This post is part of an ongoing blog series on Pomomusings entitled “(Re)Imagining Christianity.” To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that must die so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
Nostalgia: The Oscars took place a few weeks ago. I didn’t watch many of the films, but I did see this year’s winner for Best Original Screenplay, Midnight in Paris. The film stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, a writer vacationing with his fiance in Paris. Gil is in love with 1920s Paris.
One night, Gil gets into an old car with people dressed up in 1920s-style clothes, only to be transported back to his favorite era. Gil meets some of the literary and artistic icons who lived in Paris at the time, which only feeds into his obsession and impairs his ability to live in the present when daylight returns.
The part of the movie that strikes me most is when Gil talks to Adriana, a young Parisian woman. She pictures the 1890s as the Golden Age of Paris, but when they travel there, Gil has a realization:
“Adriana, if you stay here though, and this becomes your present, then pretty soon you’ll start imagining another time was…the golden time. Yeah, that’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.”
I think we face a similar case of nostalgia in the church. The state of the typical American church is a little unsatisfying, so we long for “the good days.” When denominations were growing and thriving. When people were biblically literate. When youth ministry and worship didn’t need to compete with sports practices. When families worshipped together, and kids dressed up and sat quietly in the pews during worship. When… When… When…
It makes me wonder, When? When did church actually look like that?
I have a suspicion that those days never really existed. Or if they did exist, they weren’t as perfect as people imagine.*
The church faces a lot of difficulties today, and it’s easy to dream about how nice it would be to return to the past. However, I think looking at the church through the lens of nostalgia offers a skewed picture that can be misleading or even damaging. And those days, even if they did exist, are never coming back.
Or course, we aren’t alone in our struggle to reconcile our memories with reality. I was reading about the end of the Babylonian exile in the book of Ezra. God’s people finally return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. Even as they celebrate laying the foundation for a new Temple, memories of the past are close at hand. The older people who had seen the first Temple “wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping” (3:12-13).
I can imagine the conversations among the community leaders. Wondering what their faith would look like now. What it would mean to be people of God in Jerusalem after the Exile. Living between the old and the new.
So here’s my challenge to leaders in the church. Let’s acknowledge the difference between history and nostalgia. That creates space to identify what’s at the root of our desire for the past–to understand what values of that era still hold true. Then we can shift from navigating through the rear-view mirror and move toward honoring our history, recognizing the present situation, and casting a vision for the future.
That would seem a bit more satisfying and faithful, at least for me.
*I have heard many stories from my grandmother about how she played organ and faithfully served her congregation–but could not vote or serve on any board or council because she was a woman.
Bethany Stolle: Bethany is a resource designer, wife, church volunteer, networker, and tech geek living with her husband, Brent, in Minneapolis. She develops youth ministry resources for sparkhouse, and her passion is collaborating with others to help people develop as theologians and claim their faith. You can find Bethany on her blog and Twitter (@bethanystolle).