The Ungodliness of Nostalgia

Rachel Stone wrote yesterday that Nostalgia Requires Selective Memory, and she points out that one doesn’t have to go back in time to see just how rough those times were because there are parts of the world that still experience hardship those of us in the developed world relegate to the past.

In response to one food writer who “bemoans the overly sterile condition of the modern world, where our ‘guts’ are no longer properly ‘colonized’ by all sorts of ‘friendly bacteria’”, Rachel responds:

I couldn’t help thinking that his was a longing that could only be experienced by someone with good health insurance in a developed country who gets to engage bacteria (friendly or otherwise) solely on his own terms. It’s a little harder to be starry-eyed about the benefits of the friendly bacteria and the evils of pasteurization when you are living in a place that still regularly sees outbreaks of typhoid and tuberculosis.

Rachel talks about cultural aspects of nostalgia as well, pointing out that some prominent Christian leaders seem to have a shortsighted desire to return to values supposedly held in earlier times:

… many evangelical values touted as ‘biblical’ are really just grounded in nostalgia for “how we think (certain) things were” in the 1950s (or the 1850s, as the case may be), all while seeming to forget—or at least, to compartmentalize—elements of culture that went right along with ‘traditional gender roles,’ like Victorian gentlemen’s tendency to keep wives ‘pure’ by visiting mistresses, child labor, and Jim Crow.

Nostalgia is for Ninnies

God often told the Israelites to remember. He wanted them to remember all he’d done for them, all the times he cared for them even when they cared not one whit for him.

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. (Deuteronomy 5:15.)

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. (Deuteronomy 8:2.)

The purpose of this remembering, though, is always about who God is, not about us, and it points to the future, not the past:

Remember this, keep it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels.

Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.

I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’

I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel. (Isaiah 46:8-10, 13.)

After all, the Bible makes clear that longing for the past is a fool’s game.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. (Ecclesiastes 7:10.)

God is Here and Now

Under the New Covenant, too, who God is and what he has done demands a response.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. (Hebrews 3:15.)

The word “Today” jumps off the page with an urgency I can’t ignore. God doesn’t say we should have turned to him yesterday and he doesn’t say it can wait until tomorrow. He is here and he wants us with him now.

Nostalgic for the past? No, thanks. Waiting for the future? No, not that either.

But here is something I will remember: I’m excited to be living today because this is where God is.

And here’s something I will look forward to: Every day is today with God.

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27 Responses to The Ungodliness of Nostalgia

  1. Judy says:

    Just yesterday, in a conversation with my husband and parents, my dad noted that since God is outside of time it is always “today””for Him. He knows no yesterday or tomorrow. With God it is always and only now. I guess I’d never really thought that through, for it was a new and interesting thought for me, and your good post adds another dimension to it. And I also appreciate and agree with the observation that cultural preferences often drive biblical interpretation. Ironically, theologians and Christian leaders honestly desire to defend the authority of Scripture against cultural pressures yet have themselves been molded by cultural norms of a different sort. Thanks Tim!

    • Tim says:

      How true that we are all molded by our cultures. People might get that they have to read Scripture with an eye to what the original writer’s culture was like, but sometimes miss that we need to be aware of our own cultural filter as well.

  2. Jeannie says:

    These are really good points about selective nostalgia. I guess the tendency to idealize the past is as old as time! (Now I will have to go and read Rachel Stone’s post.) Incidentally, our local paper had a humour column on the weekend about how young parents today know that their own childhoods weren’t that bad, but they need to make things up to tell their kids. You might enjoy taking a look at it here:

  3. Mary Anne says:

    Just yesterday a co-worker was lamenting “the good old days.” I presented him with an account of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy, sans anesthesia. =8-O

    Yes, I would like to have some aspects of the past back, like the days when my mom wasn’t ill, but I have to admit I’d only take those days if I got to pick and choose what came with them. Let’s leave out Jim Crow, women as second-class citizens, no air conditioning, etc.

    And the comment about meeting bacteria on our own terms: I think my brother and I were part of the last generation to actually HAVE childhood illnesses instead of being vaccinated for them. Measles nearly killed my brother. I had scarlet fever, of all things. I agree that the rise in childhood allergies may be due in part to kids spending more time indoors and not encountering the things that toughen up their immune systems, but the “toughening” process used to be pretty dang scary. Nope, have to agree with Carly Simon: “These are the good old days.”

