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Nostalgia and Christianity

Christianity shrouded in longing for the past isn’t very Christian.
Photo by the author, taken in a cemetery in Arkansas.

Although certainly many people who call themselves Christian today cling to the idea that the past was better than the present, I suggest that nostalgia is incompatible with Christian theology. Nostalgia requires a belief that things were better in the past than they are now or will be in the future, mistrusts youth and newness, and revels in pride in human accomplishments. At a certain level, it rejects God’s promise of a new creation and a new birth.

I recently read this article by Amy Hale on how neopaganism’s aesthetics align with fascism’s aesthetics. One of the things that stood out to me was the emphasis on a yearning to return to a past “golden age.” Of course, as a Christian, I’m painfully aware that, like the pagans invoked in Hale’s piece, my own faith has been used a banner for fascism and the alt-right, a veil for racism and evil, for a very long time. Probably longer.

Most people, when they hear “Christian,” think of conservative evangelical Christianity–the sort with the purity pledges, the conversion therapy, the charismatic preachers in “non-denominational” churches, and all that other stuff that has become a hallmark of Conservative politics in the United States. But I make little secret in my feelings that that culture is not really biblical or theologically sound; the more I learn about the history of Christianity, the more I am certain of that. But it definitely is this conservative culture that is used as an excuse for so much evil and hatred, and it definitely needs to be addressed. Just as Hale calls for pagans to address the parts of their theology and culture that allow fascism and racism to thrive, so too do I want Christians to do the same soul-searching and pruning.

To that end, as I sat in church today listening to a pretty good sermon on 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and the nature of greed that wasn’t really related to what I was actually meditating on (a fairly common occurrence for me–sorry, pastors), it seemed to me that nostalgia is a core aspect of conservative culture–one that is fairly incompatible in many ways to the theology of hope that Christ calls us to.

Conservatives (at least in the US, although it’s a feature of fascism and other similar movements in other places) generally mistrust youth unless they’re being obedient to “tradition.” They generally are in love with a past that didn’t really exist–that’s more or less the definition of nostalgia. They see the past as a golden age, as the way they remember things having been as the way they should be, and want to (if possible) preserve or restore things to that past. We look at the campaign slogan “make America great again” and see that view encapsulated right there: America was great, is no longer great, but maybe if we repress the youth and deny their ideas, we can make it great again. Inherent in this particular brand of nostalgia is the notion that things are generally decaying, and that the present is bad and the past is good and the only hope is to return to the past. It’s also a fear that what was valuable has been, is being, and will be lost (unless someone somehow stops time moving forward).

This nostalgia is not compatible with Christian teaching (or shouldn’t be). Christianity posits the past as lost, dark, sinful, and brutal, while offering the promise of a future that is bright, redeemed, and gentle. Moreover, it is a future that will be that way not because of humanity’s past, but in spite of it. As Christians, we look forward to the coming Kingdom of God. When we look backward, we see only a confused past, one in which humans have erroneously and repeatedly tried to obtain salvation and eternity through their own power, often resulting not in mercy or grace, but in pain and suffering. Not because humans were wrong to try, but because humans are really bad at being humane, life is complex, and even our best efforts fall short.

When we survey scripture, reading the Old Testament, we are faced with one tale after another of great forebears who nevertheless fall short of God’s perfection in a thousand ways. We see Noah, after the flood, getting embarrassingly drunk and cursing his own son over it. We see Abraham lying to one ruler after another about being married to his own wife because he fails to trust God’s protection, and we see them abusing their servant Hagar in their fear that God’s promise isn’t sufficient. We see David (God’s annointed! The shepherd king!) arranging to have one of his loyal men unjustly killed just so he can steal his wife. The list could go on and on. This is not a great, bright golden age to long for wistfully and emulate to bring it back. This is a neverending cycle of striving to be better and failing miserably, falling into the worst tendencies of humanity time and again.

