Toward a Theology of Nostalgia: Advent, Anglicanism, and Angst

james

In the penetential spirit of Advent, I offer this confession…

I am Seething Lump of Paradox

I have long been fixated on a particular paradox that in many ways defines me, and explains many of the things that I do.  One way of articulating this paradox is to say that I am at once a hippie and an wanna-be aristocrat.  That is to say that I am simultaneously driven by a desire to see social and economic justice done on earth, and by the lure of ivory towers, fine living, and of all the “gentlemanly” things one would expect a landed, well-bred, roman-nosed, trust-funded English baron might be interested in and driven by: wine, falconry (don’t laugh you bastards), heraldry, the “classics,” architecture, fox-hunting, mahogany furniture, etc., etc., etc. 

One look inside my closet provides an example of the near schizophrenic behavior this paradox has pushed me to.  Over the past 5 years my wardrobe buying patterns have oscillated between garb befitting an English country gentleman (replete with bow ties, hunting and smoking jackets [God forbid you wear your hunting jacket in the smoking parlor, or your smoking jacket whilst hunting harts in Her Majesties’ Forests]), and all fair-trade, eco-friendly, anti-sweatshop attire (No Sweat Shoes, shirts made of organic cotton by a women-run co-op in Nepal).

By confessing my confusion, I hope to put my turning to Anglicanism/Episcopalianism into perspective.  In Anglicanism have found an entire Communion of Christians who are living the very same paradox that is me.  Torn between justice and tradition; landed and monied, serving fair trade coffee and running day centers for the homeless; mixing gothic architecture with radical hospitality; this is what being Anglican is about.  Two rows behind me at church, a retired international investment banker sits next to a homeless woman whose grocery cart full of tin cans is parked next to the big red doors which proclaim to the city “this is a sanctuary for all.”  Anglicanism is a way for me to live in tension with myself and not be consumed by guilt on the one hand (that hand which is elegantly gloved in black calf-skin), or self-righteousness on the other (that hand which offers a warm meal to a stranger in the park). 

Nostalgia and Advent

Nostalgia is the best word for what drives my wanna-be aristocratic side.  And–since I grew up in a trailer park and have no land, nor title, nor bank accounts brimming with neither old or new money–it is really a nostalgic longing for a time and place that I have never experienced first hand.  I am nostalgic for some idealized version Edwardian British Imperial domesticity that neither I nor my family had any part in whatsoever.   Simultaneously, I am revolted by the oppression, and the economic, environmental, and cultural destruction that such imperialism has wreaked on our planet and on my fellow human beings in places like Africa and the Indian sub-continent.  Interestingly,  in this huge colonial morass I come again to Anglicanism, which was, at different points in history and sometimes simultaneously, an endorser, a restraint, and a healer of this imperial carnage.

Where does this nostalgia come from?  Obviously, the answer is the books I’ve read, the TV shows and movies I’ve watched.  As a boy, Tolkien and Lewis colonized my imagination (they might as well have raised a British flag over it), and turned me into an insufferable Anglophile. 

Whereas my nostalgia (which extends far beyond my Anglophilism) can and does get me in trouble, it is also one of the reasons Advent is my favorite season of the Church calendar.  Advent is about having a nostalgia for the Kingdom Reality that one has not yet fully experienced.  It is an intense longing for a time and place both in the past and the future, which drives one to work for that Reality in the present.

A form of nostalgia is also at work in the active colonization of a sacred Christian feast by the demonic forces of materialism and consumption (and so my hippie side once again raises its dreadlocked head).  A highly manipulated nostalgia for the idealized Platonic Form of Christmas Past is at the very heart of the advertising frenzy which causes shoppers to literally kill each other in the race to buy things that they have been convinced will allow them to relive those glory days of Christmases gone by: when everything was perfect, everyone was happy, and the big fuzzy horses trotted by pulling a sleigh down the gas-lamplit street as snow began to fall on the head of Tiny Tim as he uttered the immortal words, “Walt Disney bless us, bless us every one.” 

I don’t know anyone who has ever lived this Hallmark Channel Christmas, and yet we are all willing to sell our souls to corporate America on the promise that if we just put up the decorations early enough, and open a few more credit cards this Christmas will be the Christmas.  Nostalgia is a dangerous thing.   

That is why Advent is so important to me.  Through Advent Christ offers me the chance to have my nostalgic imagination colonized by the Kingdom of God, rather than by the Kingdom of the World.  Advent is a tool to keep my out-of-control selfishness at bay and to paradoxically allow me to live in the moment that God has given me, while lifting my head in nostalgic anticipation for the Future that brings about our collective redemption.  

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20 Comments

  1. Wow. You are me. Luckily I’m much too poor (by American standards) to be properly Edwardian, yet sadly having just enough to make me live in perpetual guilt whilst reading my bookshelf of British books and smoking my pipe.

