Nostalgia Distorts Reality

By Andrew Nunn

That lovely French cinema actress of the last century, Simone Signoret, is said to have commented, “Nostalgia is not what it used to be.” What a woman of wisdom! I have to admit to being nostalgic — for thinking back to what I was doing last year, hankering to be there, the inward sighs that come from knowing that two months ago I was on the beach and I’m not now.

Your recently hacked Facebook account will encourage you in this constant business of nostalgia when all of a sudden it tells you, “This time last year you were doing” and up comes a picture of … happier times, with friends, with family, in the sunshine, the stuff people post on Facebook.

But nostalgia is not a modern thing and we heard about it in the First Reading. The Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, sitting around the campfire, I suppose, when the wandering for that day was done, begin to remember what life was like, or in fact they forget what life was like and remember what they want to remember, that selective way we have of inhabiting the fantasy of the past.

“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

They were bored to the back teeth with the bread of God, with the bread of angels. They wanted the food of Egypt, they wanted the food of slavery and not the food of freedom.

But their sad remembering reminds me of that wonderful scene in the musical Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in which the Israelites, a few stages back in the story, are experiencing famine in their homeland, a famine that would bring them to Egypt and to the finding of their brother, would bring them into slavery and then, ironically, back into the wilderness.

Joseph’s brothers stand on stage and sing together

Those Canaan days we used to know
Where have they gone, where did they go?
Eh bien, raise your berets
To those Canaan days

We remember what it was like … when … well, it can be anything. It’s not about valuing your history, it’s about misremembering the past, valuing the past over the present, airbrushing reality and entering into a fantasy of what was, that begins to color the way you live in the present.

Those Canaan days we used to know
Where have they gone, where did they go?

“There is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

Jesus is challenging the disciples and then uses an image that the gospels use elsewhere, this whole idea of salt. “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” But it isn’t just the seasoning quality of salt that Jesus is talking about, it’s that quality that salt has to preserve. It was such a vital commodity, not just something to put on your chips. It was much more than that, more fundamental than that.

And elsewhere Jesus calls upon us to be salt and light to the world; we, his followers, to do that work which salt does, but also to cast the clear light of the gospel upon the world. And if we lose our saltiness, if we lose our edge, if the light we carry dims, if we cannot see where we’re going, if others cannot see where they’re going, we enter into a difficult and dangerous place.

The first reading took us from the misery of that nostalgia, the hankering after the distorted memory of the past, into something that was much more positive and forward-looking. God sends his Spirit of prophecy on the people. At first the plan was to choose the people who’d be given a share of that Spirit, but God’s grace and goodness cannot be contained and controlled like that, and there were these two guys, Eldad and Medad, not in the tent of meeting but back in the camp, and the Spirit fell on them and they too began to prophesy. The in crowd wanted to stop them, but Moses was wiser.

“Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets,” he said. The reaction of the people was the reaction of the disciples at the beginning of the Gospel reading, wanting to control who was acting in the name of Jesus. But Jesus is just as clear as Moses was: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

It’s a fantastic message of openness and imagination, not bound by nostalgia, not bound by any notions of who’s in or who’s out, but bound instead by that notion of the open, generous, inclusive nature of God that we find throughout Scripture, who takes us from the past through the present and into the future.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say that the world is in the midst of a crisis of leadership. It isn’t just about the United States and the United Kingdom. It seems to be a wider phenomenon, as though somehow the enormity of the issues that we face is leading people and our leaders to take comfort in nostalgia, to do the thing that Joseph’s brothers did, to do the thing that the Israelites did, to look back to a false past and forget the manna of freedom and life that they’re enjoying and having porous enough boundaries to allow others to share that bread.

Part of the whole Brexit nightmare, it seems to me, is looking back to a past that never really existed and a past that, I for one, don’t want to reinhabit even if it did. The days of “go-it-alone Britain” were not that fantastic. The days of Empire, the days of Armada, the days of fighting off everyone else and painting the globe pink, were they that fantastic, really? Weren’t they also days of plundering, days of discrimination, days of ignorance, days of the imposition of slavery, days of exploitation, days of war, days of death?

Hasn’t the European project, as some call it, been about something much more positive, about living in that greater community, in not the “Britain first mentality” but in the world that Jesus suggests, that world in which we embrace others and work with them and are not jealous and suspicious of them as the disciples were being, as the in crowd in the tent were doing in Moses’ day.

We need to be salt and light, for the sake of the world, we need to be giving that out-front leadership, which, to be fair, Archbishop Justin has been showing recently, confident to speak truth to power, to give salt back into the system, to shed light where there is at present darkness, to wear that prophetic spirit in God’s name and help people to look forward and not look back, back into a fading and increasingly distorted past.

The Israelites had forgotten what they held in their hands when they cried out, “There is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” But in a moment we’ll look at that bread in our own hands, the bread that God gives, day in, day out, in our present wilderness, and we will know it’s everything we need, not bread to hold us in the fantasy of the past, but to strengthen us for the journey ahead and the challenge of the future, with our saltiness restored, bearing the light of Christ and fired by the Spirit for whatever the future holds.

The Very Rev. Andrew Nunn is dean of Southwark Cathedral in London.

Countdown to GC80 Opening Gavel


Online Archives