Nostalgia and faith

October 30th, 2017

From Netflix to Nintendo, nostalgia sells

In 2016, the Netflix hit series Stranger Things won praise not only for its precocious cast and sci-fi storytelling but also for the way it harkened back to the coming-of-age movies of the 1980s. “It’s one thing to set a TV series in the 1980s,” Sam Adams wrote for Rolling Stone, but “it’s a whole other thing . . . to make it feel like it was actually shot during the Reagan-and-Rubik’s-Cube era.” Even the show’s plot and pacing pay intentional homage to highly regarded ’80s movies like The Goonies, Stand by Me, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. “For those who grew up in the era,” writes Will Nicol on Digital Trends, “the nostalgia is almost tangible.”

In recent years, many movies have also been revisiting older films and TV shows. This year alone has already seen a live-action Beauty and the Beast based on the 1991 animated original, a comedy send-up of TV show Baywatch, and a sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner. Interestingly, the second season of Stranger Things, set in 1984, opens with the characters trick-or-treating as the characters from Ghostbusters, another popular ’80s movie that was remade just last year. Elsewhere in entertainment, video game maker Nintendo has had trouble meeting demand for its Super Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Edition, which reportedly “has the original look and feel of the ’90s home console, only smaller.” “The wild success of the SNES Classic is the latest evidence of rampant affection for the 1990s,” journalist David Sims concludes. “It’s the childhood of many a 20- or 30-something wrapped into a convenient little package.”

The past — packaged and priced — is a big seller, but nostalgia is nothing new. Longing for our past, or at least some aspects of it, has pulled at us all to one degree or another no matter what decade we grew up in. Nostalgia also crosses cultural boundaries. Dr. Tim Wildschut told The New York Times, “The defining features of nostalgia in England” — warm memories with oneself at the center, usually among friends — “are also the defining features in Africa and South America.”

The science of nostalgia

In 1688, Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer invented the word nostalgia — from the Greek nóstos, “return,” and àlgos, “pain”— to describe how Swiss mercenaries fighting in other European countries behaved. A report in Scientific American Mind explains, “These soldiers were reportedly plagued by an obsessive longing for their homeland, which manifested itself in hysterical fits of crying, anxiety, heart palpitations, diminished appetite and insomnia.” They felt real pain because they wanted to return home.

“Today,” Dr. Neel Burton writes for Psychology Today, “nostalgia is no longer looked upon as a mental disorder, but as a natural, common and even positive emotion, a vehicle for travelling beyond the deadening confines of time and space.” Sensory stimuli can trigger nostalgic feelings — anything from hearing a song popular in your youth to smelling food you associate with a specific time or person to strolling through “old stomping grounds” to browsing a family photo album.

Researchers also distinguish between nostalgia and homesickness. Whereas homesickness generally produces sadness, nostalgia generally produces positive emotions. “When nostalgia is induced in the lab,” Dr. Clay Routledge notes, “it puts people in a good mood.”

Why? Because nostalgia stimulates blood flow and metabolic activity in the brain’s pleasure centers, “rewarding” them. Mark Joseph Stern notes in Slate that nostalgia produces “neurochemical bliss, flooding our brains with some of the same neurotransmitters that cocaine chases after.” In one recent study, researchers found that volunteers who were given the chance to earn a little money for remembering something happy or more money for remembering something neutral usually opted for the happy memory.

Benefits of nostalgia

I asked novelist Jeffry W. Johnston, a fellow fan of Stranger Things, whether nostalgia plays a part in his excitement for the show. He says it doesn’t, but he’s sure “for some there is a nostalgia factor that connects back to the films of Spielberg in the ’80s. People like to be reminded of the ‘good times.’ For the writer or filmmaker who does it well, it can be very powerful.”

The artistic power of nostalgia parallels its demonstrated psychological benefits. Routledge points out that nostalgia usually “increases self-esteem” and “promotes the feeling that life is full of meaning and purpose.” Our nostalgic reveries often follow what social psychologists Jochen Gebauer and Constantine Sedikides call a “redemption theme . . . a story line that begins with a bad experience out of which something good ensues.” When we remember these positive outcomes from the past, we reinforce the expectation that they will occur again. This dynamic explains why we often feel nostalgic when we’re initially feeling sad. Gebauer and Sedikides compare nostalgia to “armor shielding the mind . . . against psychological onslaughts in the future.”

Nostalgia can also reinforce a sense of belonging. Gebauer and Sedikides’s research found that it has a “social-glue effect.” People who were feeling nostalgic scored higher in self-assessments of their ability to build relationships, share feelings openly with others, and lend emotional support to friends.

Dangers of nostalgia

Although nostalgia is universal, nostalgic affection for any given subject is not. Johnston told me, “Any artist who makes a conscious choice to create nostalgia” runs a risk because “what creates a sense of nostalgia for one person may be viewed in a negative way by another.”

Nostalgia is selective memory. “Good old days” were never completely good, nor were they good for everyone. Ryan Britt makes this point in his book of essays, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths, by discussing the Back to the Future movies (1985– 1990). In the first movie of the series, the main character travels back to 1955. However, as Britt observes, that 1955 contains almost no black characters. The ones it does contain “are required to ‘dream big,’ rather than actually live big.” “Anyone who’s read any history,” writes Britt, “is aware that America in 1955 was worse for blacks than it was in 1985, but the 1955 [depicted in the films] is super-rosy.” Britt loves these movies but argues they contain “revisionism that makes white people feel better about the past. This is fake nostalgia for something the (white) target audience didn’t experience — in the case of racial equity, because it didn’t exist.” Nostalgia for the past can make us forget, overlook, or excuse its flaws and failings.

The same features that make nostalgia psychologically effective also make it potentially addictive. “A person can become addicted to any activity that stimulates the reward centers of the brain,” writes Dr. Heidi Moawad. “Nostalgia can be used excessively as a crutch and the positive feelings of nostalgia may serve as a substitute for living in the present.”

Nostalgia vs. Christian memory

Memory is integral to Christian faith. God has always called God’s people to remember their past. We remember God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah and we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Reading and teaching Scripture, celebrating the sacraments, observing the Christian Year — these are some ways we remember how God has been at work in the past, shaping our history and the history of our community along our own kind of “redemptive theme.”

But Christian memory isn’t meant to be nostalgic. We look to the past in order to help us discern what God is doing in the present and where God wants to lead us in the future. Whenever our memories of the past make yesterday seem more attractive than today or tomorrow, whenever nostalgia threatens to keep us from moving forward as followers of Jesus or growing into the people God created us to be, that’s when God tells us, “Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

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