July 13, 2020

Lamentation, Nostalgia and Walking Into The Future: Thoughts on Denominational Decline

I’m doing an interview in a few days and will be asked some questions about how I view the past and future of my own denomination. Some of these thoughts came to mind as I prepared.

Psalm 77

I cry aloud to God,
    aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
    in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
    my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
    I meditate, and my spirit faints.

You keep my eyelids from closing;
    I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
    and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
    I meditate and search my spirit:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
    and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
    Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
10 And I say, “It is my grief
    that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
    I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
    and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
    you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
    the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

 

One of my favorite things to do as an English teacher is to teach the stories of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor has many lessons from her work, but I am continually impressed by what she has to say about the dangers of nostalgia.

O’Connor’s stories are populated by characters caught in the disease of blinding nostalgia. They talk about days when people were good and everyone was happy. Of course, these characters become brutal examples of what happens when our view of the present and past is contaminated by the mythology that blinds us to truth and exempts us from responsibility.

Southern writers have large resources of nostalgia to draw upon. The history of the south is dominated by the theme of a past golden age of southern culture, ruined by the war of northern aggression and the resulting forced assimilation of the south into the generic culture of America.

Southern nostalgia is the grist for entire industries. Southern culture, real and imagined, provides its particular contribution to our national character.

But O’Connor pointed out that nostalgia was more than a harmless looking back to plantations and southern cooking. It was a particular kind of poison that blinds us to racism, poverty, ignorance, bias and the dangers of living in a state of illusory superiority. It can send those who live in it down the roads that keep them in prisons of the mind and heart.

American culture has an increasing appetite for nostalgia. We have the sense that our best days may have passed us; that our future may be more technologically sophisticated, but our lives, morals, relationships, families, institutions and souls are increasingly impoverished.

So we find it alluring to look back. To remember past victories, past championships, better families, simpler economies, more virtuous children and more disciplined schools. “Glory Days” is an appealing song for us. We find waxing nostalgic a useful way to spend time even when we sit in the midst of serious present challenges.

O’Connor would say “Be careful.” That road to the nostalgic past may be a wrong turn, with terrible dangers of its own.

The Bible tells us to look back and remember the deeds of the Lord. Redemption is a story that cuts through the past, runs through the present and into the future. Scripture tells us to look back and remember God’s great works in the days of our fathers and mothers.

For Christians, this is an appealing invitation. We are generally far more inclined to construct our own version of the past than we are to honestly engage the present. The culture war, for example, thrives on looking back to a mythical, idealized past that has conveniently forgotten much that we ought to be ashamed of.

The agendas and rhetoric of denominations often look back to the days of post-war denominational prosperity as the days when “God was blessing”. Churches were full. Cultural Christianity, in the south and elsewhere, was pervasive. it was easy to be Protestant, and the winds of culture were with you.

Whatever evangelicals and denominational churches did in those golden eras, it seems to have worked, especially in our recollection. The women were beautiful, the men were handsome, the children were above average and the church knew what it was doing. Our past is the era of cultural dominance in America, and we long for it.

Today, denominations are shrinking and some are on the verge of vanishing, from the free falling PCUSA to the disintegrating ECUSA to the mid-life crisis SBC. Blame is plentiful. Desperation is in the air. Nostalgia sells and plenty of folk are buying. The way we used to be was better than the way we are, and we need to come up with a list of people to blame.

I’m looking at a letter from an SBC friend who has experienced significant difficulty in his church because he’s suspected of being a Calvinist. The thing is, he’s not a Calvinist. He’s a Southern Baptist who actually believes and preaches like the Kingdom of God is larger than his denomination. But the idea that Calvinism is to blame for the downward turn of baptisms in the SBC is easy and appealing in times of nostalgia and anxiety.

Everything was going well, and then someone messed things up. The liberals. The gays. The Democrats. The Calvinists. The Emerging Church.

Psalm 77 is a lament, and we live in lamentable times. Much has gone wrong and I have my doubts that some of it will ever go right as it did in the past. In times of lament, the answers to our questions seem lost in the fog. We can ask with the psalmist, “Is God hiding his answers from us? Has he forgotten his promises?”

The answer of scripture is to remember the story of redemption and to find our place in it. We remember the great deeds of the Lord, not how many people were here on Sundays back in the 50’s or the 70’s. We remember God’s actions of salvation for all of his people and for the whole world. We aren’t called to look back to when everyone was “churched” and no one ever said a bad word on television.

Nostalgia isn’t the remembrance that we’re called to in Psalm 77. In our times of questioning and even desperation, we must keep our eyes on the author and finisher of our faith, not on the way things used to be when a good man wasn’t hard to find because the world was filled with good country people.

The scriptures spend so much time lamenting, it makes me wonder if there is any hope for us if we don’t learn HOW to lament; how to mourn our decline and cultural exile in the presence of the Lord, rather than by becoming a wholly own subsidiary of whoever is fighting the culture war or crack addicts on the drug of blaming one another, throwing out pastors and blaming “Calvinists” and “Missionals.”

