Nov  2016 15
The Danger of Nostalgia

The upcoming holidays conjure nostalgia for me. I’ve watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at least once a season since it first aired in 1965. Linus’s speech on the public school stage on the “true meaning of Christmas” never fails to pop a tear for me, despite the fact that I now know the speech is inappropriate on a public school stage.

Recalling my 10-year-old self watching Charlie Brown should not influence my present-day stance on what I think about public schools promoting Christianity.

When I was a kid, my mom packed my lunches. Thanks, Mom!

Nearly every day, I ate Twinkies, Cupcakes, Ding Dongs, or HoHos with my bologna and cheese white bread sandwich, washed down with a carton or two of highly sugared lemonade. Back then, I was running 6-12 miles in cross country or track practice and I could not keep weight on.

Well, burning up any calories I put into my body is no longer my issue! If I ate now like I did then, I’d have an even tougher time keeping unwanted inches off and my arteries clear. Eating nostalgically would be downright dangerous.

Nostalgia is a word derived from Greek words that mean a longing to go home. Nostalgia evokes a sweet pain of visiting those places in our past that were enjoyable, and past. But seeking to make the past our home is unproductive and, in some cases, dangerous.

When it comes to present-day decision making, nostalgia can be a hindrance and a burden, occluding what is really in front of us. And when nostalgia blinds us to seeing what in the past was good for us but not for others, then making decisions and policies based on nostalgia is dangerous and, speaking as a Christian, selfish.

What if religious congregations sought to scrub all nostalgia from their decisions about their futures? What if congregational leaders were able to see their circumstances without nostalgia, if they were able to filter out what is possible and desirable for their futures from the category of “what is not coming back”?

For predominantly white congregations that pre-date 1970, my list of “what is not coming back” includes:

  • People going to church at least once a week.
  • Sunday-best clothes.
  • 1950s Mainline Protestantism actually occupying a center, a mainline.
  • A predominantly white, Protestant America.
  • White middle-class churches counting on white middle-class young couples to grow.
  • A heroic pastor who sacrifices everything, including family and health, for the church, and the actions actually save a church.
  • An all male, all seminary-educated, all straight clergy (the latter two were never the case).
  • Tax-starved cities and villages that care whether or not a particular congregation is there or gone.
  • Sunday school teachers committing to a whole year of service.
  • Reaping a share of the rewards of a victorious, post-war, institution-oriented, organization “man” trained, stay-home mom, white-privileged, world-dominant culture.
  • The ability to suppress dissenting voices and enforce a “normal” lifestyle.

Any congregation making decisions as if an item on this list is not real is living in nostalgia. Such living is both false and ungodly.

It is false because it does not square with fact-based reality. It is ungodly because God does not act in the past, God’s action is always now, and God is ever luring humankind toward the possibility of a more realized shalom of God. Christians should live with hope now, because God is here now.

Christians should not dwell in nostalgia, nor should we encourage others to live there. Nostalgia—in a private life, at home, in a congregation, or in a nation—can be a beautiful place to visit, but it is a dangerous place to live.

PHOTO Silver Christmas Tree by Sam Howzit
Silver Christmas tree in the living room of the Lustron Home at the 1950s exhibit at the Ohio History Center Museum in Columbus, Ohio.

Used under Creative Commons license.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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