Forgive the exercise in morbidity, but imagine it’s 1998 and you’ve just been in a terrible car accident.
Don’t worry, don’t worry—you survived. But you just woke up, like, yesterday, after almost 20 years in a coma. And thanks to modern medicine, you’ve not aged a bit. In fact, for those first few moments, you don’t think much has happened. You remember the ice and the vision-blurring headlights, but that’s about it.
So you’re sitting there in your hospital bed, flipping through the channels and you come across MTV. You stop, hoping for one of your favorites: TRL, Celebrity Deathmatch, Daria—you know, those hip shows everyone’s talking about.
Instead, it’s just a dude talking about the headlines. He’s standing there in his unbuttoned button-up and dungarees, looking unusually clear on the oversized TV. “Fancy for a hospital,” you think.
He starts his spiel: “In today’s program, we’ll talk to Blink 182 about their latest top-of-the-charts record and then share our exclusive interview with the most talked-about actress on television: Winona Ryder! And make sure to stick around, because at the end of the hour we’ll release a brand new single from Jimmy Eat World.”
At that moment, your mom storms through the door and—how is this possible?—she looks 20 years older.
Nostalgia’s a funny thing. For every old-timer who waxes poetically of the “good ol’ days” there’s a kid who couldn’t tell you the day of the week but, just yesterday, had the best day of his life. One man’s Dark Ages is another’s Enlightenment.
Yet these days, when it comes to pop culture, it seems nostalgia is so in vogue that you really could careen off the road in 1998 and wake up in the summer of 2016 and feel like you hadn’t missed much of anything.
Don’t believe me? Step right up, into 2016’s time-bending vortex.
In our living rooms, we’re about to see MTV play music again. Sayonara, Catfish and other weird stuff—hello, again, MTV Unplugged! And for those who were forced to watch MTV on the sly, the more family-friendly Nickelodeon recently announced a 2017 rejuvenation of two classics: Hey Arnold! and Legends of the Hidden Temple.
On the silver screen, we spent the last year flooding the theater for new chapters of Star Wars and Jurassic Park—and re-worked chapters of Ghostbusters and The Jungle Book. Some of these iterations were uniformly panned; others were happily embraced. Even as I write this, a new trailer released for Blair Witch, the sequel to the 1999 shaky-cam classic The Blair Witch Project.
And that’s not all. In the world of miscellany, “overwhelming fan demand” beckoned Pepsi-Co to resurrect its long-defunct Crystal Pepsi. I suspect a similar cause could be mustered for Donald Trump’s recent reemergence as a meaningful and ubiquitous public figure.
From music to movies to television to grocery aisles to presidential races, so much of today’s storefront popular culture comes pre-packaged with a wink and a nod to the past. Some of the nods are clumsy and awkward, some of the winks entirely unsolicited. But the trend is noteworthy and almost certainly here to stay.
A Deeper Meaning
Because it’s the most prominent, I want to focus on the movie and television aspect of this phenomenon. One could marshal two initial responses to this—one cynical, one less so.
The cynical response decries this “nostalgia” as a polite placeholder for a widespread lack of creativity, an artistic rut that’s turned content producers into either parrots or panderers. Parrots repeat stuff for no reason at all; they make stuff like a Ben-Hur redux that literally no one asked for and, therefore, no one actually saw. Panderers, however, begin with an idea’s pre-fabricated sense of popularity—a process often pre-determined by market demographics and algorithms prone to spit out strange sentiments like, “You bet it’s time for another Independence Day!”
But this line of thinking cuts two ways, which brings us to a second, less cynical reaction to this nostalgia-laden age. After all, not all nostalgia is created equal. Take, for example, Stranger Things, whose ethos is uniformly throwback—from the soundtrack to the casting to the Evil Dead-inspired credits. But the Duffer Brothers designed these elements as ornaments more than scaffolding. They wanted us to hear familiar beats, while at the same time recognizing that the show’s rhythm remained wholly theirs.
To complain about a lack of creativity is sometimes warranted; it’s a real problem when marketing prowess drives an industry to stare at the bottom-line and thus dismiss art in favor of commodities. But it’s worth considering: What if some of these re-creations, reiterations and resurrections function as the first steps of a new generation of filmmakers and show-runners who are graduating from consumers to creators?
But let’s dig deeper. Pushing aside the question of authorial motivation, what does this influx of redos and retreads and reruns say about us? Why do we love the experience of re-experience?
Nostalgia’s a funny thing precisely because it’s inherently subjective. Our disparate life experiences mean our longings—whether for that idyllic past, or that golden age on the horizon—never look the same. While driving through my old high school or college campus, I’m flooded with memories I can actually feel. These memories make me smile because there’s a kind of joy that has an interminable shelf life. Others, however, might drive through their old school or neighborhood and be immediately flooded with memories whose shelf-life is equally interminable, yet whose result is precisely opposite—no joy, only pain and loss, fear and depression.
Even now, it’s likely your mind just traveled to those places—happy or sad, depending on where you were in the paragraph. This is the human experience, reflexively moved by the power of suggestion. Perhaps this offers an insight as to why we so often return to stories that suggest a prior time: They also suggest a prior self.
I end where I might have began, with a mere thesis, yet one worth sustained reflection because its degree and expression of truthfulness will vary: Perhaps we return to certain stories—the reboots, redos and needless resurrections—because we desire a return to certain selves—rebooted, redone and happily resurrected.
If you’re not a Christian and you’ve come across this article, I suspect that desire describes you well, even if it’s subsisted for decades without articulation. I’d simply encourage you to consider it further and see where it leads.
But for the Christian, there’s more to be said.
First and foremost, we need not fear this pop-cultural exhortation to re-experience. After all, it’s a biblical one—just look at The Passover, a kind of divinely ritualized re-boot in which God calls his people to remember his salvation, just as he heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex. 2:24).
What’s more, this discipline of recollection can be spiritually useful, insofar as it’s infused with existential and even moral weight.
And such were some of you, Paul says in an extended plea to the Corinthian church, that they would flee from former sins that had previously ruled over them. A few chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 10, he employs a similar tactic, exhorting these Christians to remember the rebellion of Israel and thus avoid their eventual judgment.
Hopefully, however, we realize the temptations here. For example, we might be prone to misuse nostalgia as a vehicle for escapism rather than a means of remembering God’s generous dealing with us and our pasts. Or perhaps we find ourselves remembering a prior season of life too much or too happily; perhaps our obsessive looking back has caused us to remain tenuously yet emotionally attached, even to the degree of avoiding adulthood and all its accompanying arrivals and departures. Or maybe this feeling of nostalgia accompanies a temptation to pursue art or activities or relationships that, if we’re honest, simply double as foolish fraternizations with a former life.
At this point, nostalgia’s inherent subjectivity rears its head. Who can say much more?
And such were some of you, Paul said. And then he continued: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”