Nostalgia can be a powerful and dangerous thing. The desire and longing for the past can be both a boon and a millstone around our neck, keeping our eyes oriented not towards the future, but towards days gone by. It’s understandable – as mortal and finite beings, we often wish to either stay in place or return to what we see as “happier times.” We don’t often like certain types of changes, whether in the culture around us, the media around us, or the general landscape around us. Perhaps it’s because many of the buildings constructed today aren’t built to last. Do we really think that our common strip mall is going to last more than 50 years without falling apart? Perhaps it’s because of changing demographics. Perhaps it’s because great change in general reminds us of our own mortality and ephemeral existence. Regardless, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Nostalgic desire often reminds me of Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the watch. Gloria Swanson is captivating as has-been silent film actress Nora Desmond, who cannot understand that she is no longer “in demand” or famous as she continues to live in a fantasy world of the past tinged with a tragic nostalgia that escalates throughout the film. She finds herself stagnant in a world that long ago moved past her. When met with the comment “You used to be big,” she responds “I am big. It's the pictures that got small.”
Don’t get me wrong – nostalgia is not, in and of itself, a sin. There’s nothing wrong with proclaiming, alongside Archie and Edith Bunker, that “those were the days.” I would agree with that sentiment. Very few of my favorite pieces of media are all that recent. I love Gunsmoke with Jim Arness, but William Conrad was the better Matt Dillon. My two favorite actors are Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. I listen to a lot of Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller. Don’t get me started on Bix Beiderbecke and Rudy Vallée.
Still, the period from 1920-1960 was far from perfect. I’ll hear people lament the loss of “Christian America” and clean media, but very few will long for polio, asbestos, heavy smoking, and those old dentist chairs. And realistically, no matter how hard we try, the past has passed out of time, though we should be careful not to let it pass from memory.
Nostalgia is a longing for a past home, but as Christians, our real home is not in the Ohio of the 40s, or the D.C. of the 80s, or even the Maryland of the 2020s. Both our home and our hope lies in Christ, and lies forward, not backwards. It lies in the life of the world to come, in the New Heavens and New Earth of Revelation 21-22. As painful as it is to admit, the 20s, 30s, 40, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, are dead, and they’re not coming back. We don’t serve a God of the dead, but a God of the living, and “the living” refers to people, not a time period. As the seasons change, we should remember that the times change as well. The leaves, once fallen, are not put back on the tree. And so, nostalgia is bittersweet, because we know “the past” of our desires is not a past that we can return to. The good news is the future is eventually going to be even better than the past. Jesus is going to return. The dead will be raised. There will be no sickness, no sorrow, no death.
So look back to the past with nostalgia, sure, but don’t let your nostalgia overshadow your hope in Christ and the life of the world to come.