Before reading any further, I need you to do the following…
- Go to Instagram.
- Type “Berlin Holocaust Memorial” in the search bar.
- Find some cords and make yourself a whip.
Most of us know the story of Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple. The money-changers were grifters. They were officially sanctioned scam-artists ripping off poor people who wanted to simply worship their God. There’s a lot of meaning that can be extracted from this story including all of its important messianic implications. It has become common for some modern readers to see this as a story about justice. That’s not a bad way to read the story I suppose, but it also misses a bigger, more important point. Justice is secondary to sanctity in this story. Any appeals to justice found in this story are hollowed out into mere economics if this point is missed. Perhaps as symbolic representatives of the people of Israel, these money-changers had violated the sanctity of the Temple and therefore the sanctity of their worship. They had rejected their God by secularizing the most sacred of places. “My house shall be a house of prayer.”
It is obviously not a perfect parallel, but there is a relationship between this story and the spectacle of young people from all nations gathering at a Holocaust memorial and turning it into a stage for performative selfies. The contrast between the solemnity of the memorial with the shallowness of the posturing, duck-faced horde is jarring. It’s hard to understand the mindset of a person who sees a monument to human suffering and great evil as an opportunity to say “look at meeeee!” What leads a person to conclude that a day at this place should be treated with the same level of seriousness as a day at the beach or an afternoon at Starbucks?
An easy answer is that we have lost our memory. A memorial alone is not quite enough to keep cultural memory vibrant. I often listen to my music library on shuffle as I’m driving. This past week, Springsteen’s post-September 11 lament The Rising played with my kids in the car. My daughter asked me what the song was about, and I tried in vain to help her fully appreciate the emotion of those weeks and months following September 11. This song, like so many from Springsteen, is a nearly perfect blend of melancholy, resiliency, and hope. It’s that rare kind of emotional chemistry that makes your soul swell within you. And yet, I couldn’t really explain it to my thirteen year-old daughter for whom September 11 is merely history.
Remembering well is hard. It takes work especially when remembering requires tapping into resources that go beyond your own living memory. Remembering well often requires that we somehow make personal an event which to us is not immediately personal. I fear that this skill may be atrophying partly because of the relative comfort of contemporary life. Remembering civilizational evil and hardships like the Holocaust or September 11 requires a paradigm in which it will fit. Generally speaking, contemporary life lacks this type of paradigm. Oh, we are busy trying to create our own civilizational fears. Have you heard that the city of Miami will disappear into the sea in twelve years? We’re trying our best to be afraid. But I’m not convinced our heart is in it. Our lament rings hollow. Let’s be honest. Worrying about the scourge of plastic straws just isn’t all that inspiring, and it certainly won’t help you identify with those who persevered through the evils of the Holocaust.
There’s another, more important reason why remembering is hard. Remembering is literally a spiritual event. Every memorial is a testimony of the soul’s existence. Every memorial reminds us that our collective existence contains a depth and transcendence that goes beyond our mere momentary and solitary living. Such memorials make for sacred places, places where we silently ruminate on our existence within a greater mystery. These are often places of tears, gratitude, hopefulness, prayer, and worship. They are places where we feel as much as we remember. It is too much to say that sacred places like these make life worth living, but they do remind us what it means to be living.
But we’ve had the sacred stripped from us. We’ve become numbed by secular life. Marshall McLuhan talks about the myth of Narcissus in his book Understanding Media.
The Greek myth of Narcissus is firstly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by a mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.
Our word “narcotic” shares a common root with “narcissism.” Our hypnotic fascination with our own, extremely flattened existence has made us numb to deeper, sacred realities.
Instagram didn’t create this circumstance, but it has enhanced it. You’ve heard the saying “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is sometimes called the “Law of the Instrument” articulated by Abraham Maslow. It states that our cognitive biases are shaped or enhanced by the tools we use. If Maslow were writing today, he might say, “When you’re a camera, everything looks like an Instagram post.” You do have to wonder if Instagram has helped to create a culture where sacred spaces struggle to exist. There are no sacred times or sacred places. There is no space for reflection on deeper truths. The wider world becomes a backdrop for my own image. Does the Berlin Holocaust Memorial actually exist if I don’t post a picture of myself standing in its midst? It is perhaps ironic that our efforts to make our images appear “otherworldly” with filters and editing actually numbs us to otherworldly realities. Artifice begets artifice.
The Berlin Holocaust Memorial is unwittingly creating a different kind of memorial. It is a memorial to sanctity. Maybe the only way to protect the sanctity of a memorial is to ban phones. If comedians can demand their audiences surrender their phones in order to better appreciate the show, why can’t we protect sacred spaces and sacred moments with the same sacrifice?
I don’t think it’s too outrageous to believe that if Jesus was clearing the Temple today, he would probably chase away the Influencers.