Nostalgia: Why This Friend Bears Watching

A few years back, a young friend in our church became hooked on “Happy Days,” the television series. She fantasized of the 1950s as the golden age in American life. She thought it was all Elvis and sock hops and soda fountains.

One day I just couldn’t take it any more and did something really mean.

I said, “Melissa, I became a teenager in 1953. In the ’50s, we fought the Korean War, then went through the Cold War. We feared being bombed by Russia every day, and racism was rampant. I wouldn’t go back there for anything.”

I know, I know. I should have left her alone to her daydreaming. She wasn’t hurting anyone.

The truth is I’m as much into nostalgia as anyone I know.

Nostalgia: Fantasizing about an earlier time in a way that denies the reality. That’s my definition, not one you’ll find in a book somewhere.

The current Sherlock Holmes craze owes its popularity to an idealized love for the 1890s as much as to an admiration for the observation and reasoning skills of the great detective, I wager. This fictional creation of Arthur Conan Doyle is more popular today than he has ever been, and that’s saying something.

In “The Sherlockian,” Graham Moore’s new book that plays to the fascination for all things Sherlock, the protagonist, Harold White, sizes up the nostalgia thing perfectly.

Harold says to his friend Sarah:

I understand. There’s something….incomplete about our vision of Holmes’ time. I know it’s not real. I know that in the real 1895 there were two hundred thousand prostitutes in the city of London. Syphilis was rampant. Feces littered most major streets. Indian immigrants were locked up in Newgate on the barest suspicion that they had committed a crime. So-called homosexual acts were crimes, and they were punishable by years in prison. It was a racist culture, and a sexist one, too.

Harold takes a deep breath while he thinks of how to proceed with this line of thought.

Look, I get it. I’m a white, heterosexual man. It’s really easy for me to say, ‘Oh, wow, wasn’t the nineteenth century terrific?’ But try this. Imagine the scene: It’s pouring rain against a thick window. Outside, on Baker Street, the light from the gas lamps is so weak that it barely reaches the pavement. A fog swirls in the air, and the gas gives it a pale yellow glow, a man steps out into that dim, foggy world, and he can tell you the story of your life by the cut of your shirtsleeves. He can shine a light into the dimness, with only his intellect and his tobacco smoke to help him. Now. Tell me that’s not awfully romantic?

Sarah laughs and agrees that it definitely sounds romantic.

But the fantasy, the remembrance of that image from the 1890s, is a lie. We envision a tiny sliver of life in late Victorian London and cull out all the unpleasant parts.

Nostalgia can be fun but is always a lie.

That’s part of the attraction, I suppose. We create a land far away in a former time and make it whatever we want it to be. It exists only in our mind. It’s fun and harmless, perhaps not unlike the current craze for fantasy football or baseball.

My nostalgia–confession coming up—centers on the American homefront in World War II. I read everything I can find on it, histories, biographies, first-person accounts, and novels. Especially novels.

Novels are not hampered by grim reality. Novelists pick and choose bits and pieces of reality and ignore parts that do not fit the picture they are creating.

I know this, but continue to spend good money on the books that feed my somewhat flawed memoriy for that period.

I was born in 1940, and obviously recall nothing of the war years other than seeing uncles in the house wearing their uniforms. I have no memories of food rationing, of scrap drives, of steam driven automobiles, of the mistreatment of the Tuskegee airmen, or any of the other hardships associated with that war. You might say I was there, but wasn’t. In some ways, I wish I had been.

A favorite movie ,”Since You Went Away,” starring Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotten, depicts life on the American homefront through Hollywood’s eyes. I like everything about it. I am well aware that it’s pure romance and rather antiseptic.

Nostalgia is found in Scriptures, it might surprise you to know.

A couple of places immediately come to mind.

A. Numbers 11.

The Israelites were having a tough time of it in the Wilderness. The excitement of leaving Egypt under the miracle-producing hand of an Almighty God had worn off and the dailiness of their dreary existence in a barren countryside had set in. Once again, they were bellyaching to Moses.

The children of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!” (Numbers 11:4-6)

Nothing but manna! Imagine.

God was dropping angel food from Heaven on them every morning, and they were griping.

