The Force of Nostalgia Awakens. I jumped at the chance to go to the cinema and see the new Star Wars. I won’t spoil the storyline in this post, but I do want to ponder the key ingredient of this film’s success. Nostalgia.
It is a very good film. Decent story. Good acting. Well made. But what is making this movie probably one of the most profitable of all time is its effective use of nostalgia. There is something profoundly satisfying about seeing familiar characters, familiar scenery, familiar scenes, and familiar storylines. (If you haven’t seen Star Wars yet, think about Rocky revisiting the ice rink in Rocky Balboa, the first glimpse of The Shire in The Hobbit, etc. Nostalgia seems to be a growing currency in Hollywood!)
Now I could suggest that if the many very satisfying moments of nostalgia were removed from Star Wars, then it might not be lauded so highly, but that would be both unwise and unfair. Unwise because I would probably face a host of fans wanting to fight me to the death with their light sabers. Unfair because this Star Wars never asked to be judged minus the nostalgia. (Unlike the previous 3 episodes that tried to build the franchise with poor stories and disappointing characters, this one has good story, good characters, etc., and deliberate use of the force of nostalgia.)
So with a good thumbs up to the movie, let’s ponder what we can learn in respect to our preaching and “nostalgia.” In reality nostalgia is only a small part of what I am describing here – it is really the force of relational connections, our identification with characters. For the sake of simplicity, I will go with the term “nostalgia” because that was the overriding emotion generated in Star Wars.
1. Nostalgia is powerful. There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of literature. Even non-narrative literature is part of the big narrative of the Bible. If we can tell the stories well, then nostalgia can become part of the force in preaching. This is not automatic, however. We need to think about preaching biblical material in such a way that people are engaged emotionally and not just cerebrally. Too much preaching rehearses old truths, but does not ignite the imagination of the listeners. Most people, in most of the world, for most of history, have had far more engaged imaginations than we do today. This means we need to pay attention to how we help listeners imagine and engage with the biblical story.
2. Nostalgia is never generated by facts alone. If Star Wars simply referenced facts from episodes 4-6, then we would not be discussing the force of nostalgia in this post. There is some traction in familiar scenery, scenes, score, and plotlines, but the force really awakens when characters are enfleshed. To see Han Solo and Chewbacca walk onto the screen is where viewers find themselves deeply stirred. Why? Because we feel like we know them – old friends who we never thought we would see again, but they’re back! The human heart engages with other persons in a unique and powerful way. When we preach, we too easily reduce characters to fact-lists. Nicodemus was a curious and maybe sympathetic Pharisee. Zaccheus was a diminutive rogue. Zechariah was a faithful priest. And even, God is a holy deity. All very factual, but the person is not evident when the description is too flat. People’s hearts will respond to real people, but sadly many churchgoers encounter more “real person” in a brief encounter with a waiter at a restaurant than they did at church during the preaching of a biblical narrative.
3. Nostalgia is not universally forceful. While we would do well to ponder the potential impact of “nostalgia” in our preaching, this is no magic pill. Nostalgia alone would not make Star Wars successful. In fact, for a first time viewer who doesn’t have a host of emotional ties to scenes from over three decades ago, this Star Wars would have to engage on a completely different level. In the same way, we can’t rely on “familiarity” or assumed character development from previous exposure when we preach. Let’s learn to preach so that listeners engage with characters and experience the stories so that there is opportunity to tap into the force of nostalgia, but good preaching has to be targeted at first-time hearers too. Be sure to preach in such a way that first-time hearers will encounter the Key Character in the Bible, be drawn to Him and become candidates for nostalgic responses in future biblical preaching!