Nostalgic Aspirations and Failings

Nostalgia is now a product to be bought. I saw it advertised on Facebook. It’s one of those old-fashioned combination coffee pots, grill, and oven. But food isn’t the only thing fashioning our notions of nostalgia these days. We all want to be reminded of the “good ole’ days,” but are those days really ‘good’ or just ‘old?” It is something to contemplate. What exactly are we looking for when we say we want to return to those days of yesteryear? I remember the announcer on The Lone Ranger would proclaim “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again.” The stories on this show centered around people being randomly shot, robbed, and otherwise terrorized while mostly sleeping outside in the elements. Where the best hope for justice was an itinerate mask wearing “has been” traveling with a stereotypically offensive characterization of native people. I’ll pass.

It’s amazing the things we think we want. John Calvin observed that the human heart is an idol factory. Nostalgia may be just another idol we worship. The idol is the past. Not as the past actually was, but our romanticized idea of what we remember the past to be. It was never as great as we remember it, nothing ever is. Isn’t it interesting how we are conditioned to describe nostalgia in spiritual terms? In my Pentecostal church this was a reoccurring theme. There was something about singing the old songs, or rehearsing moments of our spiritual initiations into the church. I can even recall people saying “Folks just don’t get the Holy Ghost like they used to!” In our tradition “receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost” was a piece of performance art. It involved many people standing, kneeling, swaying, sweating, crying, and often times repeating words or phrases until they became unintelligible. Swerving off into an “unknown language” (neither unknown as it was often imitations of others nor any verifiable language) which we believed to be the initial evidence of the Holy Ghost baptism. These rituals typically occupied our time at the conclusion of our worship services and would also include “laying on of hands” where a “specialist” in the form of a visiting preacher would “pray us through” to the gift of the Holy Ghost. Of course, all of these rituals were loosely based on passages from the book of Acts in the Bible, but mostly they were centered in nostalgic romanticized renderings of past revivals. Sometimes we didn’t even have to experience these nostalgic moments directly, they would come to us by reading a gospel tract or a published account of a spectacular testimony of someone whose life was radically changed by this experience. And while I certainly do not dismiss the perceived benefits of these experiences, I do often wonder how these experiences differ all that much from other nostalgic longings of our hearts. Moments that we will pursue with our time, energy, and resources in an attempt to recover.

These moments were so important for us as Pentecostals that we would indulge in real sacrifices to recover them. Sacrifices including the mundane like giving up a Sunday evening to get to church early and stay late, or to the extreme of going without food for days and abiding by dress and behavioral codes in an effort to earn God’s favor in hopes of being rewarded with a good church service. A good service in our nomenclature included no one opening the Bible, no preaching, and no one sharing the gospel. The “good service” was one where all of the central tenets were assumed and the focus was less about Jesus or the gospel and more about us receiving our personal “blessing.” This would often result in reducing our congregations to a bunch of emotional junkies seeking to replace last week’s experience with a next level spiritual high. But the law of diminishing returns applied even to what we characterized as holy, resulting in convincing older generations of acolytes that the answer to the present malaise was centered in a longing to recapture the past instead of hope for the future. These kinds of nostalgic longings aren’t exclusive to Pentecostals, but upon reflection, it seems that we perfected it to an art form. Our penchant for the religious past translated into a badge of honor where we would distinguish ourselves from the rest of world, establishing our own sub culture of class and hierarchy based in perceptions of spiritual power and clout.

Liston Pope wrote of Pentecostals in his 1942 work Millhands and Preachers; “The sects substitute religious status for social status, a fact which may help to account for their emphasis on varying degrees of Grace…Because they have no jewelry to wear, they make refusal to wear jewelry, including wedding rings, a religious requirement. They transmute poverty into a symptom of Grace….and rejoice thereby at their superiority to older denominations which have come to regard such practices as uncouth.”

My experiences in Pentecostal circles taught me very quickly that the boundaries of the outside world were adopted into our ecclesial interactions. The boundaries of race and class were enforced to differing degrees in different ways but they did not disappear. And often when the outside world did make changes, this reinforced our resolve to maintain the distinctions as a way of attempting to hold on to a past we deemed more spiritually powerful and profound. A practice that continues to this day.

The reality is that nothing will ever be as it was. You can’t step into the same river twice. It is constantly changing. And if the river isn’t changing, we can all be sure that we are changing. In both literal and figurative terms the world is changing as it spins on its axis as we travel around the Sun. This is life. This is change. There is no such thing as nostalgia. It exists only as a construct in our minds. Printed on the cheap paper of Hallmark cards that serve to fund the production of cheesy Christmas movies. Nostalgia doesn’t exist and you certainly can’t find it on Facebook, it’s not pinned on Pinterest, and you can’t purchase it on Amazon. This is life. Nostalgia doesn’t really exist. What does exist is our longing for more. A longing for a “more” to our existence. I’m convinced this something more does exist although it remains elusive on most days. So I’ll continue the pursuit because nostalgia is a poor substitute for enchantment, and it is certainly a poor substitute for the realities of the gospel of Christ.

One thought on “Nostalgic Aspirations and Failings

  1. Awesome post! I caught myself just now remembering the often times I’ve missed certain aspects of past experiences or seasons in life. You’ve shared a great perspective.


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