As they looked back to Egypt, all these weary nomads could recall were the few pleasures they had enjoyed in that harsh land. How easily they forgot the slavery and brutality, the mistreatment by their masters, their complete lack of freedom, and the way their children were taken from home and even killed.

They missed the onions.

I think it was Vance Havner who said of these food cravings that “cucumbers are 12 inches of indigestion, melons are 95 percent water, and the garlic and onions–well, they speak for themselves.”

That’s how nostalgia works: it blurs the memories of the bad and leaves the few pleasures of the past intact. Which isn’t completely bad, once you stop to think about it. The ability to blot out horrible memories allows us to rise to our feet after a shattering experience and go on with life.

And how did the Lord feel about Israel’s nostalgia for the slim culinary delights of Egypt? And the anger of the Lord was greatly aroused; Moses also was displeased. (Num. 11:10)

Friend, you do not want to arouse God’s anger, believe me.

In verse 20, Moses says the people are despising the Lord by their nostalgia. So, it was far from harmless.

B.Matthew 23.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were nostalgia addicts. The Lord said, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ (Matthew 23:2-30)

It was safe, they had discovered, to honor the righteous leaders of the past. It was only this pesky Jesus and His disciples who were the trouble-makers. If they saw the hypocrisy in such contradictory behavior, there’s no indication.

The church in the wilderness honored Abraham and persecuted Moses. The church in the period of the kings honored Moses and persecuted the prophets. The church in Jesus’ day honored the prophets and persecuted Jesus. The church in the late middle centuries honored Jesus and persecuted Hus and Wycliffe and others.

One wonders whom we are persecuting today in the name of the Lord while honoring the martyred heroes of the past.

To the leaders romanticizing Israel’s past, Jesus said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt.” (Matt. 23:31-32)

Like fathers, like sons.

He said, “Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in yoru synagogues and persecute from city to city….” (Matt. 23:34)

The children were living down to the example of their ancestors.

Nostalgia is a fun place to visit, but you don’t want to live there.

The man who becomes obsessed with an earlier age might make a great history professor in college, but you would not want to be married to him.

The woman whose beclouded mind lives in another world makes a terrible wife and negligent mother.

Christians who long for the Eden of the 1950s are miserable disciples of the Lord Jesus and troublesome church members for every pastor.

Millions of Americans long for past times when life was great, everyone went to church, citizens were all patriotic, and neighborhoods were peaceful.

That time in American life did not exist. Except in their minds.

But maybe it’s all harmless fun, right?

It is unless you are trying to force your image onto your leaders as the vision of what America or your church should be today. Then, you become a problem child.

The Remedy for Nostalgia’s Dangers is God’s Remedy for All That Ails Mankind.

“Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

The Lord Jesus was back there in the past. He is right here in the present. He will be on site when tomorrow’s sun comes up.

The Bible says of David that “he served his generation and then fell asleep” (Acts 13:36). That’s the plan.

Serve your generation. Do your job today. Do not bury yourself in another age, no matter how special it was. You are alive today and today is your responsibility.

Even though movies (“Back to the Future,” e.g.) and novels like to envision us time-traveling into the distant past to “fix” something that was broken and then returning to find the present an entirely more pleasant age, that does not happen.

The way to fix the future is to be faithful, on the job, today.

Need a break from life’s stresses and pressures? Watch an old movie or read a book. But, then, come back to the present.

We’ll be needing you here.

4 thoughts on “Nostalgia: Why This Friend Bears Watching

  1. There’s no time like the present. God placed us were we are for His purposes. My road is not any more difficult than most through out history and to be honest it’s probably better. I thank God for that. The very least I can do is serve him with all that is within me. This usually consists of knocking my crazy ideas out of my head and filling it with His much better ones.

    Kellie (Doveonawire on the Blog Spot site)

  2. Author Tom Clancy said the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction had to make sense. I guess that is why we wax nostalgic! We are just trying to make sense of it all…

  3. While I think nostalgia is usually harmless, I also believe it has the potential to become dangerous. As you mention, the ’50’s weren’t all moonlight and roses. Ignoring the negative aspects of the era can blind one to them and thereby lead shat person to offer “returning to the past” (as if such a thing were possible!) as a simplistic solution to all of society’s ills.

    On the other hand, I think we should avoid the opposite extreme of demonizing the past as well. I think what we should aim for is taking the best of the past and the best of the present and try to combine the two.

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