Nostalgia and the Gospel

Nostalgia—the longing to relive something in the past—is all the rage right now.  Television, movies, and music have all gotten in on the throwback trend as executives seek to capitalize on the ubiquitous desire to recapture the “good ole days.”  Netflix has had great success in this venture, reviving the 1990s sitcom Full House and producing the critically acclaimed drama Stranger Things, a series that pays homage to 1970s and 1980s classics like E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Nostalgia in entertainment is hardly new—remember Happy Days, The Wonder Years, and The Andy Griffith Show? Even politicians like to tap into our inclination to go back in time with their ill-fated promises to “make America great again.”

Certainly, our fond memories of the past aren’t always completely accurate.  For instance, the first half of the twentieth century in America may have had its charms, but it was hardly Mayberry for everyone—especially not for minority groups.  Moreover, the thought of reliving something we loved is sometimes much better than the reality of actually doing so—as was recently evident in the negative reception of the Ghostbusters reboot.

And yet we still have an ache to experience the past again, to revisit our childhood, to recapture something that has been lost.  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings beautifully expresses this sentiment in her novel, The Yearling (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938).  Set in 1870s Florida, the novel is a coming of age tale focusing on a boy named Jody Baxter.  Much of the novel provides an idyllic description of Jody’s life with his father.  At one point, Jody persuades his parents to let him keep a deer as a pet.  But as the deer grows, it begins to eat the family’s crops, thereby becoming a threat to the family’s physical and financial well-being.  After several failed attempts to prevent the deer from sabotaging the harvest, Jody is ordered by his now sickly father to kill the animal.  Because Jody is emotionally unable to comply, his mother shoots the deer at his father’s command; however, because she is a poor shot, she only wounds it, leaving Jody to put his beloved deer out of its misery.

Naturally, these events are distressing for Jody.  The world as he has known it exists no longer.  He runs away from home, at which point he experiences the full brunt of life’s hardships and is overwhelmed by the feeling of lostness.  Rawlings explains, “He hung suspended in a timeless space.  He could go neither forward nor back.  Something was ended.  Nothing was begun” (422).  Eventually, despite his anger toward his father, Jody becomes homesick and longs to reunite with his family.  Nevertheless, he knows he has changed.  He cannot go back to how things used to be—he cannot recapture the “innocence” of childhood.  Still, Jody returns home, and his relieved father assures him, “I’ve wanted life to be easy for you.  Easier’n ‘twas for me.  A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world.  Knowin’ they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore.  I wanted to spare you, long as I could.  I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’” (426).

Jody realizes that he will have to move forward in life without his deer—and one day without his father.  And yet the longing to go back remains; he still “[finds] himself listening for something”—“it was the sound of the yearling for which he listened” (427).  As the novel closes, Rawlings recounts, “Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever” (428).  Jody’s eyes have been opened to the brutality of the world.  His deer is gone—and with it is the naiveté of childhood.

Perhaps our first brush with evil in the world was not so traumatic, but at some point, our eyes were also opened to the brokenness of the world around us—perhaps when we first encountered serious sickness or when our parents divorced or when a loved one died or when we felt alone in the world for the first time.  Suddenly, we were cut off from the goodness we had once known.  We wished we could return to the way things were, but we knew that was impossible—what had been done could not be undone.

The same is true with our relationship with God.  That ancient consumption of forbidden fruit infused something dark into the once-perfect human heart.  And there was no going back; there was no changing what had happened.  A pristine creation was now marred by sin; the image of God was tarnished.  We were now cut off from the goodness of the garden—and from the God of that garden. To this day, we sense this separation deeply, and we long, if only subconsciously, to experience the world as it was created to be, to know a sinless creation—to return to Eden.  We have a desperate need to be reconciled to our Creator—and this need just might explain why we have the tendency to keep looking back.

S. Lewis argued, “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache” (“The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses [New York: HarperOne, 1980], 42).

In other words, there is a proper end for our longing.  His name is Jesus.  And this is the glory of the gospel: that though we were once cut off, God Himself came to us.  The garden from which we were exiled now beckons us home.  And from within the valley of the shadow of death comes the promise of new life.  Indeed, unlike Jody Baxter, Christians can know that the goodness of the past is not “gone forever,” for they hear the hallowed echoes of the coming kingdom in the words of their Savior: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

And so as the nostalgic craze around us continues, let’s not be content with recapturing the “greatness” of the ‘70s and ‘80s—or the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Instead, let’s use our common nostalgic bent to point others to that for which they are truly homesick—the God from whom they have been separated but who, through Jesus Christ, is reconciling all things to Himself.  As we reflect on all that has been lost in the course our lifetime, let us rejoice that in spite of everything, we have been found.  And in light of that truth, let us look ahead expectantly to the glory that awaits us, knowing that our King is coming soon and that in His name, every broken thing will be restored.  Indeed, “that old ache” will at last be healed.

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