Don’t Look Back
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I’ll admit I got taken in the first time. As a grade school child my conception of cool included too tight silk shirts and blue jeans with more flair than Liberace. I even had my own polyester jumpsuit. I looked like a cross between Howdy Doody and Elvis, in his latter years. The current fashion craze of recreating the nightmare of the seventies hasn’t filled my heart with a warm dose of nostalgia. Instead it makes me embarrassed for what I used to wear. I’ve learned my lesson well. I won’t get fooled again.
It reminds me, however, of the power of nostalgia, even its most affected and insincere manifestations. Postmodernism, because it is parasitic and destructive, cannot build a culture. It can only reconstitute old ones. Because it is cynical and knowing, it goes out of its way to reconstitute that which is garish, immature, and kitschy. We dress like goofballs to demonstrate our knowing superiority over the narrative that is clothing. Because it denies that nothing lasts, it demands that everything be new. The danger is the speed at which our cultural spin-masters are spinning the old cultures. It won’t be long before we are encouraged to practice a faux nostalgia for last week.
Real nostalgia, true longing for days gone by is fed by a different kind of folly. It seems that hindsight can only be had through rose-colored glasses. And they never go out of style. We want things not as they used to be, but as we remember that they used to be. Which is why the author of Hebrews went to such trouble, argued with such passion, warned with such fervor in his epistle. Nostalgia can do worse things than make you dress funny.
Living in a comparatively free country, one where pluralism rules the day, it is difficult to understand what it would have taken for a first-century Jew to embrace the claims of Jesus Christ. More than likely, such would destroy a whole host of family relationships. Friendships would be sundered as well. Those, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, indeed, like the apostle Paul, who once were honored and respected men of the community, would now become social pariahs, unable to get a place at the table. And a swift and painful death by martyrdom, with each passing day, became more and more likely.
Like their forefathers before them, we can have sympathy when some begin to talk about how they once had leeks and garlic back in Egypt, that though they were slaves, their pots were filled. Present suffering deepens the rosy hue as we look back at past suffering. And so many believing Hebrews struggled mightily with fits of nostalgia. Many were sorely tempted to throw off the dead-weight of this Jesus, that happy days might be here again. Cast off that cross, they reasoned, and they could stand upright in the halls of men again. Many, in short, were tempted to neglect so great a salvation.
Ironically, one could argue that their problem wasn’t that they were looking backward. The old saying, “you can’t go back again,” wouldn’t help. One might say their failure was that they weren’t looking far enough back. A love of the past may be a good thing, as long as what we love is a good thing. They were called not to look back to their recent Judaism. Neither were they to look longingly at the apex of their nation, to the days of David and Samuel. They should not look back to Egypt, nor even to the days of the great patriarchs. Rather, they should have longed to get back to the garden.
The right thing to long for is a world without sin. Our hearts should ache to be once again at peace with God, to walk with Him in the cool of the evening, to see the lion lie down with the lamb. This is godly nostalgia, as long as it moves us to godly obedience. While we ought to long for such things, we ought not to do so forlornly, knowing that you can’t go back again. Rather we do so joyfully, knowing that we, with every forward step, move back to the garden. That is, the path to the garden is through the consummation of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. To go home again, we must seek first the kingdom of God.
These things, however, are written for us as well. While our status as outcasts and victims in our own culture cannot compare with the Hebrews in the first century, we are headed in that direction. Like Augustine before us, we are called to witness the destruction of the culture around us. And, like the Hebrews, we are tempted toward nostalgia. We long for those halcyon days of the 1950’s, when the Hayes Office kept our movies clean, and the daily news wasn’t filled with liberal prelates gayly shouting the “love” that once didn’t dare speak it’s name. And like the Hebrews, we are looking in the wrong place.
As Christians, our longing is not that we might have a cleaner pop culture. The church does not place its hope in military/industrial/cultural American hegemony across the globe. Rather, we long for the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The church longs for the day when we will be dressed not in the gaudiness and flash of a decadent culture, but will be dressed in the radiant robe provided by our Husband and Lord.