Friday, September 07, 2007

The Myth of the Good Old Days

I don’t believe in “the Good Old Days”. You hear about them all the time. Someone will say something like, “Things were so much better when (fill in the blank). But now people (fill in the blank). So if we just (fill in the blank) things would be so much better than they are now.” This will get large cheers from a crowd and may even inspire donations to a church or political campaign. This is an especially favored rhetorical technique for preachers because it’s easy. We point to one particular thing and give a guarantee that if the people will just think and/or do what we say, things will return to the way they were in the “good old days”.

There are a couple problems with this. First of all, things were never as good as we remember them. There’s a popular joke in the United Methodist Church recalling a bishop who exclaimed “if the 1950s ever return, we’ll be ready!” I didn’t live through the 1950s, but my parents did. They tell me that there was drug use, teen pregnancy, divorce, homosexuality, and political corruption back then. It wasn’t as much as now, and it certainly wasn’t talked about as much back then, but it was there. My mother grew up in Memphis where Jim Crow laws were going strong in the 1950s, and she remembers “Whites only” water fountains, bathrooms, and swimming pools. We don’t have those today (even though racism is still alive and well), and I’d say that’s a decided improvement over “the good old days”.

The bigger problem, however, with the myth of the good old days is that it assumes that there is a system, a belief, or an institutional structure that transcends time, geography, cultural context, and even the type of people running the show.

This is the main problem in a new book that is currently all the rage in many United Methodist circles. In Restoring Methodism, James and Molly Scott argue that such a “good old days” existed in the early days of the Methodist movement in America (the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, or the generations that experienced the American Revolution). They say that certain decisions that were made by the church during the twentieth century have been responsible for the current decline we are experiencing, and suggest ten changes that would return us to an earlier time and would, they claim, stop the losses.

I certainly agree that the church made mistakes during the twentieth century, but we made plenty of errors in previous centuries, too. The various incarnations of the church of Jesus Christ have been screwing up in large and small ways since day one! And I also agree that we can learn a lot from the successes of the past and that those successes can and definately should challenge our thinking about the way we do church today.

But what I have to take issue with is the idea that there was ever some state of pristine Methodism that transcended the context in which it found itself. The 1950s are never going to return, and the eighteenth century colonial frontier isn’t either. It’s the twenty-first century and we need to deal with it as it is. Each generation faces challenges that are its own, and simply replicating the ways church has been done before is as bad (if not worse) an idea than changing everything for the sake of changing it.

What if, instead of longing for a return to the “good old days”, we took an honest look at what the past was like and how that is similar and different to where we find ourselves today? What if we put together a companion volume to Restoring Methodism called For God’s Sake, Don’t Do This Again: Ways the Church Universal has Screwed Up Throughout History and how to Avoid Doing it Again? What if we chose to dream about what the future could be, and not just scheme about how to bring the past back to life?

Admittedly this idea requires a whole lot more time, effort, and work than simply following someone’s ten step plan. But doing so would give us the chance to make some “good new days”. The best might just be yet to come…


Katie Z. said...

This post got me thinking after the emergingumc gathering. If we are drawing connections between organic groups and missional church and the early Wesleyan movement... is this merely a harkening back to the "good old days" as well? Or are we seeing with fresh eyes a structure that can work in multiple contexts and is flexible enough to make a difference, and lo and behold, it looks kind of like what Wesley was doing?

I thought your critique of that backwards looking glance is right on, I'm just trying to figure out if we need to then turn it upon ourselves. I have a hunch we are doing something different, but its always hard to critique what you're close to.

Troy Stemen said...

"For God's Sake, Don't Do This Again" would have to be a multi-volume series. Volume 1- The Early Church, Volume 2- The Medieval Catholic Church (that might have to be volumes 3 and 4), Volume 3- The Protestant Reformation. Church history could use a good humored look at its screw-ups.

lf said...

I agree, the "good old days" is a strange myth, usually in truth arisen from nostalgia for vague traditions, or cultural norms. Whereas the bad is easily forgotten by those who were not directly affected.

Here's a list you can give anyone who thinks modern times are any more violent, oppressive, or "bad" than times of the past.

1896 gave us the Alligator Man:

1960 gave us Dahmer:

Don't forget slavery, Native American genocide, Hiroshima, Napalm, Salem Witch Trials, the Crusades...I'm glad we're past the past!

Here's a list of bad apples from the US alone.