After six months of fighting it, I was finally sucked in. Like the Demogorgon monster in the show, the heavily acclaimed Netflix original series Stranger Things pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. In just 26 hours, I finished all 8 episodes, hungry for more.
Among the most compelling aspects of this science-fiction mystery was its creative use of 1980s allusions. Set in 1983 and filled with references to E.T., The Goonies, Stand By Me, The Thing, Alien, Carrie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, The Evil Dead, Jaws, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, and Predator (among others, not to mention the music!), one might be led to believe that it was written by Stephen King and directed by Stephen Spielberg. It felt that familiar.
And while I believe that the writers did a fantastic job paying homage to the source material without wholesale copying it, creating something new that is inspired by what we love of the old rather than simply copying and pasting what has already been done, there is no denying its intention to play on nostalgia to hook viewers. References. Music. Themes. Cinematography. Color schemes. And of course, the hair.
Naturally, it was fantastic. I loved every minute of it, frankly, because nostalgia is awesome. A selective remembrance of the past, nostalgia calls to mind less the facts of what happened and more how we felt while experiencing them. Using bits of real-life events, it captures the atmosphere of a time, transporting us back to a younger, more youthful state, one with hope and excitement.
There are, of course, two major problems with nostalgia though. The first is that this “selective memory” often presents only the good parts of history leaving people yearning for what they believe to be much better times than than ever actually existed. Watching an ’80s movie or television show might capture the optimism or “simpler life” the US felt at that time, but it also forgets the difficulties of the time and the ways that we’ve benefited from important advancements.
This is only made worse, then, by an obvious yet more complicated second problem: many people today, including myself, were not even alive to experience that life for themselves. The Duffer Brothers—the writers and directors of the show—were not even born until 1984! But it’s not just “young people” like myself. Think about it. Assuming one had to be at least seven to have a viable memory of 1983, we’re talking about less than half of today’s US population being able to watch Stranger Things with any firsthand experience of what life was like at that time. Sure, the rest of us can watch as aficionados having seen the movies, listened to the music, heard the stories, and engrossed ourselves in the history. And that’s great… but as much as we may have seen of the ’80s after the fact, those of us who did not live through it will always lack a fundamental piece of the puzzle: context.
Art does not exist in a vacuum but comes out of and is interpreted by the time in which it is presented. When I watch Poltergeist or listen to The Clash, I do not do so with the social, political, economic, and cultural background of those who originally wrote and consumed them, I do so with my experience of being a child in the 1990s and coming of age in the 2000s. While I may watch and listen to the same media—and to some extent I can even appreciate them—I do not ultimately experience the same thing. My watching and listening is unavoidably textured by a worldview different from the one in which it was made. What I experience, in a way, is something new and other than what was originally published.
It is from this perspective of history that I can’t help but turn to much murkier and far more controversial waters, namely, the recent resurgence of traditional images and practices in the Catholic Church among young people (e.g. the Latin or “extraordinary form” of the mass, veils for women, the priest turning his back to the congregation, the ringing of bells during mass, and a host of other bygone or defunct liturgical or devotional practices.) For some, it is a welcomed sign of renewed faith among the youth and should be encouraged. For others, it is a disturbing sign of regression and should be corrected. For me, it’s a mixed bag.
As a faith with a strong emphasis on tradition, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with looking at history and recovering lost practices and traditions. Praying in the vernacular at mass, receiving the Eucharist under both species, the permanent diaconate, Catechumenate, and Easter Vigil are all essential practices of our contemporary faith that were lost and recovered in the 20th century. Old things can come back.
This does not mean, however, that just because something is old and lost that it should be brought back.
Nostalgia or proper understanding? Just as in the case of ’80s nostalgia, there are often people who yearn for things in the Church that they remember from when they were younger. “I loved doing that when I was little. We should do that again.” This is an argument based more on an emotional attachment to how one felt rather than an overall understanding of the situation, and it often lacks the whole picture. More often than not, what someone is yearning for is not a practice that better helped them experience God but in fact an experience that connects them to their childhood: doing X is not about the theological and ecclesiological significance in itself but how it is tied together with memories of family, culture, and a past world. Often, it forgets the negative effects X had on the wider Church, the misunderstandings it perpetuated, and the fact that it disappeared for a reason.
