Everything was better before. That sentiment sets the tone of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” a fictional account of the relationships of a high school student before she commits suicide. Hearing those words hit me hard — almost like I had been kicked in the stomach. The show deals with hard-hitting issues like belonging, sexual assault, and bullying, but what struck me most was that these young people feel they exist in a bleak world of malaise and where nostalgia for the good old day is always lurking. I am afraid this kind of melancholy resonates with an entire generation, maybe even an entire culture.
Young people are never supposed to think that everything was better before! They are supposed to think everything before was rubbish, that their parents messed up, and that they will and can do better! They are supposed to make a difference, change things, make the world a better place!
When real life comes knocking — which of course it will, and sooner than kids think — they’ll get a big surprise. But for now, let them believe that nothing is impossible.
If we have convinced them, even before they are out of the gate, that they cannot improve the broken world, then maybe the world is truly broken. Maybe everything really was better before, when kids used to think that they could change the world for the better.
I decided to explore this idea with a group of intelligent young Christians at a leading Canadian university. I asked them: “Do you think things were better before?” They looked at me blankly.
I goaded them to respond.
“Sure, of course,” one of them shrugged after a long oppressive pause.
“Why do you think that?”
“Well they were, weren’t they? I mean all we are told is how much better it was. The planet wasn’t dying, it was easier to live as a person of faith, easier to find a job, a house, make a living. Yeah, everything was better before.”
Have we hammered this idea into the minds of our young people so relentlessly that they’ve come to believe it? And if we have, how unfortunate to do that to a culture that is already chock-full of melancholy and malaise. Malaise is, after all, a general feeling of discomfort, uneasiness, or tiredness. It’s the feeling, more than the thought, that things just aren’t right. It’s the loss of a sense of meaning, of purpose, of hope.
There is nothing new about this. People have been feeling this way for a long time. We saw it in the French philosophers of postmodernism, in movies like “American Beauty” which reflected the ferment of its time, 21 years ago. But now this feeling seems much more pervasive and raw. It’s as if our culture is taunting us for not recognizing we were creating monsters, for not reading the cultural prophecies that warned us of the coming malaise. We are not only suffering from compassion fatigue, but full-blown Weltschmerz, or world-weariness. We are tired of it all, weary before we even get out of bed.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, professor emeritus at McGill University, is perhaps the first scholar to give this cultural mood a diagnosis and a language. In his now-famous book, A Secular Age (2007), he discusses the cultural malaise of immanence — that is, what happens when a sense of transcendence or the divine is lost, when all is reduced to the material and God is conjured merely to do the things we cannot do for ourselves. We dutifully say our prayers but hear no response. And when God fails to come through on the big things we cannot control, like tsunamis and pandemics, we decide God is useless and dispense with him altogether. A failure of theodicy leads us to throw God into the compost heap.
In such a naturalistic world, reducible to a closed box of cause and effect, we are left with a crisis of meaning. Without meaning, we lose a sense of purpose. We lose hope. Left with a broad cultural malaise, everything is meh.
Some scholars and activists have pointed out the limits of human progress. And while we certainly understand that not every generation can make the world a better place, by destroying the myth of progress, we may have killed hope too.
Gone with the wind
Our present condition is more than a pinhole in the balloon of human advancement. It is now a cultural campaign of nostalgia that trades on selected memories and turns our institutions backward. It speaks of past greatness and present exile. It beckons us to find solace and root our identity in what went before — but this is a sepia, not a technicolor dream.
In his 1932 book The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt, political philosopher of the Nazis, tells us we gain political identity by identifying our enemy. The enemy is always the other, the outsider. The enemy is the stranger climbing over the wall or the foreigner with a virus. The enemy is something or someone we do not know, and nothing is more unknown and unknowable than the future.
If we make the future our enemy, then our identity must be found in the past. We long for the good old days when things were solid and right. And mostly we think they are good because we remember them. They are familiar. They are comfortable. They are a solace.
At least we think so.
Various theologies remind us that we can only go forward if we know where we’ve been. The Ghanaian concept of sankofa is one example of this — bringing the wisdom of the past to bear on the present in order to face the future. And it is important to look back so we can understand how we got to where we are now.
But who gets to tell the story of where we’ve been? Such a reflective exercise is useful only if we are being honest about the past and inclusive in how we interpret it. When we take a balanced approach to looking at what went before, we can look back and learn not to repeat past mistakes, let alone set up camp there under the guise of it being safer and therefore better.
So, for example, if we look back to the heyday of “Gone with the Wind” (1939), we need to recognize that whether we appreciate that classic film depends largely on our own place in the world today.
Were those the good old days? Were things better before? Maybe if you are white and privileged. Definitely not if you are Black, Jewish, Hispanic, or a single mother. A breadth of view, which tells a range of stories, challenges our sense of longing for the past.
An unsatisfied desire, more desirable than any other satisfaction
Yet nostalgia continues to define our culture and nostalgia feeds on this malaise.
Nostalgia combines the Greek nostos, which means home, or homecoming, with algos, which means pain. It is a pain associated with returning home. In his 2012 book, Heidegger and the Thinking of Place, Australian philosopher Jeff Malpas of the University of Tasmania describes nostalgia as a mood of homesickness — an impossible desire to return home that raises questions about where human beings actually belong in the world.
And in a 2014 Psychology Today article titled “The Meaning of Nostalgia,” psychologist Neel Burton calls nostalgia a “sentimentality for the past” that “combines the sadness of loss with the joy or satisfaction that the loss is not complete, nor can ever be.” Nostalgia comes with a painful longing that the world is too beautiful, too fragile, too fleeting. Nostalgia is a flock of geese at dawn, a full moon shining on an open field, childhood memories of Christmas, and of school days that were always sunny.
