Oral History, Augustine's Definition of Community, and Good Friday

St. Augustine famously argued that community is created as people with common affections for something mutually esteemed have opportunity to communicate about and celebrate those common affections. Oliver O’Donovan’s book Common Objects of Love was an exposition of this idea for modern culture. This has profoundly shaped my understanding of community, as a pastor and as a librarian. For the latter context, my approach to the library’s contribution to the seminary where I serve has been transformed and is now driven by attempts to further our constituency’s opportunities to more deeply discover and communicate about those distinctives which drew the community together in the first place. Echoes of Augustine are hard for me to silence as I consider the use of oral history in the study of communities. It seems to me that if Augustine was right, and I believe he was, part of oral history is the attempt to discover what a community considers to be its distinctives and how that community communicates and celebrates those distinctives as a part of building their sense of true community.

This is my mental context when considering, for example, “popular memory as an object of study” (Perks and Thomson, 75ff). Setting aside for now the discussion of dominant memory and public representations of history, to which the implications of Augustine’s arguments are clear, do not Augustine’s precepts on community also bear directly on those more private narratives? One cannot exist totally in isolation from the other. Indeed, they inform and shape each other, mutually contributing to this thing called community. Oral history explores how this happens, prods the private memory for how it differs from and contributes to the public memory. It is in this way that we can avoid treating the object of history as ‘the past’ (Perks and Thomson, 84).

Ethical dilemmas can still be problematic, especially in regard to the interviewer’s relationship to the community whose constituency is being interviewed. The example of feminism is noted in the text, as is the correlation of this dilemma to the ongoing discussion between historians and anthropologists about methodologies. Perks and Thomson also point out that “oral historians have increasingly examined language ‘as the invisible force that . . . gives meaning to historical events.'” (Perks and Thomson, 94). I find this to be a helpful point of discussion. Of course, even the word ‘meaning’ has its own hermeneutical baggage: is meaning determined by the individual, thus allowing for a multiplicity of meanings, or by the community, or by some Other; but the point is still well taken. A community is shaped and developed (present tense) by events of the past by its interpretive communication of those events. An important point for oral histories to explore.

It is not without notice that I write these things on Good Friday, among the most important of days for my Community, and one for which disagreements in ‘meaning’ abound. Meaning is rooted in the author’s intention, and the intended meaning of historical events is determined by the One who sovereignly rules over it. In the case of Good Friday, thankfully, as also of Easter, the meaning is clearly set out for us in the clearest of ways — communicated by He who orchestrated it.

Romans 5:8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (ESV)