Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.
Midnight in Paris
As we go into the 40th General Assembly next week, there is the temptation to look at today, with its controversies, factions and seeming lack of unity, through the lens of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is powerful. We have industries that market it well. Remember the retro baseball stadium craze in the 1990s? Ever catch a Beach Boys reunion tour? Ever wonder why Cracker Barrel is popular? Why do I subscribe to classic 1980s commercial channels on Youtube?
Nostalgia works. It gives us a fictive past without the mess. We look to the good old days with longing and selectivity, critiquing the present with a false past. Or, at least, it is the past we remember.
What does that have to do with General Assembly or the PCA for that matter?
As we meet together as the 40th General Assembly, there will likely be a resolution or some sort of commemoration that recognizes the date. Surely, there will be a few in attendance who were commissioners to that first Assembly, back when we were the National Presbyterian Church.
Those things are great, an Ebenezer, if you will.
However, we must resist the temptation to believe the past was so much better. We cannot let ourselves think that only theological issues led to our founding. We cannot let ourselves believe that first assembly spoke with 100% unity and all the commissioners shared all the same opinions and had the same reasons to be there when they were.
Writing in the 1920s, Richard Niebuhr said that denominational histories reek with triumphalism because they ignore social realities that influenced their founding. I see that in the few PCA histories that are out there. We conveniently forget the bad things that went along with the good. That’s why there was such shock (see comments) when Pete Slade’s book came out a couple years ago. That is why many do not know the darker side of the past. Nostalgia may make us look better but it makes God’s grace and mercy dimmer. We somehow think that our stories do not look like the Book of Judges, when they do. Somehow we present something clean and tidy – nostalgic.
When we attempt to use the past for our agenda, instead of a guide, we run the risk of distorting it with nostalgia. We make cotton candy. Something that is sweet but empty. Nostalgia causes us to ignore the things that make us look bad because we want heroes and triumph. We want something to live up to.
If you peruse the PCA History website, I invite you to look at the position papers (http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/). Disagreement has been with us since the beginning. We are a church filled with sinners. Let us not deify those who have gone before us. Let the past be less like a Thomas Kinkade painting and more like Oliver Cromwell’s commissioned portrait with its warts and all