Evangelicals are suckers for retro-topia. Many fondly recall the way things were during the Billy Graham heyday. But while there is much to be honored, basking in the past pushes historical realities aside. I’m not set on returning to a 1960’s neo-evangelical primal age any more than I want wind-up clocks, rotary phones, or typewriters. And like yesterday’s manna, we can’t attend yesterday’s church, nor should we want to. Our parents’ church was no more real nor authentic nor “better” than ours today. There was plenty of baggage then as well, replete with tacky church basement movies like The Gospel Blimp and Thief in the Night, “I Found It” bumper stickers, and 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. And, in our house, it was the saccharine music – either the Melody Four Quartet or the Chuck Wagon Gang playing on my dad’s hi-fi. Nor is it about vestigial practices gone off their sell-by date, because the church is a living being, not an artifact buried within a past culture. The charge of the church is to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, not be embalmers of the past.
Nevertheless, nostalgia has an evil twin: cultural amnesia. Nostalgia impounds the past; memory transmits its fruitful gifts into the present. Our formation as Christians takes root in spiritual soils enriched over centuries. And whether we realize or not, we contain both the fruits of what has gone before, and seeds of what is to come. The Church is the living tradition of a historic community, and the participation we play in it, as the beloved hymn Faith Of Our Fathers, Living Still, reminds. Memory (anamnesis) is at the core of the profession and practice of our faith. In fact, we are to be communities of recall and renactment: “Do this in remembrance of me”.[i] We can, however, consciously choose to disassociate from it, in what has been called “rhetorically consequential forgetting” – losing our sacred narrative through willful ignorance.
many evangelical congregations are bound together in a unity of forgetting as
much by what they remember in common. We
live as story-less people in story-less times, the effects of which, notes Danièle
Hervieu-Léger, are “structurally linked to the collapse of the framework of
collective memory which provided every individual with the possibility of a
link between what comes before and his or her own actual experience.”[ii] The
longevity of a religious group depends on how successful it is in retaining its
collective memory as a “lineage of belief.” We don’t need to go backwards, but
we can’t know where we are headed unless we understand where we have been. And
if they are wise, most drivers check the rear view mirror while their car is in
motion. “The road to the future,” Robert Webber observed, “runs through the
[i] Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:23.
[ii] Daniele Hervieu-Leger, The Collective Memory Reader, edited by Jeffrey K. Olick, et. al., New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981, p. 387.
[iii] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999, p. 7.