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?

Desire (Rohr)

Desire

Who of us can say with total certitude that we know we’re doing God’s will? I can’t on any day of my life, and it’s very unsatisfying. That’s what it means to “bear the mystery” of the cross, to agree to find God in a clearly imperfect world. We would much sooner have certitudes, we would much sooner have order and control and know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Most would prefer beliefs, dogma and perfect objective morality to biblical faith any day. Certitude allows you to predict and control outcomes, and to justify rewards and punishments. That’s not all bad. The trouble is that is not the message of the cross.

Thomas Merton expressed the doubt and uncertainty we all face in this familiar prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. [1]

Take a few moments to be still and quiet, to allow your deepest desire to well up within you and come to the surface of your awareness. In the silence, connect with your longing for union and intimacy with God. Name this intention and, as you go about the day, return to this sense and statement of your desire.

 

 

True Expression of Faith

The true expression of faith is its best defense, because it transforms broken lives.

 

My experience has shown that when we welcome people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted and loved as they are and that they have a place, then we witness a real transformation — I would even say ‘resurrection.’ Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful and trusting. This shows through the expression on the face and through all their flesh. As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a ‘family,’ then the will to live begins to emerge. I do not believe it is of any value to push people into doing things unless this desire to live and to grow has begun to emerge.

Jean Vanier

Paradox and Christian Purity

A pivotal paradox for us to understand is that simplicity is both a grace and a discipline. It is a grace because it is given to us by God. There is no way that we can build up our willpower or contort our natural tendencies to attain it. It is a gift to be graciously given and received. At the same time, simplicity is also a discipline because it is something we are called to do. Spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, etc.) do not give us simplicity, but they do put us in the place where we can receive it. Perhaps we need to learn to speak in terms of “disciplined grace.” Isn’t that the profound reality which underlies the symbiotic alliance between faith and works?

A second paradox is closely aligned with the first; Christian simplicity is both easy and difficult. It is easy in the same way in which all other Christian graces are easy once they have ingrained into the habit structure of our lives. It is difficult because there are times of struggle and effort, times when we despair and feel that the complexities of this life are about to do us in. But occasionally, in the midst of the chaos we have a sense of entering into true Christian Simplicity, knowing that it is only by the grace of God.

The third paradox has to do with the balance between the inner and outer dimensions of simplicity. As I mentioned before, living in Christian simplicity would be easier to understand and to practice if we could only reduce it to a system of external rules. However, an outer expression of true simplicity must necessarily flow from the inner resources. Without an inner simplicity, all external efforts are in vain. At the same time, we delude ourselves if we think we can possess the inner reality of simplicity without it having a profound effect upon the way we live.

The fourth paradox is particularly relevant to those who seek to follow Christ in such a materialistic world. It is the affirmation of both the goodness and the limitation of material things. To deny the goodness is to be ascetic. To deny the limitation is to be materialistic. So often the biblical teaching on provision has been taken and twisted into a doctrine of gluttonous prosperity. Incarnated into our theology are covetous goals under the guise of the promises of God. Misery arises not only when people lack provision but also when they try to make their entire lives out of provisions.

Christian simplicity does not yield to simplistic answers. It is the ability to be single-hearted and at the same time sensitive to the tough, complex issues of life. It is a strange combination and quite difficult to explain, though quite easy to recognize. There is focus without dogmatism, obedience without oversimplification, depth without pride. It means being aware of many complex issues while having only one issue at the center—obedience to Christ.

Christian simplicity is not just a faddish attempt to respond to the chaotic and materialist world in which we find ourselves; it is a call given to every Christian in every age to follow Christ.

Richard Foster

 

 

Humility

“Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.” 

Mother Teresa’s 15 Guidelines for Cultivating Humility

1. Speak as little as possible about yourself.

2. Keep busy with your own affairs and not those of others.

3. Avoid curiosity.

4. Do not interfere in the affairs of others.

5. Accept small irritations with good humor.

6. Do not dwell on the faults of others.

7. Accept censures even if unmerited.

8. Give in to the will of others.

9. Accept insults and injuries.

10. Accept contempt, being forgotten and disregarded.

11. Be courteous and delicate even when provoked by someone.

12. Do not seek to be admired and loved.

13. Do not protect yourself behind your own dignity.

14. Give in, in discussions, even when you are right.

15. Choose always the more difficult task.

 

Death – Roger Cohen

I listened this week to an inventor, a brilliant man convinced of the proximity of human immortality, which he believes to be just a couple of medical bridges away. He’s taking dozens of pills to ensure that he reaches the first of those bridges, perhaps around 2030. I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me.
When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.
The most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.
As Ecclesiastes has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.

 

None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Firelighters

For several months I have been struggling with an sense of spiritual uneasiness. The direction and emphasis of our church community has shifted. I have not been able to find clarity for the cause of my discomfort.  Today, I took some time to browse articles and writings I have saved over a number of years. In that process, I came across an excerpt from a Larry Crabb book that I believe clarifies my concerns. (Yes it is a bit lengthy)

Fire Lighters (Larry Crabb)

Isa 50:10-11
Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant?
Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD
and rely on his God.
But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment.
There is an enormous difference between the joy of discovery and the need to explain. The former gives life a sense of adventure. The latter makes us hate mystery. God has created the world with an orderly structure that can be reasonably, investigated and profitably used. The job of science is to understand and orderly as fully as possible.

But behind the structure is a person, a free, unmanageable person who is bound to nothing outside himself. It is therefore impossible to reduce all mystery to understandable categories. Some level of confusion must remain. If we trust the person behind the structure, that confusion becomes a source of adventure. If we don’t trust him, we hate the confusion and try to get rid of it.

