A friend of mine, Duke professor Chris Rice, wrote about some fascinating observations during a recent trip to Romania and Poland. He described the lingering effects of Communism in those post-Soviet countries. His Romanian host told him, “We all smell of communism in Romania. It’s not something you rub off from your coat. It’s on the radio, at your job, in your school. It’s the air you breathe. To say you’re immune is silly.” That is a perfect description of the Global Current of Memory: events, circumstances, and values of the past are still very “alive” today, and influence how people respond to the gospel.
Rice cited the example of the senior devil in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, who instructed the junior devil on how to take away Christians’ joy. He suggested gradually removing all songs of triumph from Christians’ hymn books, leaving only songs of lament. The Communists were just as ingenious and insidious, said Rice’s Polish host, “devilishly dividing people when they didn’t even realize what was being done to them.” And that’s an especially evil characteristic of Memory: it is borne by everyday conditions, but is gradual and invisible.
Every culture and society has its own memory. In the U.S., our pervasive culture is materialism — “a more civilized god than Communism” according to a Romanian man. But Rice cautions that “to say we are immune from materialism is to deny it has become the air we breathe. Others smell what we have become accustomed to.” Rice concludes by suggesting that our willingness to practice a theology of ‘enough’ will be a critical test of American Christianity’s witness to the world today.