Nostalgia’s Deliberate Forgetting

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I’m reading James K. A. Smith’s latest book, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now. It is a meditation intended to clarify what was, what is, and what is to come, and how we can better understand our existence as temporal creatures.

I’m only partway through the book. I’m enjoying it so far. One of my favorite passages concerns nostalgia. Smith writes:

The question isn’t just whether we have a history and a future, or even whether we recognize this; the question is how we relate to our past and history.

There is a sort of fascination with the past that is an act of deliberate forgetting: it’s called “nostalgia.” Religious communities are particularly prone to this. Faith is “handed down,” a matter of traditio, and hence faithfulness can be confused with preserving the past rather than having gratitude for a legacy meant to propel us forward. The most significant problem with nostalgia is not that it remembers but what it forgets.

James K. A. Smith, How to Inhabit Time, p. 38

This is precisely correct. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” This is a very different question than, “What were the old days like?” When we search for why the old days were better, we’ll paint an incomplete picture. We’ll remember in part. We’ll forget in part, too, and often by design. We are glad to put aside the ugly stuff. The result is a distortion. What we’ve laid aside ends up causing us more trouble than the supposed benefits we gain from what we take up, because nostalgia hides from us the complexities of our past.

Nostalgia differs from an accurate historical memory. I take issue with Smith’s either/or regarding the preservation of tradition, his assertion that faithfulness can “be confused with preserving the past rather than having gratitude for a legacy meant to propel us forward.” Can’t faithfulness be a commitment to preserving the past while having gratitude for a legacy that does propel us forward? Furthermore, religious traditions aren’t more prone to nostalgia than are traditions of all kinds, national, political, or otherwise.

I don’t think it has to be either/or. Smith states that it isn’t of question of if we have a past and a future, but how we relate to our past and our future. There is a difference between preservation of the past and attempting to return to a golden age. The former is the work of those stewarding a living tradition. The latter is a fool’s errand.

The Pastor as Architect

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F&L: How should Christian leaders think about formation and desire?

JS: I think people who have leadership responsibilities should first of all shift their self-understanding so that leadership doesn’t just mean that they are the articulators-in-chief. They’re not just the ones responsible for the message, so to speak.

In some ways, leadership is really about being an architect of the ethos of a community, which means that some of the most significant influence that leaders exercise is their ability to shape the rhythms, rituals, routines and practices of a community or an institution.

As the curators of the repertoire of practices of a community, leaders need to do a sort of liturgical audit of our institutions and ask ourselves not just, “What does our mission statement say we believe?” but, “What story about being human and human flourishing is being rehearsed in the rhythms and practices of our institution?” That informs how we think about how reform and renewal have to happen as well.

The “JS” is James K. A. Smith. The “F&L” is Faith & Leadership (Duke Divinity). Professor Smith was interviewed by Faith & Leadership about his book On the Road with Saint Augustine, which I have read. I found the book to be very good. And I found this snippet from the interview to be very interesting.

Too many Christian leaders assume their primary task is to provide people with the right information. They talk, talk, talk, teach, teach, teach, and tell, tell, tell. That is very important. But the most significant leadership task facing Christian leaders is addressing “what lies beneath.” Moderns might call it “culture-making.” The ancients called it “the cure of souls.” And you can’t just preach your way there. There is a great deal of prayer involved. There is also discipleship, or apprenticeship to Jesus, which, as Dallas Willard observed, will address any and all human problems, and to great effect.

I guess I’d say culture, as it is understood today, is the reflected sum of the overall spiritual health in a place. Culture always has a spiritual dimension, even when it is “secular.” In Christian contexts, culture includes “right belief,” or proper information about God, reality, etc. But it goes deeper, to the level of desire, want, and love. There is a difference between loving right information about God and loving God. There is a difference between adhering to right religious practices and living a life that is lived in accordance with mercy, not sacrifice. In a church, something unique takes place when law and love merge together to constitute a language, a unique expression of God’s activity, grammar, and gospel (that’s a nod to Herbert McCabe). A culture is established where people discover the life that is really life: knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one who was sent (John 17:3).

Look at how people live. That will tell much of what you need to know about what people really believe. Then, get creative. How do you romance people away from error, and instead turn their gaze toward the greater beauty that has been revealed in Jesus Christ? It won’t just be a matter of what you say. It will have to be woven in to how you live.

Show, then tell. Tell, then show. Show while you tell. Tell while you show. Trust yourself, and your people, to God, the master craftsman. Trust formation to the divine hand. Offer yourself as an instrument. And a vessel.