    A lovely reflection both on Anglicanism, Consumerism, and that most romantic of Seasons, Advent.

    Reply

  2. James,

    I hate you, and I hate that at times you say things better than I can, and I hate that you post important self-reflection pieces on the same day that I wanted to post something.

    Now, I have that out of my system.

    Well said, and I, like Tony, am in that sleigh with you headed toward some non-descript, Anglo imagination yet to be fulfilled.

    It really is why we all get along so well, and why the Anglican tradition “scratches the itch.”

    Shawn

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  3. James:

    You should read Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks. It gets at the psychology of people who want to be simultaneously bohemian and bourgeois (hence, “bobos”).

    George

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  4. I hope you don’t forget that there are some people who can cover every inch of their roof with Christmas lights, spend their last dollar at the Disney Store, bake ten thousand cookies, and do it all out of same joy and anticipation you experience through observance of advent. You sound like you’re judging those people. However, you also said this was intended to be a reflection so I will interpret it as though you are juging yourself and enjoying advent…off to hang Christmas lights.

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  5. If it’s any consolation, people were complaining in the second century CE (that’s AD to you) about how commercial and tacky Christmas had become.

    It’s a perennial tension between the spiritual and the material. If you Christian chaps derived your spirituality from the world (Nature) and the flesh instead of divorcing the two, you might get on better. Just sayin’.

    Meanwhile, you could reconcile your hippy impulses with your gentlemanly nostalgia by becoming a steampunk.

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  6. Busted!

    Here I am, innocently smoking my pipe and sipping my port while wearing my Harris tweed jacket, a former member of the Grateful Dead Historical Society and card-carrying socialist, now a member of the Bishop’s Society, just tucked my daughter into bed singing Come Thou Long Expected Jesus after we had finished yet another chapter in our fourth time through the Chronicles of Narnia. Did I mention that our little cottage was the home of the English architect who designed the historic Episcopal church in our town?

    No apologies for my anglophilia. The British do a lot of things right: great beer, great tobaccos, great literature, and great theology. It’s our tribe. It’s hard to beat Tolkien and Lewis and Richard Hooker.

    The beauty of Anglicanism is that it turns our paradoxes into good theology. Use the prayerbook. Follow the Episcopal calendar of saints and martyrs in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. It all starts to make sense. There are hillbillies in north Alabama arguing about purple vs Sarum blue for advent, and St. Martin Luther King’s statue is on the wall of Westminster Abbey.

    I’m going to go put up some Advent lights, buy a fair-trade gift off my neighborhood store’s website, and then try to prepare the way of the Lord!

    Thanks for the reflection.

    Scott

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  7. Thanks Scott. It’s nice to here from you. I am trying not to be jealous about your home’s illustrious history. I am currenlty living in (part of) a hundred year old house that was built for one of my town’s early baptist ministers, not quite as cool, but still sort of neat.

    What tobacco do you smoke?

    Oh, and I have to go with purple as well, if only because that’s what my congregation uses.

    Peace of Christ,
    James

    Reply

  8. Out here in western Washington, advent liturgical colors are becoming a class issue. The large and wealthy parishes are switching to blue, but the smaller churches like mine all say, “Who can afford a separate set of vestments just for Advent?”

    My pipes tend to be filled with Virginias and Virginia-Perique blends all year long. I favor Escudo and Hal O’ The Wynd, but I’m about to start on a very hard-to-find Stonehaven from England. If y’all are out this way, catch the beautiful AngloCatholic services at St. Paul’s Seattle, then come on up north for a pipe.

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  9. I’ve only recently begun reading this blog, but it’s already a favorite. I too suffer from Anglophilic, Edwardian pseudo-nostalgia, but also own a pair of No-Sweat Shoes and various fair-trade items. I’ve also recently been drawn to the Anglican tradition, and this post has definitely helped me understand why.

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  10. Scott,

    I was able to visit Seattle once, but sadly in my pre-Episcopalian days so I didn’t take advantage of the glorious churches out there. Next time…

    Jordan,

    Welcome! We always enjoy getting new readers – we don’t have too many of them so keep on looking around and loving the good stuff.

    Reply

  11. Jordan,

    Hope you don’t mind me asking, are you coming to Anglicanism from an evangelical tradition? We young former evangelical anglican refugees need to stick together. Anyway, thanks for you kind words. Its nice to know one is not alone in one’s contradictions.

    Scott,

    I too like a good Virginia-Perique blend. Right now I’m trying to finish off a couple of aromatics (I know, I’m such a sell out). The whole class divide in liturgical colors is an interesting (if sad) phenomena, I might bring that up with the Dean of the Cathedral I attend, he’s a real liturgy nerd (I laurel him with that title with the upmost respect).

    Blessings to all, and happy Advent,

    James

    Reply

  12. I see, yes all of us contributors to this site have also grown up in evangelical circumstance, gone to evangelical, private schools and are now Episcopal. It’s a weird thing.

    Reply

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