07.28.2023 – Barbies, Bombs, and Black-and-Whites

The first few rows of my third grade class picture. 37 kids, one teacher. And, yes, I am in the photo.

A friend from long, long ago recently posted some black and white classroom photos from our shared years at Northmont Elementary School on his Facebook page.  Though I was not in Jim’s third grade class, I recognized most of the faces in the photo even if I did not remember most of the names.  I was impressed by the commentors who did remember every face and every name. I rummaged around for my own black and white third grade class picture, and found it.  Again, I recognize the faces but don’t remember all the names.

The photos were taken 64 years ago this fall – a long time ago.  Remembering is sometimes good just for the sake of remembering. I have no idea what has become of most of the students in those photos – what joys and what sorrows, what successes and what disappointments they have encountered since 1959.  I don’t need to know. There’s enough reward in the remembering. Remembering can be a good thing in and of itself..

For some of us, though, memories are not rewarding. We may need to acknowledge the bully and the bullied in the third grade classroom (I think we were pretty bully-free, but I might revise that memory if someone tells me otherwise).  Sometimes, however, we are tempted to revise what we remember of the past to suit our understanding of the present. We might make bullies where there were none.

Two recent films, neither of which I have seen, may fall into the (falsely) revised memories category. At first glance it’s hard to imagine two movies with such different subjects. Again, I haven’t seen Barbie or Oppenheimer. The subject of the first is a plastic doll first introduced the year I was in third grade, and the subject of the second is the man who was responsible for the development of the atomic bomb.  Come to think of it, I remember Northmont Elementary School had signs pointing us to designated fallout shelters, and by third grade we were practicing those duck and cover drills in case an atomic bomb fell nearby.

Barbie and Oppenheimer have opened to good reviews, but, it being 2023, both are being attacked by the revisionists or attacked as revisionism.  What if we had a culture war and no one showed up?  Anyway, some have charged Barbie with revisionism saying it imposes 21st Century feminism on an iconic plastic toy that’s been around since the late 1950s. Others are accused of revisionism as they look back on the morality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the lens of their progressive or nationalist sensibilities, circa 2023.

We live in a time of rampant revisionism rather than the enjoyment of the simple rewards of remembering. For instance, some revisionists would replace 1776 with 1619 and others would have every Founding Father a faithful member of a church just like the ones we attend. In fact, our history is much more complicated than one or the other. We fail to remember 1776 and 1619 at our own peril.  Indeed, the Founding Fathers were a diverse lot, though it might be worth remembering that the most enlightened of the agnostic Fathers were typically more “Christian” than the “good Catholic” or darling of the Evangelicals likely to be elected president in 2024.

Remember and remember well.  What was the name of that boy third from the left on the top row?  And revise only as necessary.  The whole cherry-tree-gate thing may have been disinformation.  You know, Russian bots and all that.

So, remember well and revise as necessary. Scripture adds one more step to remember and revise: repent.

The psalmist in Psalm 106 remembers the past and the people’s revising of their memories.  He recalls how not long after they had been set free from bondage in Egypt, they began to revise the story of their slavery.  On the Sinai side of the Red Sea, they complain to Moses about the hardships of the exodus and say of their time in Egypt, “there we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Exodus 16).  God gives them manna, but they keep revising their memories. In Numbers 11 they long wistfully for the good old days, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” The revised version of slavery in Egypt was pretty comfortable.

The psalmist then adds his commentary: Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness. Psalm 106:6 (ESV)

Remember well, revise as necessary, and repent of the wickedness we have done.  Remember the good that came of 1776 and revise your memories to include the enlightened agnostics among the Founders – and their biblically informed way of thinking.  Remember 1619, if not necessarily the New York Times version of it.  Repent of the evil of slavery and racism and live, not just think, in a biblically informed way.

Remember, revise, repent.

For now, it’s kind of fun to remember third grade.