Some say we’re whitewashing history. I worry we're painting it in rosy hues.
Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
— Ecclesiastes 7:10
Like many people this week, I watched some of the events surrounding Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. The English do that sort of pageantry well. And it is a remarkable thing that a single monarch has ruled as long as she has, especially in a century that extolled democracy and equality.
Of the many photographs and videos that crossed my screen, one stood out — a picture of Prince William’s family looking at something slightly off-camera, an image that seemed more candid than planned.
When I glanced at the photo for just a moment, it seemed to come from another age. Indeed, with just a few tweaks — a longer dress on Charlotte, a different tie on George, a sepia filter perhaps — it could have been taken in 1912, not 2022. Looking at it, one is transported. We find ourselves back in the before times. Before all the changes, the hard things, the unpleasant things. Back to permanence, dependability, order, and the eternal quality of monarchy.
The image speaks volumes about such celebrations. Jubilees, anniversaries, and patriotic commemorations appeal to history, yes. But they also carry a whiff of something else — nostalgia.
And there’s actually a difference between history and nostalgia. It is important to understand how the two relate and why a distinction between them is needed now.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote that nostalgia is linked to the love of one’s homeland:
With this love for the place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it... It would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling could be condemned.
But for all his delight in beer and tea, Lewis recognized that a danger lurked under such sentiments: “Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves.”
The question may be asked: What does one love about the past? How does memory shape those loves? Nostalgia can’t exist in isolation. It always needs history as its corrective. History is the non-rosy lens of a larger past that includes many memories, not just our own.
Seemingly harmless nostalgia becomes dangerous when it diminishes the capacity to understand history and seeks to displace rival memories, insisting that only a one vision of the past is legitimate. It isn’t just militancy to protect “beer and tea.” Sometimes, especially in times of anxiety and profound change, nostalgia becomes militancy to control everything and everybody.
Lewis points out the danger of nostalgia when it devolves into mere hero stories, when rosy memories replace actual history, when we elevate the “faith of our fathers” without question:
This past is felt both to impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance; we must not fall below the standard our fathers set us. . . [but] the actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings. . .The heroic stories. . .the image [of the past] becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic historical study.
And therein lies a problem we are currently facing: militant nostalgia. Nostalgia substituted for history has become dangerous.
While the picture of Catherine and children falls mostly in the “beer and tea” category, a more sinister use of nostalgia has taken hold in many western nations. Nationalist political parties, anti-immigrant violence, and propaganda efforts to actually rewrite history are on the rise. In the United States, nostalgia took a dangerous shape in Trump’s candidacy and presidency — an entire political movement based on “Make America Great Again” — and is fueling a violent response to demographic change by proclaiming a racist myth called “white replacement theory.”
Xenophobic, nativist, nationalist, and fascist movements thrive on nostalgia. Under certain circumstances, a fondness for familiar “beer and tea” can become “surely everyone loves beer and tea” or “if you don’t love beer and tea, you aren’t really English.”
And, worst still: “Everyone must drink beer and tea” or “Don’t dare touch my beer and tea or I’ll kill you.” Thus, what seems a harmless exercise in memory can be transformed, sometimes manipulated, into a fear and anger of losing the thing itself. There can be a thin line between appropriately protecting the past and clutching it — or demanding that everyone love exactly what you love. But lines have been crossed, and, in many quarters, nostalgia has inspired political crusades about culture, race, identity, and power.
Understanding history mitigates militant nostalgia.
And that’s why actual history is deemed so dangerous to movements that draw strength from those pining for the past.
I’ll use an example from my own experience. I love western art, especially medieval religious images, English landscapes, Dutch still lifes, and impressionist painting. I also love western classical music. And Gothic architecture and mid-century modernism. These things are, to me, glorious. They speak to my heritage, they carry warm associations, and they hold ancestral memory.
But I also know that these things I love grew in tandem with other things that weren’t beautiful at all — like racial superiority and slavery and colonialism. Thus, knowing history reminds me that other people may look at what I see as beautiful and they may see it as hurtful or harmful. My nostalgia isn’t theirs.
Indeed, one’s nostalgia may add to the pain of one’s neighbor.
And being aware of that is necessary for living in community with others.
