On Nostalgia

Do you ever get that wistful feeling that things were better before now? We often think that here and now is just so bad and if we simply returned to the “good old days” then life would be better again.

Nostalgia is basically that sentimental (and often unrealistic) longing for a particular time in the past. Christians are especially guilty of it, and I am no exception. This can happen on a personal level, where someone might wish they could go back to their childhood, but it can also happen in the political sphere, where we long to go back to another historical period, perhaps one where the church had a stronger grip on parliament, or when sexual ethics were more conservative, or when a higher percentage of the population were Christian.

Put simply, we get so caught up in longing for “the good old days,” that lose our ability to be fully present here and now, and we forget that Jesus calls us to be agents of social change and to look forward to his coming kingdom.

This does not mean that we should not look back into the past; on the contrary, properly investigating history can often reveal the truth of how things really were, and can actually put things into a healthy perspective. To quote the famous Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, “in the past, everything was worse.”1 No self-respecting historian would deny that the world is actually getting better.

For example, in 1800, the global literacy rate for people over the age of 15 was 10%. By 2016 it had risen to 86%. Or take female education around the world: in 1970 the share of girls of primary school age enrolled in school was 65%, and now it is over 90%. Moreover, the survival rate for a child after five years of cancer in 1975 was 58%, whereas by 2010 it had risen to 80%. Most astonishingly, extreme poverty (as classified by WorldBank) was 85% in 1800, which dropped to 50% in 1966 and has now been sitting at 9% since 2019.2

We can’t deny that for people all over the world, life has improved. It’s certainly not perfect, but it is getting better. And yet, a great deal of Christians seem to resonate with problematic phrases like “Take Back Control” and “Make America Great Again.” Why? Things were definitely not better before. The world was poorer, there were more wars, and basically everyone was sexist and racist.

In all honesty, I think we are more afraid of change than we need to be.

First, when we fear social change in the political sphere, we are basically buying into the lie that the government has more power than Jesus. This is ridiculous. Regardless of who is in charge, Jesus is still sitting on the throne in heaven and he knows exactly what is going on.3 We do not need to tremble with fear when political powers refuse to align with our values.

Second, when we worry about being pushed onto the sidelines and having our “free speech” muffled, we forget that the gospel can sometimes spread faster under persecution.4 We should be glad when the world hates us and pushes us out of the limelight. Not only are we called to rejoice when we are mocked for the gospel, but we are told to expect it!5

In fact, when we have too much political power we tend to make a mess of things. Christian historian Brad Gregory argues that Christendom lost its power because it had to: during the Reformation era, the church wielded enormous political power and yet it failed to live by the standards that Jesus set. This stripping away of influence was a very good thing.6

Third, when we wistfully long to go back in time we miss the opportunity to be a prophetic voice that exists in the present and calls the future into being. Let’s be proactive agents of change rather than whiney reactionaries who don’t know how to cope! Let’s live out God’s declaration to Isaiah: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? 7 How can we discern the new thing God is doing if we’re too busy obsessing over our false 1950s-esque fantasy?

Yes, we should be looking back so that we can remember the good God has done. And we should also look back to remember mistakes we need to learn from. However, our primary calling is to look forward to our coming king, not back to false idea about the past.8

The world is changing whether we like it or not – if only we could see the good that God is doing!

Until next time,

S


1 Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists (2017), Bloomsbury p1.

2 Luct Jolin, ‘Reasons to Feel Hopeful’ in Cambridge Alumni Magazine Issue 89 – Lent term 2020, pp34-39.

3Revelation 4

4 See for example John Piper’s talk, Spreading Power Through Persecution

5 Luke 6:22-23 ; 1 Peter 4:12-16

6 Brad S. Gregory, ‘Against Nostalgia’ in The Unintended Reformation (2012) Harvard University Press, pp365-387.

7 Isaiah 43:19

8 Revelation 22:7

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