“Pick a century” game In my experience, though,—and maybe because the older generations remember the negative effects of certain practices— the yearning for a return to the things of old more often come from younger people than those who actually lived through them. Just as people of my generation look to ’80s music and movies with unexplained nostalgia, so too do some young people today look to the Church of the 1950s (and before) with longing hearts. But unlike those like myself who want more escapist, ’80s-themed dramas, there is a growing number of people who want to make what they’ve read and heard about a reality again, supplanting practices from another era (or century) in the modern world. As a professor of mine once said, it can be a sort of “pick a century” game, the practice of finding things to like in history, evaluating them in a vacuum without reference to its significance in the time it was practiced, and trying to impose it on the modern Church on the grounds that it is old so it must be true. Such a practice values something because of its age rather than its theological or practical merit.
A new world, a new meaning For me, the most important thing to remember in this discussions is that, just like someone born in 1989 watching 1983-themed shows, what is brought from the past to the present will inevitably be experienced and interpreted in the current world differently than how it was when originally practiced. Quite obviously, the Church today is different than the Church of old. Experiences like the sex-abuse crisis, women’s liberation, civil right’s movement, growing secularism, charismatic popes, globalization, guitar masses, and growing worldwide literacy—both the good and bad of the changing world—have changed the needs of the Church and changed the way that certain practices will be received. Because we can only recover the practice itself and not the world in which it originated, the meaning of even largely-accepted and widely-successful recoveries like the permanent diaconate and the Easter Vigil will absolutely be understood differently than when first practiced organically. They are, in a sense, new practices.
So, how do we evaluate what can and should be appropriately recovered from the tradition? While there needs to be an obvious concern for being in continuity with the overall trajectory of Christianity so to not recover outliers of history, I think the question that we need to ask is this: what does the contemporary Church actually need? When we look to something like Stranger Things, a show that is wildly successful based on its ability to build on 1980s themes, an important point comes to mind: there doesn’t seem to be a similar nostalgia in current works for 1970s and 1990s. Why is that? One could argue, I guess, that the productions of the 1980s are objectively better than in other decades and so have stood the test of time better. I would not. For me, I think its success says much more about our modern day than it does about the past: people today are looking for fun, optimism, and simple concepts that don’t require degrees to understand. The political tumult and racial tension of the 1970s? Seems too close to home. The angst and grunge of the 1990s? Doesn’t lift us up. How about the montage sequences, happy endings, dance scenes, and underdog stories of the 1980s? Now we’re talking. We bring back parts of history that fit us today, not necessarily the things that were best in their time.
I think looking through such a lens can help bridge the gap we face in much of our Church today. On the one hand, it helps people of older generations understand why the people after them are working to bring back the very things they got rid of. For whatever reason, there seems to be a yearning for greater showings of reverence and public displays of faith among the youth than in previous generations, and captivated by the spectacle of what they see in old pictures, it is a desire to embrace their faith in a secular world—not the corresponding clericalism or triumphalism that went with it in previous generations—that they hope to recover. On the other hand, it helps people of younger generations realize that faith, and its corresponding symbols, are not without their place in history and are more than just generic signs of faith and devotion. Certain images and practices of the faith, because they are so tied to a particular time, culture, or theological stance, (ironically enough) no longer represent the very thing they wish to share—an active, living, and growing faith—but instead serve as interpolations of bygone artifacts that never meant what they mean to them now.
Ultimately, we see everyday in our Church that the past is an important part of our future; it’s impossible to separate the experience of those who have gone before us from our own lived experience of faith. Nostalgia is not a bad thing when it comes to faith. And yet, we need to always remember that, as much as we can look back with longing hearts and eyes for inspiration, the world we live in is only our own. No one else can live it for us and nothing from the past in guaranteed to bring us to God in the way it did before. While it would be a tragedy to forget everything that has gone before us, I can think of no stranger thing than to revert back to images and practices simply on the basis of nostalgia. If our faith is alive, so too should be our expression of it.