Fangirl Theology: Nostalgia as Deception and Comfort in Stranger Things, American History, and the Bible

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***POTENTIAL MILD SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS SEASON ONE AHEAD***

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

In Greek, it roughly translates to “homesickness.”

This would explain the feelings we experience when we find an old toy, flip through an album of sepia-toned Polaroids, pick up a vinyl record, or binge-watch a season of Stranger Things in less than 24 hours.

In the act of remembering, we experience a type of homesickness, a woebegone sense of longing for the beloved and familiar. While our memories can be positive and negative, nostalgia holds us in those idyllic moments with all its might. It give us glimpses of home and tastes of (more) carefree days.

We are nostalgic, because we can’t help but yearn for the past when our future seems so uncertain, unsafe, and unknown.

My generation gets a lot of flack for our “early-onset nostalgia,” but I think our critics often forget the context of the world in which we came of age. Some contributing factors included a huge economic recession, job and financial instability, and disenfranchisement with the crippling War in Iraq. It only makes sense that we would cling to relics from our past for comfort, especially from a time that, to us, epitomized financial and global security.

Yet we remember so selectively.

Nostalgia insists on the existence of the “good ole days,” a magical time in which “life was easier.”

But does it dare to ask for whom those days were good, and for whom life was easy?

Does it prompt us to wonder who was invisible in our lives then and shed some light on who is absent now?

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Stranger Things tells a story with multiple perspectives through a retro, Stephens Spielburg- and King-esque lens. Three boys search for their missing best friend and discover a strange girl with superpowers, a la E.T. and Firestarter. A teenage girl is caught in a cliche example of a love triangle right out of a John Hughes flick. The boy’s mother and the local police chief work together to find this missing child only to uncover an even darker secret that could have set John Carpenter’s hair on end.

From the clothes the characters wear to the posters on their bedroom walls and the iconic scenes they mimic, the whole show is cut and tailored to pull our nostalgic heartstrings by reminding us of a past time. And yet, with its retro style comes a freshness our generation craves. It is a nostalgic tale, but it is also a tight, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat story. The acting and writing are phenomenal, and the themes of conquering evil are both comfortingly cliche and organically original.

Many of us need some nostalgic comfort in our country’s chaotic heydays. At the same time, we need to be cautious with it.

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Nostalgia influences our memories, and it can deceive them. There’s always someone or something missing from our strolls down memory lane, and if we take the time to find out why they are gone, we can infuse our fond recollections with a strong dose of reality.

Let’s look at the 1980s themselves. While the decade saw significant economic gains, they came as a result of slashed funding to government assistance programs for the poor and marginalized. While the US kept the USSR at bay, we also sent millions of dollars to corrupt Central American leaders, who spent it on weapons to murder their citizens. In return, we slammed our nation’s borders shut on these refugees when they sought to escape the war zones we had enabled. While the white population believed the country had moved on from racial inequality, the race-fueled “War on Drugs” and prison industrial complex picked up steam.

But these stories are not evident on the surface of this 80s-inspired show.

There is only one person of color in the first season (Lucas, one of Will’s friends), and not only is he relegated to a supporting role, but he gets a lot of flack for being rather reasonable with his concerns about Eleven.

None of the characters are people whose parents are not from the US, or who came to the US as children, and there are no people with disabilities.

This is not to say these characters’ traits and the complete absence of others is completely intentional. But then again, very little about anything systemic is.

And as such, we often chalk it all up to the fact that “things were different back then.”

But here’s the truth, y’all: the people who are absent from this and other stories existed then. They were the heroes of their own stories. At the same time, their stories were unacknowledged, ignored, and even silenced by a majority of Americans.

It’s an absence that, if you’re privileged enough, you have to hunt down. But for the forgotten ones, it is visible and painful.

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Nostalgia’s comfort and trickery is in the biblical text, too. After its devastating collapse, the psalmists celebrated Jerusalem in its glory as if it wasn’t also a place of greed, oppression, and corruption. The prophetic writers were the ones reminding the people of both their triumphant past and the reasons for their tragic downfall.

King David is idealized as the perfect king, and he was a rapist who feuded with his own son to the point of death. Again, a prophet had to bring the man to his senses so he could see the error of his ways.

The writers of the conquest narratives talk about God’s blessing of their successful missions to destroy the Canaanites, but we never hear the Canaanites’ perspective. Unfortunately, they did not receive any prophets, and their stories of pain and loss went unheard.

This is not to say pursuing feelings of nostalgia is a corrupt quest. It is comforting and necessary to remember where we’ve been and who we are, and we should be thankful when we can do so with joy and thankfulness in our hearts.

But it can also blind us. It can hold us back and keep us apathetic. It can make us dwell on what was instead of moving forward into what could be, and it can make us focus on a false narrative instead of digging deeper into the dark Upside Down beneath its facade.

