Renouncing oblivion

In March the winning design for Norway’s official memorial to the 77 victims of the 2011 massacre (carried out by right-wing extremist Anders Brievik) was revealed. I was moved by the thoughtfulness and grandeur of artist Jonas Dahlberg’s three-pronged proposal. One feature, the Memory Wound, will be a massive channel cut right through the Sørbråten peninsula, a physical gash in the very landscape, the altered geography creating a void to evoke the loss of the nation. The names of the 69 people killed on the nearby island of Utøya, mostly teens, will be inscribed on the headland wall, names that visitors will be able to see but be unable to touch, a “poetic rupture,” as Dahlberg terms it.
The stone cut and removed from the peninsula will be transported to Oslo to fashion a second memorial marking the deaths of eight citizens killed by Brievik’s detonation of a car bomb. Finally, trees from Sørbråten will be transplanted in Oslo to create a permanent amphitheatre called “Time and Movement.” Though the design has garnered global acclaim, the government of Norway has postponed the project for one year due to local concerns about the environment and also to address the objections of several victims’ families who felt they were not given sufficient opportunity for input.

More recently, on May 21st, another memorial, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, was opened to the public in New York City. In a kind of unspoken kinesthetic reversal of the imposing height of the original Twin Towers, the design of this memorial generates a powerful physical response as guests descend seven stories underground to the main exhibition. On their way down, they are confronted by actual wreckage, poignant personal artifacts and debris salvaged from the 9/11 attack. Deep below the city, the museum explores the weight of terror, referencing not only the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, but additionally the 1993 bombing of World Trade Center and the story of the Pentagon and Flight 93. What touched me as I navigated the website was especially this detail: a chamber called “In Memoriam,” where the individual portraits and profiles of the nearly 3,000 men, women and children who lost their lives in the assaults are assembled for respectful acknowledgement.

At his wounded feet
This memorial impulse to mark loss by name – by singularity, by individuality – in Jonas Dahlberg’s design, in the New York memorial and in other places like the Menin Gate or the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, strikes me as deeply Christian, regardless of the artist’s original intention. Each name testifies to the sacredness of life.
But it’s also a defiant act to erect a memorial – a protest against mortality, a primal outcry against extinction, a universal yearning for eternal significance. The title for this column is borrowed from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s wise and tender book, Lament for a Son. “If Eric’s life was a gift,” says this grieving father, “surely then we are to hold it in remembrance – to resist amnesia, to renounce oblivion.” He points out that the remembering is one of the “profoundest features of the Christian and Jewish way-of-being-in-the-world. . . .” We do not delete the past because “in history we find God.”

Wolterstorff’s contemplation upon his son’s death is not the elegantly parsed rational apologetic one might expect from a noted philosophy professor. Instead, with every other grief-stricken Christian, he places his pained questions at the wounded feet of a suffering and dying Saviour. In Christ’s rising from the grave he finds the hope of our own rising from our own graves, a portent of “death’s dying.”

In another wonderfully sensitive reflection, “The Art of Lament” (The Banner, August 2012), Wolterstorff examines the language of lament in Scripture. He points out two divergent paths that Christians sometimes take in their sorrow: either they give up on God and treasure their grief, or they stifle their grief, thinking that it somehow dishonours God. Rather, he says, and he says it with the consoling gentleness of one who truly knows, “a faith that incorporates grief is stronger and richer than a faith that sings only praise songs.”

May my faith have the breadth to encompass grief. May every memorial and every headstone prophesy to me of a suffering, sovereign God who will wipe every tear from our eyes. Who will erase death and mourning, crying and pain. Who will ensure that the old order of things will pass away. O, Lord, haste the day.

  • Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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