This essay was written by Bob, but many people contributed, and it was a collaboration based on trust and love for the Church of the Nazarene. We live in a time of turmoil and uneasiness, yet that should not mean that we transport ourselves to an earlier time out of misplaced nostalgia.
“Rosy retrospection” is a condition from which some Christians suffer. Rosy retrospection is a hyper-idealized version of the past that fails to recognize present challenges and future possibilities. Rosy retrospection relishes a by-gone era and longs for a return to the “good ole days!” Longing for the good old days is a coping mechanism for those seeking a sense of hope and purpose. Reverting back to a time in which life was not as difficult is a natural human response to overwhelming circumstances in the present. Rosy retrospection is an emotional shortcut leading to a cognitive bias that things were better in the past when, in fact, that may not have been the case at all.
I’m somewhat of a nostalgic person. I love turn-of-the-century history, Victorian homes, and the rustic living quarters of old. I shop for antiques, read the accounts of past revivals, and discuss historical developments that set the stage for present day life. Some of the antiques I’ve collected will one day be a part of a turn-of-the-century room in our home and serve as a time-capsule of sorts. I have an antique violin owned by my grandfather, rustic furniture, and some old pictures. It’s going to be a fun project. But I don’t want to get too focused on the past. I have to live in the present, modern day living amenities are far superior. We tend to focus on the past when we think going back in time will help us recover something valuable that has been lost. Idealizing the past, however, is wasted mental energy because it causes our imaginations to roam unhealthily. When we step into the good old days with a modern mind, it leads to all sorts of exaggerations and embellishments we subconsciously project on our present-day problems. Sometimes, it’s just not good for us.
There are instances in the Bible of God’s people misremembering or exaggerating historical events. Take Numbers 11 for example. The people of Israel longing of the for the “comforts” of Egypt—the leeks, the garlic, the watermelons! Was it really that good? The present pain of wandering in the desert tainted their recollection of just how bad it was.
The modern church occasionally suffers from rosy retrospection. Some of the great revivals of the past deserve our praise. Watershed moments of God’s spirit being poured out were the impetus in forming many of our beloved institutions. History deserves our attention because it shapes our identity and prevents us from repeating past mistakes. History can also be used as a detriment. Endless comparisons, confabulations, anachronisms, and nostalgia can hold us back in the present. The church cannot be led from a rearview mirror. To quote a popular aphorism, the past is a nice place to visit, but you can’t live there.
Moreover, remembering the past too fondly can cause a blindness to set in that retroactively erases past sins. Lest we forget, the church had many past sins for which repentance was needed. The good old days were not so good when you consider the abuses, corruption, and evil perpetuated by the church. I certainly think God breaking through had a lot to do with progress, but I don’t want to remember too fondly the good at the expense of being blind to the bad. May our prayer be: Lord, give us a sober memory of past victories and struggles!
James K. A. Smith outlines the dangers of nostalgia in his recent book, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the past, facing the future, living faithfully now. Smith contends, “Nostalgia wants to undo time, walk it all back, as if this were some sort of recovery. Grace wants to unleash our history for a future with God that could only be ours—living into the version of ourselves the world needs…The hidden price of getting what nostalgia has is losing what has been given to you” (pg. 62).
Tom Petty’s classic song, Learning to Fly, speaks of a similar reality,
Well, the good old days, may not return, the rocks may melt and the sea may burn…I’m learning to Fly, but I ain’t got wings, coming down is the hardest thing.
[I (Brandon) would like to insert a comment highlighting a very real way we miss the sins of the past as an editor to this essay. There was a cultural acquiescence in the fact that until 1953, the COTN still had a “Colored District.” While that was morphed into the Gulf Central District in the South, that segregated district remained until 1969. Unfortunately, truths such as this get buried in the past such that we forget them. We shouldn't linger on it, but it's important for our leadership and clergy to thoughtfully examine the cultural syncretism and potential pitfalls of the past.]
The present challenges facing the 21st Century church require flight. If we cling to the past nostalgias, we’ll miss soaring to new heights. Learn to fly Nazarenes!