Yet hard as we try, we can never get these moments back, and the longing is never fulfilled. We end up confusing the desire of the thing with the thing itself. We seek endlessly to replicate past joy. The feelings these memories conjure up are gold, our current reality drab by comparison.
In consumer culture, we are fed a constant diet of nostalgia because our longing is endless — or, as St. Augustine famously writes, we are restless until we find our rest in God. And in a culture bereft of God, what is there to fulfill the void of desire other than with material things? Advertisers not only prey on this human reality, they bank on it. They know, as C.S. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy (1955), that nostalgia is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
For Lewis, the longing is ultimately a desire for God, but we continue to try to satisfy that longing with other things. The longing becomes a desire that is always out of reach as we chase love, holidays, promotions, thrills, or victories — on the battlefield, in the boardroom, or at Black Friday sales. We are always disappointed, but still continue to seek.
A sunny, airbrushed place
The belief that there are no new ideas is itself a turn back to nostalgia. Movies and songs — popular culture itself — seem to be on repeat. But this is not accidental. It’s not that there are no new ideas, rather it’s that there is an assured return on investment in old ideas. Nostalgia sells. It is a sure thing in the market because marketers have come to know how the human psyche works. And the human psyche longs inconsolably for it knows not what, as C.S. Lewis reminds us in A Pilgrim’s Regress (1933).
Movie franchises, for example, repeat on a 20-year cycle, generating new nostalgic feelings for young people, and drawing on their parents’ peak spending power. When we see an old movie or hear an old song, we have a pang of sentimentality and longing. Rather than allow the moment to point us beyond the moment, we seek to replicate it, over and over. And it never fulfills. Marketers count on it.
The TV show “Mad Men” (2007–2015), set in the 1960s, reflects not only how advertising trades on nostalgia, but the fraud that it ultimately represents. The lead character, Don Draper, says in a speech:
Nostalgia — it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that, in Greek, nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backward, and forward . . . it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels — around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.
When Draper shows pictures of an idealized past, his evocative words bring his audience to tears. Yet the pictures mask the reality of broken lives and relationships. We yearn for the past, but although it looks like a sunny place, that is because all the pain and bruises have been airbrushed out.
The big metal door
If we are truly honest, we must confess that even if some things were better before, certainly not everything was.
For C.S. Lewis, the natural human longing for nostalgia does not inherently lean backward. Rather, it leans forward into joy. And in Lewis’s fully orbed eschatological theology, future joy is a significant and legitimate longing, a search for God. In contrast, backward-facing nostalgia prevents us from recognizing the perils and opportunities of our current situation and inhibits the sorts of actions that will help us to lean into the future.
We may long for the past, but we have to live in the future. We can respond adequately to present challenges and opportunities only when we recognize our nostalgic past no longer exists, if ever it did. Nor can we conjure it up simply by longing for it. The longing we have is ultimately a longing for our home with God, and it encourages us to lean into the future with confidence.
Why is all of this important? And, why does it matter for seminaries?
In this global pandemic, we have a new nostalgic pressure. We have the immediate sense, the deep conviction, that surely everything was better before. Who among us would not wave a wand to magically undo these recent months of havoc, this hovering cloud of mortality? We were nostalgic before all of this disruption and death, but now we pray that soon things will be back to normal so we can get back to the way things used to be.
Seminary leaders are likely feeling this sentiment too. Let’s just put our heads down, survive this earthquake, and get on with our previous strategic plans after having a bumpy ride of it for a year or two.
But the future will not be like the past. We cannot know exactly what it will be like. It is risky and uncertain. It is unknown. The churches will not be the same. Ministry will not be the same. And perhaps we will brace against this future, regard it as our enemy, and avoid it at all cost.
Yet this disruption affords us unique opportunities. Will we give in to the pressures of nostalgia that have so formed our culture to this point? Will we seek to recreate our past? Or will we take the risk and lean in with abandon into an unknown future?
There is an apocryphal story of a Cold War commander who offered captured prisoners a choice: the firing squad, or whatever lay behind a big metal door. Time after time, prisoners chose the firing squad. Years later, a colleague asked the commander what was behind the metal door. “Freedom,” he said, “but I never knew a single captive to choose it. They would rather face the firing squad than risk the unknown.”
For some seminaries, the temptation may be to follow their supporting churches into a position of exile, to identify the enemy and circle the wagons. The enemy is the unknown future, so they seek the past, when everything was better. They hunker. They focus on survival. They do what they know worked before.
The alternative, of course, is to choose the big metal door — the door of risk and hope.
Right now, we are faced with an opportunity to rewrite our stories. We can hone and refocus our missions. We can tear down silos and break destructive patterns. At the very least, we — together with our boards and senior administrators — can ask hard questions about why our institutions exist, whether they need to exist, and what our existence ought to look like going forward. And those of us with resources should be asking how to share those resources with those who are most in need, for example, the Global South where the church is most vibrant and most in need of the resources we have.
And yet, as human beings, we are inherently nostalgic. Like the disciples straining their eyes upward after Jesus disappeared from view, we are being asked, “Why are you staring up into the sky?” We need to be reminded, as they did, that we must get on with what we have been told to do. Like them, we must allow the Holy Spirit to make our forward mission clear.
The temptation to turn backward is always there. Indeed, the first disciples not only stared at the sky, but they returned to their boats. They forgot their calling. And as they longed for the presence of Jesus, they almost missed the coming of the Paraclete. The God of old was about to do something new. As Jeremiah says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Let it not be said of our seminaries that everything was better before.