For those who enjoy discovery because they know a good God is moving through the chaos toward a wonderful conclusion, mystery poses no problem. It is welcomed. Explain what you can, and relax even when you can’t. But for those ruled by a passion to explain, for those who insist on feeling confident in their own plans, mystery is offensive.They want to know exactly what they must do to provide for their economic future, to restore harmony in their relationships, to succeed in their career or ministry. Confusion is an enemy. Certainty is a challenge to overcome.

God’s words through Isaiah tell us one way we can know if we are living in the flesh or in the Spirit. When we bump into something we can’t explain, when we find ourselves in a dark tunnel and aren’t sure how to get out, is our stronger impulse to trust God or figure out what to do? Do we quickly reach for a flashlight to help us see the road ahead? Or do we firmly grasp the hand of the only one who can see in. the dark?
Where is our confidence—in God or in our ability to come up with a good plan? If we walk confidently in the light of our own torches, Isaiah informs us that we are not relying on God. The demand to walk a path with a predictable outcome is an urge of the flesh. It needs to die.

Fire lighters love formulas. They live by them. When they can’t devise their own, they turn to experts who confidently tell them what to do to achieve desired results.
When tire lighters try to help people, they are more concerned with doing it right than touching others’ souls. They trust their model for helping more than the voice of God, more than the Spirit speaking through his Word into their redeemed hearts. Connecting is replaced by control. Fire lighters work too hard. They follow theory too closely; they depend too much on approved technique.

When our sons were in their early teens, I remember spending several hours one evening writing out my analysis of where they were in their development, determining what they needed to successfully move through the sociopsychological demands of that stage, and planning how I could best help them.

A few years later, when Kep was in the middle of his rebellion, I screamed at God, literally: “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. Just tell raze what to do!”
When he refused (I’m not sure what I thought he ought to have done), I consulted an adolescent specialist– actually two of them. “What should I do?” I demanded. “Do I ground him, sell his car, and require attendance at youth group? Or do I calmly discuss things with him, share my concerns, and reasonably explore options?” Since God didn’t answer those questions in the book he wrote, I lost interest in reading my Bible. Interesting how we prefer to see the Bible as a rule book, a collection of principles to follow when life gets rough, rather than as a revelation of God’s heart. We prefer instructions on what to do over all invitation to connect our hearts with his and to then do whatever he reveals.

Fire lighters hate uncertainty,. They are terrified of confusion. Their nagging question is always: “Am I right?” Am I doing this properly? Am I making big mistakes? Is there a better way of handling this situation? Who would know that might tell me? Fire lighters demand clear answers, practical instructions, and doable solutions. Life is livable if they can feet confident in their plans. So they insist on good plans and often find throw in the Bible, not always because the plans are there, but because they want them to be there.
Parents of young children are especially prone to fire lighting. When they get together for mutual support, open sharing, prayer, Bible study, and discussion of good books on parenting, it can be a wonderful thing. But sometimes they gather in groups to intensely discuss the latest Christian manual on raising kids. If someone questions the approved text too strongly, the group’s welcome is withdrawn. The parents’ terror of confusion is covered over with an almost slavish confidence in what the experts recommend.

To sustain then confidence, they stick together. They report successes, affirm each others’ faith when things don’t work as hoped, and chide one another for lapses in following the plan. With a common flashlight illuminating the way, these scared people connect, falsely. Cult like elements develop in their community. Agreement and conformity are more valued than debate and diversity, and all happen in the name of biblical truth. The passion to be right and their consensus on what is right becomes the foundation of their closeness. But that passion and the question it inevitably spawns—Am I right?–come out of the flesh. The demand to be right, an insistence that we find confidence in a strategy because of its guaranteed outcome, is an urge to be killed. It must die because it replaces a final trust in God with confidence in a system we can follow.

God dealt with one expression of my fire-lighting passion the way he often does, by deepening the darkness. He allowed my confusion to get so thick that I was faced with only two options: Trust God or sink into despair. The darkness he permitted shattered my confidence in what I was doing and removed all hope of regaining confidence through a better plan.

During Kep’s rebellion, not only did I write out a game plan for helping both Kep and Ken move through their developmental stages, but I also studied biblical stories to see what worked and what didn’t (I spent hours in 1 Samuel 2 pondering Eli’s failure with his two sons, Hophni and Phineas). I read books by the reigning experts, and I prayed and fasted.
Because my core agenda was to be right and know it, I could richly connect with no one. I was pouring very little into my wife, my sons, or my friends. I remained involved with them, often very kindly, but my core struggle was to be right, not to touch something good in another with whatever was spiritually alive in me.

The darkness deepened. God gave little opportunity for me to be confirmed that I was right. I became more confused. I fought the confusion; I hated it as all fire lighters do.
Then I received word that Kep had been expelled from college. Something became clear. There were no formulas. There were no right strategies with guaranteed outcomes. There was only God. Would I trust him and rely on his name (snot as a new plan to get what I wanted)? Would I simply hold his hand, trust his heart, and move into the darkness with no purpose other than to reflect something of Christ? Only deep darkness helped me to tear God more than con fusion.

When the lights go out, when our dreams shatter and there’s no way to piece them back together, that’s when our questions are most likely to change. No longer do we ask, “Am I right?” We realize we can’t be right enough to make things happen as we want. Instead we ask, “Whom do I trust?”

The passion to explain leads us along a path that ends badly. According to Isaiah, we end up lying down in torment, wracked by unanswerable questions: Why didn’t. this work? What could I have done differently? Why am 1 so stupid? Why did I ever listen to that expert? How can I possibly climb out of this hole? It’s so deep—-and dark.
But when the passion to be right is mortified, a new one arises: a longing to trust God. And that urge takes us on a sometimes bumpy and steep path that winds through some very dark nights but eventually brings us to green pastures. There we lie down, and rest. And that’s a guarantee.