Confession time: I’m not good at keeping records.
This is a problem. I’ve justified my laziness over the years with self-flattery. I’ve told myself that counting beans is for people without the imagination and gumption to do things worth keeping a record of. Of course, I’m the second sort of person–at least that’s what I’ve told myself. I do the sorts of things that we hire accountants and historians to keep track of.
But in an Hegelian inversion, doers need bean-counters. And when the records are lost, or inaccurate, doers like me are left with no way to demonstrate our worth. At its most pedestrian this is a problem when it comes to securing a loan. No record, no loan.
Naturally we’d all like to forget some things: our failures, our sins, our stupid remarks. But we want everyone to know about our successes, our virtues, our good grades (all the while feigning humility). But you just can’t have one without the other. For the record to really mean anything it must include both sides of the ledger–the liabilities as well as the assets.
No record, no meaning.
In the Book of Revelation, at the end of the world, the books are opened. We discover that it’s all written down, objective, accurate, and indelible. The record is what it is, You’ve done what you’ve done. There is the meaning of your life.
Christianity is all about the Gospel, but that is predicated first of all upon the unwelcome message that the record reveals we are deeply in debt. So deeply there is absolutely no way any of us can dig ourselves out. The truth that salvation is a gift is at once the most unwelcome bit of news, and the most welcome news, we can ever hear.
The problem of forgetting comes up in the Bible, too. Sometimes I think about that line in Genesis about the rise of a new Pharaoh in Egypt who, Knew not Joseph. Now, I know this reflects a political change, not a loss of memory. But the political change did indeed lead to a loss of memory. The Israelites remembered Joseph, but Pharaoh did not. And here we see why we need a third party when it comes to keeping records.
The science fiction writer, Phillip K. Dick wondered whether or not a person can be said to be human if memory is up for grabs. Is your life real if your memories are false? Then there is Orwell and the Ministry of Truth in 1984, an organ of the government that does nothing but alter the record to conform to the interests of those who are in power today.
Some people think this is the way things already are. We can never trust the records because self-interest is always served when they’re kept. But it is worth noting that left-wing historians work tirelessly to tell their own tales about the past. They’re not nihilists, they’re actually partisans for what they believe are forgotten truths, whether those truths concern women, or ethic minorities, or whomever.
Keep your own records, but don’t fully trust them either.
If anything this ought to make us better record-keepers. (I’ve set aside Monday mornings for keeping my books!)
Sloth is the only alternative, that and drunkenness. Not caring anymore is what becomes of the truly cynical. And the truly honest know that their own records do shade things in their own favor as much as anyone’s else’s.
And this is why we need a divine set of books, and a divine book-keeper to show us where things truly stand in the end.
But even more than that, this is why we need an accountant who will say to us: You know, I’ve already paid the bills from my own account. From now on you’re working for me.
That’s good news.