With the Battle of the Pelennor Fields won, the Captains of the West prepare to march on the Black Gate. But one warrior has a dreamy, faraway look: Legolas the elf-prince, recounting the story of his perilous journey with the returning King through the Paths of the Dead. As Galadriel prophesied, he has heard the crying of the seagulls at Pelargir and his heart has been pierced by a desire to return to Elvenhome in the West, beyond worlds. Her warning is fulfilled:
Legolas Greenleaf long under the tree,
In joy thou hast lived, Beware the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.
The longing for his ancestral land infects Legolas, rendering him constantly restless. He can no longer be content amid the sorrows of Middle-Earth.
This great scene from The Return of the King testifies to the backwards pull of nostalgia. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past” and as “sentimental imagining or evocation of a period of the past.” This quality of sentimentality—of a saccharine wistfulness for a Golden Age gone forever that probably was not really all that golden—often subjects nostalgia to mockery. Nostalgia, then, can make us, like Legolas, incapable of coping with the real world.
In saying “us,” I refer to anyone who inhabits the twenty-first century world of the modern West, but I think especially of the sub-world that I know best. That is the world of Christian, conservative students at American universities. Reminders of Christendom constantly surround us—my own alma mater, Columbia, invokes Psalm 36:9 in its motto, “In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen” (“In Thy Light Do We See Light”). Our Butler Library proudly etches the names of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and Milton into its cornice. Yet now the motto seems to be an embarrassment for our deans—who, if they have to mention it at all, usually try to mangle it into a platitude about the benefits of diverse perspectives—and Literature Humanities classes on Augustine’s Confessions usually focus on psycho-analyzing his theft of the pears.
Liberal arts colleges now fallen far from their noble founding ideals certainly foster nostalgia. It is easy to dismiss as reactionary, recalcitrant, or snobbish traditionalist students—admittedly, including myself—who love wearing fine clothes and speaking in elevated tones and pontificating about the decadence and degeneracy of America. Sometimes one can categorize different species of conservatives by when they think the “American experiment in ordered liberty” went wrong—was it the Sexual Revolution, the New Deal, or the Progressive Era? Or has the Republic been rotten from its roots?
It is easy to see much or all of this as the dangerous nostalgia of negativity. People of my cast of mind certainly can be guilty of forgetting how much was wrong with the elevated Christendom whose passing we mourn. Yes, there was perhaps greater sanity about sexual morality before Lambeth Conference of 1930; but people of color were excluded and marginalized. Not to mention that crassly modern liberal democracy and market economics have brought greater material prosperity and security to more of the world’s people than were imaginable at any previous point in world history. At its worst, this nostalgic spirit can descend into a mentality of grievance and victimhood that consigns the wayward world to its doom. The warning of Hebrews 12:15 condemns this whole vein of thought: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”
But we do face real, particular trials of our time and place in addition to the overarching homelessness that comes with being human. Pope Francis has reminded us of the deep cruelty of the contemporary “culture of waste” where people are “disposed of like trash.” A crassly utilitarian spirit, coupled with a therapeutic view of the self, seems to dictate that we dismiss Goodness, Truth, and Beauty as whimsical and destroy millions of unborn children because they are inconvenient. We college students who long to strive in the public square for the truth that every human being is created with unique, eternal dignity face a long and weary fight. Sometimes we feel tempted to despair when the logic of secular liberalism remains impervious to the very moral language we would use: Talk of “virtue,” “eudaimonia,” “authority,” and “natural law” gets swept away by much more appealing words like “freedom” and “fairness.”
The Bible is full of dour indictments of the spirit of the age, and the prophet Jeremiah gave us some of the most withering. Lamentations is utterly honest about just how bad things are: The Babylonians have crushed God’s chosen people and laid the land waste, and every one of Yahweh’s covenant promises now seems impossible to fulfill. Looking back to the way his home was reveals to Jeremiah how much he has to mourn. But, nestled like the eye of a hurricane at exactly the halfway point of Lamentation’s five chapters of desolation come those verses, 3:22-24, that the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” made famous:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him” (ESV).
Hope is kindled anew. The prophet re-affirms his faith in the faithfulness of the God who is Lord not of the dead but of the living.
Nostalgia, then, if born of an honest assessment that we truly do live in a degenerate age, has the power to wake us up. It can teach us not merely to wish for the “green and pleasant land” before Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” arose, but also to long for God’s New Jerusalem. But we cannot let ourselves slide into being not a Jeremiah but an Elijah, who, in 1 Kings 19, hides in a cave in a wilderness, muttering that he has been loyal to the Lord and wishing for the good old days before Ahab. When God arrives to reprimand him in a still, small voice, the Lord tells his self-pitying prophet: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal” (ESV). And then Elijah is given Elisha to be his friend and disciple.
We must not forget that God raises up for us, too, allies unlooked-for: We have more than seven thousand fellow-pilgrims. We stand not only with our own embattled church traditions in the West, but also with all God’s people in the Church Universal. In much of Africa and East Asia, the Church is flourishing in surprising ways that look nothing like our experience in the West. And we stand in the communion of the saints with brothers and sisters who have triumphed through darker times—with Solzhenitsyn and Bonhoeffer, with T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis, with Dorothy Sayers and Flannery O’Connor, with Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce, with Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, with David Livingstone and William Carey, with Amy Carmichael and Elizabeth Elliot, with Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier—each of whom thought the age and culture had gone mad, and each lived and taught the Gospel bravely, to the very end.
Nostalgia need not be, for us, like the crying of the gulls that pierced Legolas’ heart and forced him to retreat from the sorrows of Middle-Earth. Tolkien included a scene charged with the hope nostalgia can kindle near the end of The Two Towers. As Frodo and Sam trudge toward the perilous pass of Cirith Ungol, they come across a desecrated statue of one of Gondor’s ancient kings. The fallen head lies by the roadside, yet it is wreathed in flowers. A shaft of westering sunlight strikes the wreath, making it glow with new gold. Frodo exclaims, “The king has got a crown again! They cannot conquer for ever!” It is light from the fading past that gives the hobbits strength to walk on, to face the task ahead faithfully, and to do their part in bringing about the renewal of the world.
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