We can allow nostalgia to comfort us and remove us from our own reality. Doing so can encourage us to play again, and when we remember how to play, we can change the world. After all, the kids in Stranger Things saved the world because of the wisdom they accumulated while playing Dungeons & Dragons, reading X-Men comics, and watching Star Wars. They were victorious, because they knew the value of play and imagination. Nostalgia can help us recover those traits after we bury them under adulthood’s reason and seriousness.

So go ahead and be nostalgic when you watch Stranger Things, and be comforted and emboldened by it. It’s only natural in a world like this.

And also remember to be honest. Remember that the privilege to look back on a time with nostalgia often comes at the price of someone else’s comfort, and you did nothing to earn it, nor did they.

And remember to do what you can to make this a world in which every person can have a home for which to be homesick as we journey through life.

I’m Reading the Bible Again, and I’m a Little Nervous About It

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I’ve started reading the Bible again.

Only 6 years ago, I wouldn’t have taken out time to craft a blog post about this. I would have just done it, because reading the Bible regularly was what I did.

Sure, I’d go through spells in which I fell behind for a couple of days, or maybe even a week. But otherwise, I was a devout Bible-reader, a lover of devotions and daily quiet times, back when getting up before the sun was (slightly) easier than it is now.

By the light of my desk lamp or under flickering fluorescent in the dorm basement, I would read, journal, and pray for at least 30 minutes a morning, devoting the time with all the gusto I could muster in those pre-dawn hours. I looked forward to these quiet minutes with God’s Word. I used to see so much truth, hope, guidance, and love in those stories and verses, whether I proof-texted them or did amateur exegesis on them.

I felt God’s presence in a way I never have, before those times or since.

Then the faith crisis hit.

Before my eyes, the Bible transformed from a story of hope inspired by God himself into a text of manipulation, fear, and lies. My faulty foundation had been built on those words and how they’d been taught to me, and they had been found harmful and lacking.

The devotions grew more shallow. The regular quiet times ceased. Eventually, I stopped reading the Bible altogether.

After all, how could I trust something that had deceived me so much?

Instead of reading Scripture, I focused on service and worship. I connected with God through hearing peoples’ stories, in regular conversations and through blogs and books. I felt God’s presence when I mentored children, gave and partook of communion, gleaned food for local pantries, and helped people get free groceries for the month.

These became my devotions and daily readings, the living Word with me, and in many ways, these practices saved my faith from certain death.

Eventually, in fits and starts, I started to read the Bible again. I would halfheartedly begin my devotional practices but drop them once life became too busy. This changed a bit during seminary (for obvious reasons), but I read Scripture in an academic context.

However, contrary to popular belief, seminary didn’t further damage my relationship with the Bible. Instead, it helped me learn to love it again by allowing me to study and deconstruct it, to see how verses turned into ideologies and how context could upturn all of them.

In short, seminary taught me to love the Bible for what it is, not how I or any culture want it to be.

Now, after all that time of study and with a Master’s of Divinity, the idea of reading the Bible for my own spiritual health still freaks me out.

What came so naturally all those years ago feels like lifting an Olympic-sized weight after I’ve regressed to 5-pound dumb bells. And instead of allowing myself to simply practice studying again, I’m asking myself a million questions.

How do I read this now?

How do I read these texts after I spent a lifetime learning they only had one interpretation?

How do I read the stories of divine healing after I have seen and experienced unhealed pain?

Will the Bible push me deeper into the beliefs I already have, or will it make me become the person I once was, who I have fought so hard not to be anymore?

Will the Bible teach me to become a quiet and submissive woman after working so hard to be bold and confident?

Will I find myself chanting “All Lives Matter” and “America is a Christian nation” and “Love the sinner, hate the sin” in spite of everything I’ve learned about racial inequality, the brutal politics of our nation, and harmful notions of sexuality?

Will I care about any of the things I care about now, or will I cast those all away like I did my past ones?

Will I find God’s voice, or my own, or my culture’s, or some messed up combination of all of them?

Who will I become as I let this text shape me again?

I’m afraid to find out, because I fear the past me, the one who got so much out of those quiet times and turned a blind eye to the people God loves most: the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

I fear becoming the person who feared learning new things would make me “too worldly.”

I fear becoming the person so affected by the warped concept of purity thrust upon me that I spent nights crying myself to sleep because I had sex before marriage.

I fear becoming the young woman afraid to take on leadership roles because I was taught my desires to usurp the authority granted for men alone violated God’s will.

I fear becoming the person who would not embrace my LGBTQ friends as they are.

I fear that Bible-loving girl, and while I want to love the Bible, I don’t want to love her. And I sure as hell don’t want to be her.

But that girl and Bible-reading are so tied up in each other, I’m not sure how to do one without becoming the other.

In short, I don’t know how to read and love the Bible as I am.

