunners. These “memories” must be taught in some way, whether through formal classes, informal instruction or storytelling, or through reading. They constitute acquired knowledge rather than recollections of experienced events. Cultural memories differ from other knowledge of the past in that the events selected comprise pivotal moments that shape the identity of the group preserving their memory, whether this is an religious, ethnic, national or familial group. These are not just any events from the past, but events that are particularly relevant to the social group passing on the cultural memory. To a Frenchman, the revolution of 1789 would constitute a national cultural memory, but the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs would not. It is one thing to learn history, it is quite another to acquire a cultural memory.

There does not need to be a direct connection between the group teaching the cultural memory and the group in the past whose events they identify with; the connection can be constructed solely by the people creating the cultural memory. Religions often do this. For example, Islam adopted both the Israelite prophets and the Christian Jesus as part of its cultural memory of Allah’s interactions with humanity prior to Muhammad’s mission. Adam, David and Jesus are considered prophets of Allah.

Since an event must have happened to living people before it can become a cultural memory, cultural memories must have taken place in some people’s lifetime. Such an event begins as a shared memory which becomes transformed into a cultural memory. The key point is that the event’s memory serves to unify a group of people—such as members of a country, an ethnic group or a religion—and to shape their common identity. This may be a traumatic event (such as the Holocaust, a destructive tsunami or a war) or a remarkable achievement (such as landing on the moon or the attainment of a democratic government in a nation formerly ruled by a dictator). By contrast, the event may not be at all notable at the time, becoming an identity-shaping cultural memory only when a later group of people interprets it as such.

With this understanding of cultural memory, let us return to the problem of the academic Bible course and the religious student struggling in it. Let’s imagine an Old Testament Introduction, just to simplify the discussion. Knowledgeable Bible-believing Christian students entering this course will bring a broad familiarity with the contents of the Old Testament. They will see its books as a single work, describing God’s interaction with the Israelites. As part of their cultural memory, they will identify with the heroes of those stories—Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, David, Isaiah, etc.—and see them as examples for ethical behavior. These Christian students will identify the God they believe in as the God that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worshipped; the actions and choices of those Patriarchs thus model for these students how to interact with their own God.

This identification comes from Christianity’s adoption of Judaism as its forerunner religion. The New Testament writer Paul formulated a theology identifying the new Christians with the Israelites, arguing that the Church replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. Israel’s history thus became the (pre-)history of Christianity. This view became a key Christian doctrine and a Christian cultural memory. In sermons, Bible studies and Sunday schools throughout the Christian world, believers have learned the history of God’s relationship with Israel, studied the stories as examples of ethical behavior (or not), memorized the laws and rules God gave the Israelites and understood that material as applying to them. In other words, Christians reading the Old Testament make the history and stories about ancient Israel into cultural memories, memories which in turn shape their own identity. Learning about Israel through reading and studying the Old Testament tells Christians who they are.

So it is not surprising that the church-going, Bible-believing students thus hold the cultural memory of ancient Israel as their own. It is not only who they are, but it identifies their closest friends and associates, the church members. And of course it defines their relationship with the divine being, God, who is described in that cultural memory.

And what happens in the academic Old Testament course? The first thing it does is to “objectify” the biblical text by approaching it with the same methods we would use to study any ancient material: history, literature, archaeology, philology, etc. To the student we are saying that this is common, ordinary history; it is not related to you or about you at all. It is only as relevant to you as eighteenth-century Norwegian history or the discovery of Papua New Guinea. The course denies a key aspect of their identity.

The second thing that takes place in such a course is to introduce new interpretations. Many of these will be seen by religious students as enhancing and augmenting their biblical knowledge, but others will be understood as contradicting what they have been taught, or in other words, as attacking the validity of their cultural memory. This may take place in something as small as a single word, such as the difference in Isaiah 7:14 between “virgin” in the Septuagint text and “maiden” in the Masoretic text. Or it may affect their views of biblical heroes, as in asking whether Abraham was insane to attempt to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22. Or it could simply be the inability of historical or archaeological approaches to verify the factuality of events such as the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, the Syro-Ephraimite War, or when Ezra’s activities took place. Casting doubt of any kind upon such cultural memories—particularly those which have most resonance with each individual student— affects their identity as well.

So in the end, my point is that an academic course that aims to teach the material of the Bible in historical, literary or archaeological terms challenges a Bible-believing student not just by offering alternative interpretations of the material, but by challenging their cultural memory. It serves to reify the existence of that cultural memory and introduce the student to its manufactured character, to the realization that there is not a necessary link between a Christian in modern America and the events narrated in the Old Testament millennia ago. The choices made by the religion in which the students were brought up, which they learned without serious challenge, now are transformed from a status of being taken for granted to the realization that they are simply one of a number of possible understandings—and perhaps not the strongest one. That scrutiny in turn forces the student to review and renegotiate their primary personal relationships, certainly to members of the religion, to their friends, and perhaps even to their family. Ultimately, it also impacts how they perceive their relationship to God and to the religion itself.

While I do not think this understanding of the students’ experience should change how and what we teach in our academic courses, it provides insight into the non-academic challenges that affect their performance in the course. Further consideration of this insight may suggest some pedagogical techniques to address this problem to help students be successful in our courses.


1 See the discussion and bibliography in essays by Philip Davies, “Biblical History and Cultural Memory,” ( and Ronald, “Cultural Memory and the Bible,” (http:// here on the Bible and Interpretation website. See also, for example, Eviatar Zerubavel, “Social Memories: Steps to a Sociology of the Past,” Qualitative Sociology 19:3 (1996): 283-299, and “Easter and Passover: On Calendars and Group Identity,” American Sociology Review 47 (1982): 284-289.

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