Nostalgia is not a (Christian) Virtue

“Nostalgia is not a Christian Virtue”  was pronounced in a recent speech by Shaun Casey to the Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University. Below is the abstract for his plenary speech “Rage, Nostalgia, and the Forgetfulness of God”

The planet is awash in anger and rage while nostalgia seems to be an increasingly seductive choice for many Christians. All of these traits are related broadly to memory. What accounts for this rage? Is there a better Christian response to memory than nostalgia? And what are we to make of the theological claim that God is capable of remembering sin no more? This lecture will explore the nexus of anger, rage and nostalgia in our time and offer a theological critique of nostalgia while claiming a role for forgiveness as a form of intentional divine forgetfulness.

Dr, Casey’s speech specifically addresses Christians’ response to the rage that permeates our society, however, I would suggest that his observations regarding nostalgia are generally applicable. It is my intention to summarize his thoughts on nostalgia and hopefully relate them to personally relevant contexts.

Nostalgia has been a subject of interest to me for quite some time. The following is a quote about tradition and nostalgia I saved some time ago. Unfortunately, I am unable to attribute its source.

Nostalgia differs from tradition. Tradition encompasses a variety of received beliefs, practices, and associations that are passed down from generation to generation.   Like nostalgia, tradition seeks to bring the past forward into present experience.

However, nostalgia is primarily affective in nature. Nostalgia is wistful remembrance. The word itself comes from two Greek words which, when combined together, signify “homesickness.” One of course can be nostalgic about tradition, but the two concepts should not be equated.

Nostalgia is something in which we indulge. That’s fine, as long as we treat it like a piece of rich cheesecake. Making a steady diet of it is not good for our heart health. The most dangerous thing about nostalgia is when it assigns sentimental value to past experiences to such an extent that it virtually defines those experiences as “truth.” unknown

The past informs the present, but it also serves the present. When the present serves the past, we are stuck in nostalgia, longing for the good old days— a sure recipe for emotional and spiritual dysfunction. Pete Enns

I am curious about what I deem as a  prevalence of nostalgia in family and church contexts. Facebook  is one of the most prominent examples of nostalgic content. In fact, I would suggest that nostalgia is one of the foundations for the success of Facebook. Previously, I have not been able to identify possible reasons for the nagging concerns I felt about nostalgia until I listened to Dr. Casey. His analysis stimulated numerous questions worthy of further inquiry. My goal for this post is to share a brief summary of his remarks on nostalgia.

The response of today’s Christians to the anger and rage that permeates our society and culture is nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a begotten form of memory that, more often than not, masks darker impulses. It is the pursuit of that which never was, in an attempt to address some perceived current malady. Nostalgia needs a narrative of failure and loss to be attractive, and intellectually and psychologically effective. Something from the past has disappeared or is experiencing some existential threaten. Such circumstances are necessary to make the restoration of what was lost persuasive. All nostalgic narrative have a golden era.

The loss is often imaginary and not real. Memory manufactured or misbegotten can be as powerful as memory of real events. It is important to be able to separate the two.

Listening to Casey’s description of the nature and character of nostalgia, I immediately thought of the people of Israel and their complaint after being delivered from Egyptian bondage.

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Ex. 16)

The results of nostalgia are evident both historically and currently. They have/are shaping our culture in ways that are of great concern.  Casey’s statement that “memory manufactured or misbegotten can be as powerful as memory of real events”  is a warning that should not overlooked. Casey cites The Benedict Option with its appeal to the loss of “Traditional Christianity” as an example of a nostalgic construct. Defenses against removal of Confederate monuments framed by ideas of “Southern Pride” , “erasing history/heritage”, are nostalgic constructs. The power of these misbegotten memories are being demonstrated vividly every day. The most prominent and scariest nostalgic construct is “Make America Great Again”.

Of a particular concern for me is the prevalence of nostalgia within the context of Christianity, specifically western evangelical Christianity.  Beyond the Benedict Option, an underlying factor in many , if not most, theological and ecclesiastical conflicts is some sort of nostalgic construct. I think my own religious heritage, the Restoration Movement, which is largely influenced by nostalgic constructs historically and contemporarily. I am aware of the sweeping nature of my comments but I believe there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence to justify serious examination.

It is apparent that memory is the key factor in nostalgia. Casey points out that all memories are not created equal. Our memories may be manufactured or misbegotten, or they may well be truthful. How can we separate the two? He suggests that such an examination should begin by answering the question. “To what moral end are memories cultivated?”

It is apparent to me that I have exceeded my pay grade in this discussion. There are so many rabbit trails to pursue  that my tendency is toward paralysis but I intend to press on.

Questions to be addressed:

  • How do I know my memory is true?
  • Is there good nostalgia? or Is all nostalgia unhealthy?
  • Is nostalgia just a a form of fantasy?
  • How do I engage people who hold beliefs based on a nostalgic construct?
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