When we yearn to keep things the same or to restore them to the past, we yearn to keep Christ nailed to the cross. But when we trust in hope, we trust in His resurrection.
Photo by the author, taken in a cemetery in Illinois.

Even when we read the New Testament, we are primarily faced with humans who are not so much exemplars as they are just more humans, trying to understand and fathom the depths of God’s grace and often failing anyway, but at least here it’s ok because we know that God’s redemption for them has been accomplished already.

There is, for Christians, no true “golden age” to yearn for, although I acknowledge that many theologians and pastors have certainly constructed one for themselves and taught about it. With no glorious past to remember, nostalgia becomes empty and hollow.

Likewise, nostalgia rejects the contributions of the young and mistrusts anything that is new. But Christianity embraces the teachings of the young, acknowledging that they might be filled with the Spirit as much as anyone else, and urges its adherents to look to the new, not the old.

Right now, the conservatives, many of them claiming to be Christians, are attacking children who have only dared to suggest that we might do better in being good stewards of God’s creation. Children.

But to do so rejects Jesus. Jesus came as a child, and although He didn’t start officially teaching until he was 30 or so, that was still considered quite young for a teacher (for reference, I’m often mistaken for the undergraduates I teach, I’m a much-maligned millennial, and I’m 32!). Furthermore, Jesus rebuked the older, wizened teachers around him and instead said “let the little children come to me” and admonished that no one become a stumbling block for the “little ones.”

And if you want further proof that God values the voices of the young upsetting the status quo, look at how often in the Old Testament a younger child is favored over an older child, who culturally should have had the authority.

Nostalgia suggests that the past that those who are old enough to have memories of another time was better, and that children “these days” just don’t understand, are “missing out,” or are somehow inferior and living in an inferior time. But in Christianity, we are told we must be “born again”–to become as children again, not looking past through the lens of a wizened old generation, but forward with the hope and trust of a little child.

Trust children when they teach.
Photo by Samantha Sophia via Stocksnap

We must not denigrate the present and coming generations; we must listen to them, for did not Jesus quote scripture saying that God might speak through children? Instead, we must trust that their hope is our hope, and that every member of the Body of Christ has value and is filled with the Spirit.

Finally, nostalgia is, like despair and other sins, at its root a kind of pride, a pride that puts our own achievements ahead of God’s plan. Nostalgia requires ruminating on past glories and our own works; it is comforting to remember the things that we have done that have made us, of our own power, seem great. This is the temptation–and one I will acknowledge, that I fall prey to often too. We look back at our “glory days” and say “things were better then.” Nostalgia whispers to us, when we complain of “kids today” and boast of our own golden age, that we alone were great, and no one after us will be better, except that they do as we had done.

But that is all pride and hubris. That is all vanity, echoing Ecclesiastes. Rather than trusting in the glory of our own past and achievements, we are called to look forward to the greater glories that will be as God’s plan unfurls and we are led forward by the Spirit. Paul writes that he had done the things that might make him considered “great” in his own life, but that he counts “them all as rubbish” (Philippians 3:8) in comparison to the greater glory that is God’s promise of salvation in Christ. He then urges his readers to not look back, but to look forward and press on to the goal.

I am not saying that occasional reminiscing is a bad thing. Memory is a gift of God and there is research showing that the occasional nostalgic session can be restorative and beneficial for our minds, spirits, and bodies.

But to cling to nostalgia is to look back, not forward. To cling to nostalgia is not to trust the Holy Ghost, but to long for human works and achievements. When we cling to nostalgia, we trust in ourselves, not our Lord. Nostalgia says that the world has decayed and will continue to decay, rather than trusting that it has been redeemed (not condemned!) and will be transformed into a new creation in Christ. Clinging to nostalgia denies that God is at work still and fails to trust in God’s plan.

Therefore, do not cling to the past, and do not let nostalgic narratives of a lost great golden age turn you away from the very real and present work of loving our neighbors and trusting in hope and God.

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