    Sing it with me! “Stay right here, ’cause THESE are the good old days . . .” 😉

  4. Bronwyn Lea says:

    So true Tim: remembering God’s acts in the past, hoping for Him in the future, we live and act today. Great post.

  5. Nick says:

    Isn’t it interesting that the Bible addresses nostalgia? That was a long time ago…I guess there’s nothing new under the sun.

  6. Pingback: Nostalgia Requires Selective Memory | Rachel Marie Stone

  7. Aimee Byrd says:

    Um, I’m crazy busy for like 2 days, and you’ve pumped out like 50 (well, maybe not 50) new articles! Amazing, Tim.
    This is a helpful article that I can really resonate with lately. Been having some interesting conversations about health and nostalgia.

  8. Mark Songer says:

    I am a chronic nostalgist. I have longed for the return of days past since the 90s (the 80s being the best generation to be a teenager ever 🙂 ) There is a song by Meat Loaf from the late 80s that over the years I have considered to be a nostalgist’s anthem: “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” and it is certainly true. We often build up the good to awesome, build up the mediocre to good and either ignore the bad or amplify it. When Calvin in the classic comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” asked “When do the ‘halcyon days of my youth’ start,” his father replied “I think they are applied retroactively.” Even the Israelites did this in Exodus as the late, great Christian artist Kieth Green captured in his song “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt” with lyrics like “Eating leeks and onions by the Nile. Ew! what breath! But we were dining out in style.”

    Part of this, at least in my case, comes from a subconscious desire to mentally and physically return to days when life was “easier”, “simpler”, “safer”, and “made more sense.” My counselor tells me it’s a defense mechanism to stress and anxiety. We amplify the good and make our past idyllic. Some would say this is because of a lack of contentedness or self-sufficiency in us, but I think it is a natural instinct not unlike a child returning to its parent in times of fear and sadness or like a Christian who looks back at the “mountain top” experiences and longs for those times they felt so close to God and so filled with His spirit.

    Yes, God is in the now and yes, we are to work in the now. But I think if God did not want us to be able to look back on the past fondly, we would not be able to remember it. Granted, it is possible to take it too far (as I can do), but I think nostalgia in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It is an inborn trait we all have that, like all other things, can be used incorrectly or excessively and thereby sinfully.

    And yes, the three 80′s references in the first paragraph were intentional 🙂

    • Tim says:

      I like how you explain our natural – and I think God-given – tendency to return to times when we felt safe and cared for, Mark. God constantly calls us to remember what he’s done, and call us to return to him. I ma so glad that now I am never without God because the Spirit lives in me, and that the Spirit keeps me mindful of God just as Jesus promised.

  9. I was thinking about nostalgia today when I heard a woman on NPR talking about how we need to “get back” to the days when moms didn’t only have a “work life” and a “mom life,” but also had… what? PERSONAL time??

    I was so confused — I literally said out loud, “Get back to WHAT? WHAT time period are you TALKING about?” (to which Amelie responded, “Goooorrrrrrbbbbbbbb,” as babies are wont to do). But seriously. I couldn’t figure out what she was saying because as far as I can tell, moms have a ton more personal time today than they ever did “back in the day” (isn’t “personal time” for moms sort of a modern construct?).

    Anyhoo. Very interesting post – I never thought about God not wanting us to dwell in nostalgia. Thinking about the past can make me very sad — I can go into a dark spiral (maybe it was my days as an actress when I was trained to do this form of “method” acting – very scary and unhealthy). So most of the time, I briefly remember the past and move on quickly.

    When I’m at a loss for words with God, often I’ll do what the Psalmist does and just recount all the things he has done for us. It also puts my life in a great deal of good perspective when I pray this way.

    • Tim says:

      Rachel, it sounds like Amelie made more sense than that woman on the radio!

      And I know what you mean about dwelling on the past sometimes leading to a dark place. One of the things I’ve been learning along with you from the psalmists’ examples is that focusing on our past experiences with God always leads us to a better place.


      P.S. On women having more time today than in some past eras, I remember a story a pastor told once about an elderly parishioner. The older man asked in a Sunday School class something about just what do women find to do all day now that they have all these labor saving devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners. The pastor said everyone else at the man’s table started edging their chairs away from him so as to avoid the possibility of being hit by any Bibles flung his way.

  10. Pingback: Is That Bikini Video–and the ‘modesty’ movement–really about nostalgia? | Rachel Marie Stone

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