We know that memory is not history. If you’ve ever discussed the good old days with a friend and discovered that they don’t remember what you do—or that their memories of a particular event contradict what you “know” to be true—you understand memory’s unreliability. A spate of recent news articles has suggested that memories change all the time, for reasons both physical and psychological. It’s enough to make a person wonder if he can trust any of them.
So we can never know how it really was.
As heirs of the Enlightenment, we hold to the creed that anything worth believing must be founded on evidence—empirical truths that are apparent to everyone. So it follows that the question of whether our memories are true matters a great deal. (People are sent to prison all the time because of someone’s false memories.)
But not everything in which we believe is founded on such truths. Religion isn’t. There’s more hard, empirical evidence for the existence of Bigfoot and aliens than there is for the personal God of the Christian Bible, or Allah, or Zeus, or Odin. But the “truths” of religion are strong enough to live in the hearts of millions of people who order their lives by them. If you believe your god is real and you live your life as if it were, it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. Your belief is real, and that’s the fact that matters.
When I write about the fall of 1970, three-and-a-half transformative months that began with a remarkable act of kindness by a neighbor girl in early September and ended with the most significant Christmas gift I would ever receive, I understand that the vivid details may not be real. Things may not have happened as I remember them, and may not have happened at all. That I was being transformed almost certainly never occurred to me. (Recognizing oneself mid-transformation isn’t guaranteed to happen to a guy in his 50s, let alone a boy of 10.)
But the belief that I was transformed? That belief is real. No matter how many years it took to recognize it, no matter how the shape of the transformation might have been affected by events that have happened since, the belief that I was transformed has nothing to do with empirical reality, and it doesn’t have to. My “memories” from the fall of 1970 have the power of myth. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world. The ancients told them to explain the weather; today, religion tells them to give meaning to life in the face of certain death.
And I retell the myths of 1970 to explain how I got this way.
We take as our text today the WLS Hit Parade, September 14, 1970:
1. “Looking Out My Back Door”/Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Wondrous apparition / Provided by a magician”
2. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Diana Ross. “Remember life holds for you one guarantee / You’ll always have me”
3. “War”/Edwin Starr. “Who wants to die?”
4. “Julie Do Ya Love Me”/Bobby Sherman. “Are you thinking of me / Will you still be there?”
5. “Candida”/Dawn. “The future looks bright / The gypsy told me so last night”
Inscrutable mysteries. The yawning abyss of doubt and fear.
Abiding hope. Everlasting love.
When you’ve got a radio, you don’t need a church.