Lamentation is the proper stance for many of us in my denomination and in many denominations. I don’t want the cocksure arrogance of so many younger Christians. I want to take note of our past, but instead of turning it into mythology, I want to lament its meanings, both good and not good.

As fellow pilgrims, we should help one another remember rightly, and remember Biblically. We should turn our backs on the poison of nostalgia and look instead for the breakthrough of the Kingdom of Jesus in the places filled with the last, least, lost and little.

We should learn to lament, and in lamentation, to call out the questions without offering cheap and easy answers. We need to stop trying to manufacture evangelicalism out of rhetoric, and offer our prayers, tears, anger and confusion to God. Then we can, as so many have before us, follow a path into the future with the people of God, and we can stop trying to drag the corpse of our evangelical and denominational nostalgia around with us.

To lament and to remember should mean that we find a way to be free, and to walk into the future unburdened.

Comments

  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Whatever evangelicals and denominational churches did in those golden eras, it seems to have worked, especially in our recollection. The women were beautiful, the men were handsome, the children were above average and the church knew what it was doing. Our past is the era of cultural dominance in America, and we long for it.

    i.e. The Fifties as The Godly Golden Age. Not even the real 1950s, but a mythic version filtered through Ozzie, Harriet, and Donna Reed. (My writing partner — a burned-out country preacher in PA — has related some truly bizarre stories along these lines.)

    Everything was going well, and then someone messed things up. The liberals. The gays. The Democrats. The Calvinists. The Emerging Church.

    IMonk, that is the characteristic cultural myth of a “Grievance Culture”, i.e. a culture which defines itself entirely by getting even with someone else, usually with a Conspiracy Theory along the line. Examples are the KKK, the Afrocentrists, and the Palestinians. The myth goes like this:

    1) Once Everything was Perfect, and We Were Lords of All Creation.
    2) Then THEY came and Took It All Away From Us.
    3) It’s PAYBACK Time!

  2. Jeremiah Lawson says

    What I find interesting about this psalm is that the psalmist’s response is to consider God’s goodness but this does not change his situation. That’s instructive, to me, because it tells us that neither the lament nor remembering the things the Lord has done will actually change the situation but the point of the psalm is to worship the Lord and express one’s heart. ONe needn’t even be in a denomination or an old church to take up this psalm.

    This post also reminds me why Ecclesiastes 7:10 always needs to be in the Bible. 🙂

  3. “Examples are the KKK, the Afrocentrists, and the Palestinians….”

    Um, I’m not even sure who the Afrocentrists are, but could we not equate the population of an entire country (or diverse population living in and around Israel, if you prefer) with the KKK?

    I’m not trying to start an Israel vs. Palestine debate by any means, but I have met plenty of Palestinians who would abhor the statement “It’s PAYBACK time!” For that matter, I could say some Israelis and Jews hold this mindset but of course most do not.

    Peace,
    Jason

  4. Scriptures and secular history indicates that God has purposed an opposite to every experience (ECL.7:14/prosperity vs adversity), emotion (Matt.6:24/love vs hate), physical attribute (male-female, light-dark),spatial characteristics(ascend vs descend), as well as outcomes (saved vs lost, redeemed vs condemned, and so forth. These opposites are purposed by God to give us understanding as opposites reveal each other. The extremes run a horizontal continuum and represent, in many cases, the choices available to us (e.g…I set before you ..blessing vs curse). We are spiritually naive when we don’t understand that in the ‘world’ we experience all of these extremes. To the end purpose that we will choose love over hate, good over evil, spirit man over the fleshly man, life over death, eternal life over eternal damnation, …..God over Satan.

  5. All these things you are talking about are cultural things, the Church by its very nature is transcendent. The society is not suppose to shape it as much as it is suppose to shape the society.

  6. You share some insightful thoughts in this post. I have not read any of O’Connor’s works but perhaps I should! I do appreciate both your insights on nostalgia and the connection to Biblical lamentation.

    I was nearly beginning to think I was the only person in evangelicalism who did not uncritically and unconditionally embrace the nostalgic version of the “good old days”. LOL

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts are reminding us of the distinction.

  7. Another good one, IM. Those psalms sure are beautiful poetry. Yeah, nostalgia can certainly wear rose-coloured glasses. I suppose in the case of childbirth that can be a good thing….maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. Interesting how sometimes we forget the bad stuff and other times, we can’t let it go. We humans are strange creatures.

  8. Just stumbled upon this and I’m wondering if you’ve seen or heard of it. Thought it kinda pertained.

    http://www.illuminatedworld.com/

  9. Great stuff, imonk! Connecting O’Connor and the decline of denominationalism is pretty “out there”, but you did it very well and very insightfully. Perhaps what denominational Christianity needs is for someone to shoot it every day of its life.