Biblical Nostalgia in a Postmodern World

Nostalgia is the closest thing we have to time travel. It’s a feeling of familiarity, of an experience from the past. We can be transported by the strangest things: smells, a picture, an old candy wrapper. Our postmodern culture is obsessed with revisiting the past to find some previously undiscovered truth. Even the name post-modern is backward-looking; it only has meaning as it reflects upon modernity.

Our entertainment industry is high on nostalgia. The movie industry has discovered our insatiable desire to revisit old narratives to dig for new meaning or a new twist in the plot. This summer will see reboots and sequels like Alien: Covenant, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II, Baywatch, POTC: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Cars 3. Television has done the same: 24 Legacy, Fuller House, Lethal Weapon, and countless others. We have lived through a decade of superhero flicks seeking to reinterpret characters in new ways–the constant reinvention of Spiderman, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, etc.

Remember When?

Elderly people often lament that “things were better way back when”. Nostalgia is the feeling that we lost something valuable in our past. If only we could go back and rediscover it. Conor Oberst captures the existential angst of living in the changing present while gazing longingly at a cemented past:

“Life can’t compete with memories that never have to change.” (from “Artifact #1” Upside Down Mountain)

Nostalgia is only possible in a shared context. I can’t be nostalgic about events I didn’t experience. There is a reason why Buzzfeeds about mid-90s Nickelodeon shows don’t connect with today’s middle schoolers. I was there; they weren’t.

We love remakes and sequels partly because the characters and the narrative feel familiar, but also because they connect us with feelings from our own past. The Netflix series Stranger Things is a superb example. Not only did it lace together elements from familiar movies, but its 80s set dressings and characters felt like homes and friends from our memories.

Nostalgia grows as our experiences are layered upon one another. At age 30, I’m just now becoming able to have really nostalgic moments.

The other day, Van Halen’s “Right Now” popped up on the radio. Weirdly, I started to get a lump in my throat. The song was a part of my college soccer team’s warmup playlist for four years. I was instantly transported back to those faces and relationships. I could smell the grass. I remembered using the port-a-john by the field. I could see the expression on a teammate’s face from that one time he punched a player on a rival squad. Weird memories, I know.

Intertextuality Is Biblical Nostalgia.

We can learn from our postmodern culture when it comes to reading the Bible. The Bible, after all, is intensely nostalgic.

When we talk about intertextuality, what we really mean is the way the Bible uses nostalgia to build up layer upon layer of shared experience and internal references. Each Biblical writer enters into a unified, familiar narrative with a host of characters, settings, catch-phrases, and purposes. As we read through the Bible, the authors offer up remakes of familiar stories and appropriate old characters for new plot twists.

For instance, the book of Joshua evokes the name Joseph in its last few verses in order to reframe the whole narrative from the end of Genesis forward. Or consider Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. Believe it or not, that story had already been told in 2 Chronicles:

“And the men who have been mentioned by name rose and took the captives, and with the spoil they clothed all who were naked among them. They clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them, and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kinsfolk at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria” (2 Chronicles 28:15)

Jesus revisits a shared memory to connect his listeners to new meaning. In fact, the Gospels themselves are stories layered with consciously nostalgic moments; they are meant to feel familiar. Dialogue, narrative arcs, motifs, and characters are all evocative of other stories and layers from the Old Testament. The universe into which Jesus walks is a biblical one–filled with experiences and stories held by God’s people clinging to a collective past. As the Gospel writers touch deeply nostalgic nerves, we come to see Jesus as the New Adam, the New Joseph, the New Moses, the New Joshua, the New David, the New Solomon, the New Mordechai.

Jesus is the most nostalgic figure in history. He is the ultimate postmodern hero: a man who drives us to our past to reinterpret and discover new layers of meaning. This is why we cannot have a Jesus divorced from the Old Testament narrative. This is why we cannot simply read the New Testament. Jesus comes with the intention to fulfill salvation history. He is the lens through which or past, present, and future are now reshaped and interpreted.

Shared Experience in the People of God.

This is why it is essential for believers to be immersed in the narratives of Scripture. Nostalgia only works when we share narratives, characters, and experiences. We come to understand ourselves as we spend more time reinterpreting our lives through God’s Word. Daily, as we read the Bible, we take ownership of salvation history. Through Jesus, these people are our people. These stories are our stories. The biblical universe is where we live.

Additionally, this is why it is essential for believers to be immersed in the people of God. We must enter into the shared experience of God’s people now. When we join the fellowship of believers today, the narrative is ours not only in theory but in reality. We join a people who receive and protect and pass on a gospel handed down from the apostles themselves. In the local body of Christ, we develop shared experiences and narratives with flesh and blood people of God. We experience the grace of God together which only deepens our understanding and love for our Savior Jesus Christ.

Finally, nostalgia is essential for our future hope. The book of Revelation encourages us to look back through gauzy lenses to a Garden lost long ago. The future that Jesus has won for us is a return to the Eden our souls long for–a place where we once again walk with God in the person of Jesus Christ.

(photo by Nuru Salam)