A dramatic memorial is planned to commemorate the massacre of 77 people at Utoya Island in Norway, the scene of Anders Breivik’s rampage in 2011. The memorial, being referred to as a “memory wound,” is to be a constructed gap that slices through the island. The design plans are jarring, to say the least.
This project can trace its lineage directly back to Maya Lin’s stunning Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., conceived in 1981 and dedicated in late 1982. Lin’s memorial, a polished granite wall that descends from the Mall to a depth of 10 feet, was so influential that today virtually all monuments can be dated BL (Before Lin) or AL. And the proposed monument at Utoya Island is most definitely AL.
Monuments are Biblical. At numerous points in the Old Testament, God’s people are instructed to erect various memorials to commemorate His providence. These stones of remembrance were to serve as literal reminders to future generations. “What is this pile of stones for?” “It is to remind us of when God…” That’s the idea.
From ancient times, monuments have been closely intertwined with architecture. So closely that for millennia, monuments were the only architecture there was (think pyramids and temples) - at least the only architecture that was preserved and recorded. The design of monuments has evolved greatly from Biblical piles of stones to temples to the collection of exuberant white marble follies that adorn the battlefields of America’s Civil War. But their purpose has remained essentially the same as God’s purpose: to serve as reminders, stones of remembrance.
Defeats and massacres tend to get place names in the Bible, but they don’t tend to get monuments.
Which brings us back to Norway, and by implication, to Maya Lin. What Lin did, and designer Jonas Dahlberg plans to do with the “memory wound” at Utoya Island, is to invert the traditional understanding of monuments as a testament to the glory of something - of God’s providence, of heroic sacrifice. In Lin’s (and Dahlberg’s) vision, the thing commemorated is a scar, an absence, a void, rather than a glorious marble structure festooned with carved wreaths and urns. Vietnam veterans initially referred to Lin’s design as a “black gash of shame,” although time has undoubtedly softened this judgment for many. Today, the polished granite wall has become a destination for veterans and their families, where rubbing the incised names of the deceased onto paper is a comforting ritual.
Lin's inversion became, instantly, the new mode for all memorials, from long-overdue recognition of forgotten wars (like Korea) to 9/11 to your local firefighters and police. Try and find a monument built in the past 30 years that doesn’t have a polished stone wall with names carved on it. The concept makes more sense in Norway than it does on the National Mall. The attack at Utoya Island was certainly not an act of heroism; rather, it was the opposite. The monument-as-void trope Lin created and the rest of the world adopted makes sense here, as it does in Shanksville, Penn., and lower Manhattan.
What, then, is a Biblical view of public monuments to past trauma? How ought such events be commemorated? God’s constant prodding of His people in the Old Testament was to remind them of His goodness, His power, His graciousness - things we all too easily forget. Defeats and massacres tend to get place names in the Bible, but they don’t tend to get monuments. From a Christian perspective, one might question the wisdom of erecting expensive memorials to tragedies. Perhaps we recall the tragedies well enough without such memory wounds. It seems to me that God wants us to remember His goodness and provision more than those times - all too frequent in this broken world – when sin seemed to win the day.