I’m trying to figure that out, though. I can’t properly explain why. I don’t know if it’s the Spirit’s prompting, or because I re-read The Unlikely Disciple and felt nostalgia for my old evangelical devotion days, or because I feel like I “ought” to.

All I know is I’m doing it. And I’m praying, in fear and trembling, for it to change me, but I’m not sure how I want to be changed.

My Faith is Solid…and This Worries Me

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My senior year of college threw me into a major faith crisis. It was the year I took my most challenging classes, heard the most upsetting insights, and asked my hardest questions.

During that time, I began to question everything from my conservative Pentecostal upbringing. And in this case, “everything” is not much of an exaggeration.

I poked holes and made cracks in all aspects of my theology to see what would stay in tact and what would crumble. Unfortunately for me, most of it crumbled. I found out very fast that what I had thought was my rock solid foundation consisted of sand, and I began to sink into its mire.

I pondered predestination and free will, religion and science, the “debates” about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ equality, and the culture wars. I wondered about the legitimacy of doctrinal “facts” like the Trinity, the inerrant word of God, salvation through Christ alone, and whether or not women should pursue leadership roles (I actually wrote my thesis about this topic).

These questions of crisis kept me fearful and skeptical of the Church for many years. Engaging with my home community was too much for me. There was no room for questions, doubts, or even different opinions. Instead of trying to make some change from within, I ran away from the community which had once been my home, and I still have yet to return.

Fortunately, my journey led me to many brothers and sisters of the Christian faith who gave me space to ponder, wonder about, and tinker with my faith. They heard my questions, and when necessary, they offered new insights to consider. They told me I didn’t have to look at things through the black and white, right and wrong lens of my upbringing. They taught me new, life-giving, colorful ways to interpret the Scriptures, live as the Church, and follow Jesus. They taught me about the harsh realities of racism, sexism, and elitism I had been taught were long dead, and they taught me how prayer and protest go hand in hand. They let me create and lead. They swore, did theater, loved books and comics, and prayed. They seemed like authentic human beings, not the carbon-copy perfect Christians to whom I had been accustomed.

I met these people in school and church, in the theater and in the classroom, on the streets, in student apartments, and in cushy homes. They guided me through seminary and the faith communities I joined. They helped me find God and faith anew.

Now, I’m out of the faith crisis and living into a more solid, steady, and real faith. I still have questions, but now I feel more comfortable with some things being unresolved and have a firmer understanding in what I do and don’t believe. I continue to be irreverent while revering the sacred Presence around and within us. My prayers are more consistent, and they are full of joy, lament, and honesty. I feel closer to God and the Church than I have for the better part of 5 years.

And this worries me.

While in faith crisis mode, things were new and uncertain. Everything from whether or not I would remain in the Church to which authors I would revere was under question every day. Now that the ground beneath my feet is firmer, I’m not sure what to do. What do I do when the next step I take meets firm ground instead of sinking sand? What do I do when I’m swimming steadily instead of struggling to stay afloat?

This isn’t foreign territory. I remember when my beliefs were steady, before I knew the true essence of my former foundation. I remember what I was like when I was “right,” in every definition of the word. I distanced myself from those with whom I disagreed and felt the need to correct them when I was around them. I look back at who I was then with some disgust and horror, hoping I will never again be like this.

I don’t want to shut myself off from others, especially those who still struggle to feel welcomed by the Church. I worry that my more solid faith will be appalling to those still struggling and full of doubt. I worry that instead of listening to and hearing them, I will revert back to my old tendencies to correct and give clear-cut answers for chaotic and hurtful circumstances. I worry I will lose my sense to be understanding and be sympathetic to where my brothers and sisters are in their journeys.

I fear I will forget what it felt like to be on the outside looking in. I fear my present comfort will cause me to forget this difficult, wonderful, and necessary part of my journey, a part of my life which I treasure more than my any of my times of certainty.

So to alleviate these concerns, I will need reminders from my community.

There will be times I need to be reminded to do the hard work of listening to others, with whom I agree and disagree, who comfort me and challenge me. I will have to work hard to resist the temptation to either rest in tepidness or continue pursuing fleeing fancies. I will need regular, gentle reminders to hold my ideas with open palms instead of clenched fists.

I will need those younger and older than me to keep me in check, and the wisdom and stories of people of all ages and walks of life. I will need to be reminded I am not the be all and end all of the Church or good theology, and that steadiness in faith does not equate with unyielding certainty. I will need my blind spots pointed out and my slip-ups called out (but graciously, please!). I will need as much help as I can to keep moving forward in this journey.

So as I live into this time of steady faith, please continue to challenge and share with me. Keep telling your stories. Be honest about your beliefs and the joys and struggles of your lives. Continue to ask questions and remind me to keep asking them, too.

Let us remember that faith is never meant to be stagnant and still but ever-moving and ever-changing. Let us journey on together, wherever and as we are.