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Why Is Our Culture So Obsessed With Nostalgia?

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. Even the things we feel nostalgic about vary from person to person.

Yet these days, when it comes to pop culture, it seems nostalgia is so prevalent that you really could fall asleep in 2001 wake up in the spring of 2022 feeling like you hadn’t missed much of anything.

Let’s take a glance a some current pop culture pieces.

Scroll through Netflix and you can find shows that help you transport to a bygone era, including shows like Stranger Things and Derry Girls that explore adolescence from decades past. And many of the shows from our own adolescence are getting the reboot treatment, with shows like Gossip Girl and The Fairly Oddparents returning to the small screen, for some odd reason.

On the silver screen, the seemingly never-ending story of Jurassic Park will premiere later this summer with some of the original cast set to return. Disney announced earlier this year they’re working on too many remakes and reboots to even name all of them.

When it comes to the music scene, one of the most popular artists who recently won three Grammys has built her entire brand on the nostalgia from her infancy. From her fashion choices to the beats behind her songs, Olivia Rodrigo is bringing Y2K lifestyle back in an aggressive way. An impressive feat for someone who was born in 2003.

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?

Subjectivity

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.

See Also

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.”

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