It is very easy to slip into looking back and idealising the past.

On one level it’s harmless fun, looking back fondly on the endless Summers of our youth, the music, the films, the people and places. But, on another level, it’s a dangerous preoccupation. Nostalgia tends to view the past through rose-tinted lenses, forgetting all that wasn’t so good about it, and when nostalgia becomes a key motivation in the present in the hands of populist leaders it can head in some decidedly unhelpful directions.  

Photo: Peter King

It is ironic that our understanding of nostalgia is itself a twentieth century creation. Nostalgia was originally a medical term to describe the feelings of homesickness experienced by Swiss people living far from their homes, and so essentially a negative and destructive phenomenon. It was only in the nineteenth century that the term ceased to describe a medical diagnosis, which required sometimes dramatic treatment, and began to be seen as the essentially positive emotion of today.[1]  

Recently I have been reading Hannah Rose Woods’ fascinating book Rule Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain. Rose Woods’ central argument is that people have always been nostalgic, and that nostalgia is very often rooted in a misunderstanding of history. As she heads her Introduction, “Nostalgia Tells it Like it Wasn’t”.

This is why maintaining a particular view of history has become such a politically charged issue in both the U.K. and the U.S.A. at the present:

Our understanding of what happened in the past will always shape what we understand to be inevitable, desirable and possible in the world today – which is, after all, why political energies are directed so concertedly towards shaping an ‘official’ version of history in curriculums and citizenship tests.

Hannah Rose Wood, Rule Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, Penguin, 2022, p.16

Conflicting interpretations of history have become such a fraught area of debate because they are not just about how we understand the past but how we live in the present, and what sort of world we seek in the future. For example, once it is admitted that the British Empire wasn’t actually a good thing, and that occupation and colonisation of other countries has no moral justification, then our ancestors move to the wrong side of history and we are faced with the need for apologies and reparation.

Where then should the church stand on these debates and controversies? I would suggest that the church simply speak up for the truth.  Rewriting history is not denying the truth if the way history has been written up to now conceals that truth. Nor is rewriting history, as is so often claimed, changing history. The past cannot be changed, but the way in which we interpret and understand it can, as can the judgments we make about it. And the nature of those judgments about the past tells us much about ourselves in the present. As historian E.H. Carr wrote many years ago:

There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.

E.H Carr in What is History (1961). Quoted by Sarah Churchwell, in What Is History Now ?,W & N 2021,p.56

We would do well to reflect on what today’s preoccupations with the past, and with maintaining a particular version of it, tell us about ourselves and our concerns and priorities for the future.

Photo: Peter King

Of course, the church itself is not immune to nostalgia. We, too, are inclined to idealise the past – when churches were full; ministers were respected members of the community; people prayed and read the Bible. Yet theirs was a world very different to our own, and not always in good ways. As one blog post reminds us, ‘In the “Christian” mid-Victorian era there were estimated to be 80,000 child prostitutes in London alone.‘  [2]

So, yet again, nostalgia conceals the truth. And looking further back, it is easy to be nostalgic for the church of the Book of Acts, where all lived as one, forgetting that just a few years later that same church would display all the faults and failings we see in our own.

But is Christian faith itself nostalgic? Does a foundational story of creation and fall mean that Christian faith is forever looking back to a time of lost innocence? Or does the story of creation and fall rather focus on the present, reminding us that the world is fundamentally good and that it is spoiled by our wrong choices?

The writer of Ecclesiastes is certainly not nostalgic, stating clearly that the wise person does not dwell on the glories of the past:

Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

Eccles. 7:10 NRSV

The writer of Isaiah 43, too, calls us to look forward not backwards:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old

Isaiah 43:18 nrsv

for

I am about to do a new thing

Isaiah 43:19a nrsv

And this would seem to me to be the basic trajectory of the whole Bible. The prophetic visions of a peaceable kingdom, where swords are transformed into ploughshares and the wolf lies down with the lamb, look not backwards but forwards, as do the teachings of Jesus with their repeated concern that our actions now have lasting consequences. Even the Book of Revelation looks forward to a new Eden rather than merely a recreation of the old.

For the truth is that the past is gone forever. We have only the future, and though we may be motivated and inspired by stories of the past, our responsibility is forward looking. As the Hebrew prophets teach us so vividly and powerfully, the whole purpose of understanding history is to enable us to live better in the present and to build a better future. So, amidst the increasingly heated debate about competing versions of history it’s important not to get caught up in the myths of nostalgia.

In her chapter in the collection What is History Now? cultural historian Sarah Churchwell speaks of the historian’s task of ‘dismantling the mythologies’, resisting ‘received wisdoms’ and constructing ‘alternative histories’. To do this requires what she speaks of as ‘reading for the gaps, for what’s been left out or unsaid’ (p. 59) in conventional retellings of history.

It struck me reading these words that this is what those of us who struggle with the Bible’s violence are also seeking to do. For we too resist received wisdom as we seek to dismantle mythologies of violence, and we too read for the gaps, seeking to allow the voices of those whose voices are silent in the biblical stories to at last be heard. In this way we too take steps to avoid telling the biblical story like it wasn’t. For example, was Samson really a heroic precursor of Christ or was he rather more akin to a modern day suicide bomber? Or was Abraham, in being prepared to kill his son Isaac for God, really an exemplar of faith?

In the end, for us all, it is about taking responsibility for the past, truthfully and honestly faced, and working together to build a better and more just world for the future. 

[1] See Rule Nostalgia, p. 9;  https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(10)61284-6/fulltext ; https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/when-nostalgia-was-a-disease/278648/

[2] https://theologyeverywhere.org/2022/06/06/nostalgia/


Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education.  Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.


Telling it Like it Wasn’t – The Politics of Nostalgia
Tagged on:             

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

eighteen − three =