This doesn’t mean one has to stop loving Rembrandt because of the evils of Dutch colonialism. But it does mean that it is necessary to recognize that history is a mixed bag, and even what is cherished was often woven into painful, sinful things. Conflicting visions of the past can enable lovers of Rembrandt to see with more complexity, a complexity that (ideally, at least) opens toward empathy. Indeed, as shades of light and shadow make a Rembrandt painting beautiful, so light and shadow create more truthful histories. “In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination,” C.S. Lewis opined about this sort of generous (and perhaps rarer?) nostalgia, “it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?”
It means that one should be able to walk through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with appreciation and even joy, as well as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. History teaches us that we can hold our own memories with more honestly and welcome the memories of others with curiosity, humility, and imagination.
The opposite of militant nostalgia is generous history — a history that is critical, truthful, and empathetic. And, it is true that historians can go astray as well, sometimes lost in a romanticism of their own making. A rosy historian is an unusual creature, however, for most historians’ chief sins are those of debunking and cynicism.
But, frankly, debunking and cynicism are less of a danger than those who elevate nostalgia into a political movement with guns. It isn’t a both-sides sort of thing.
Religious communities are too often purveyors of nostalgia rather than history. This happens in overt ways — such as romanticized or divinized versions of church history — and more subtle ones. The overt ones are also obviously dangerous, like teaching that America was founded as a Christian nation or that God directed manifest destiny. Even if insiders hold to such beliefs, most outsiders see what is obvious and call it for what it is.
But subtle nostalgia is present as well, and is, perhaps, more insidious. I once knew a priest who, in every sermon I ever heard him preach, would say, “Anglicans believe. . .” I’d roll my eyes in the pews, knowing that there was no such thing as a singular “Anglicans believe” anything, anywhere, about any issue. Whenever the words, “the Church teaches” “the Tradition insists,” “Scripture is clear,” or “the Christian consensus is. . .” are uttered, I suggest a spiritual practice for discernment: ask questions. Because phrases like that indicate there’s probably something you aren’t being told — a richer, more diverse, and complex story, one that typically includes power and sin. Such veiled nostalgia is usually the product of someone else’s hankering for an old order, one that probably never existed in the first place.
I’m not being a debunker here. Nor a cynic. I’m pleading that we all learn to recognize the difference between nostalgia and history. Because nostalgia, even friendly-seeming nostalgia, isn’t really benign right now in either our politics or our religious communities. Gentle nostalgias give way under the stress of conflict and chaos. Indeed, nostalgia is radicalized fear. It is pushing history out of the public square, replacing it with demagogic nationalism. Some say we’re whitewashing history. I worry we’re painting it over with rosy hues.
Yearning for yesteryear is no longer just a pleasant excursion of memory. Nostalgia has become the tinder fueling movements bent on control and authoritarianism.
Militant nostalgia is the source of much of what ails us in state and church. We’re well beyond beer and tea. Few things are as needed as an humble and honest engagement with history.
Today’s inspiration includes this selection from my own work. More than a dozen years ago, I finished A People’s History of Christianity with these paragraphs, and they have become the most often quoted excerpt from the book:
In April 2008, Matthew Felling of WMAU radio in Washington, D.C., interviewed Dr. Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who, for more than thirty years, has been studying human happiness. Felling asked the predictable question: “What is it? What makes people happy?”
Livingston responded by listing three things: meaningful work, meaningful relationships, and a sense of hope for the future. The first two are, in many ways, self-explanatory. But hope for the future? How is that achieved?
“By having a realistic sense of history,” Livingston responded. He insisted that seeing the past on its own terms—not through the romantic gaze of nostalgia—is intrinsic to human flourishing. Nostalgia, he declared, is the enemy of hope. It tricks people into believing that their best days are past. A more realistic view of history, he insisted, envisions the past as a theater of experience, some good and some bad, and opens up the possibility of growth and change. Our best days are ahead, not behind. Hope for the future.
There are some Christians who believe our best days are behind us—that western Christianity no longer commands the influence and respect it once did, that its churches are weakened, its message muted, and its imaginative sway on individuals and the culture diminished. In order to recapture its former glory, they insist, Christians must go back to some halcyon days when the church was orthodox, prayerful, and pure. The faith of our fathers will surely save us.
Of course, no one agrees exactly what constituted this golden age since what counts as orthodoxy, spirituality, and morality have varied wildly through the last two thousand years. Exactly what are Christians nostalgic for?
Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today. . .
— Billy Collins, from “Nostalgia,” read the entire wonderful poem HERE.
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