The Trouble with Religious Nostalgia

I spent a VERY full day in Nashville–so many interesting and stimulating conversations with folks from the Our Family Matters Conference as well as with my good friend Scott who lives near by and Cary from Belfast, who is in the States for a few months. I got to spend LOADS of wonderful time with Christine Bakke and even took an diversion with her to the Opryland Hotel.

The conference has been well organized and well publicized with news stories on two local TV stations, in the local NPR radio broadcast and in the gay press. The organizers have brought together an impressive group of speakers and performers with several lesbian presenters. I find this especially refreshing as I want to hear more about the experience of lesbians at these kind of events. Sadly the trans presence so far has been non-existent. Trans issues came up on Wednesday night during the film series, but it seems clear that this is a new topic for even the folks who spoke about it. Funny how some LGB folks who have experienced confusion and rejection from the straight church struggle to understand and fully include transgender folks.

A major topic of this conference revolves around the experience of Christians who also happen to be lesbian, bisexual or gay. Of course this issue affects many people in and out of the church both LGB and straight, but I find I grow weary of the theme. For me my faith and my Christian identity informs most things I do and how I do them. I am a Christ-centered Quaker. To deny the Christian part of me would be to live with a lack of integrity, but I think the topic wearies me because my faith and sexuality and personality have become more and more integrated in me through the past few years. I need less and less words to describe my faith as I live it.

I also grow weary of what feels to me tired cultural representations of the Christian faith. As someone who experienced both heaven and hell in a variety of Christian churches (Roman Catholic to Fundamentalist to Evangelical to Charismatic to Pentecostal Holiness to Anglican) I find that I feel ‘triggered’ by certain songs, rituals, architecture and even clerical syntax.

An element of a service I attend can transport me to another church in another time of my life. Even with some pleasant memories associated with these liturgical sense memories, I find mostly negative, tragic and tortured images, remembrances and emotions. Perhaps it is a form of religious PTSD–Church inspired Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

When I sit in the silence and stillness of Quaker meeting for worship, it reminds me of no other religious experience I previously encountered. It brings up no regrets, no images of people who once were dear to me and who are now strangers. I can experience the divine without dismal echoes from my past distracting me from listening to God and others.

For some folks who have experienced abuse at the hands of church leaders or the negative effects of sitting under a load of oppressive teachings designed to shut off critical thinking and creative expression, I believe choosing to no longer attend religious services designed like their previously abusive ones represents a healthy outcome. Even if the theology of a new place of worship is more progressive and affirming, the same cultural presentation of the service (same musical styles, liturgy, architecture, language, etc) can prove counter-productive for many people.

I know that some people long for worship like they used to know it. Perhaps they have mostly fond memories of their times in these churches, or they have been able to reclaim their religious culture expression into a new positive setting. For my part, I cannot sit in a service, no matter how affirming, if it sounds and acts and looks too much like the church cultures I that kept me in a Biblically Induced Coma. No matter what good I received from them, over time, they sucked the life out of me.

I marvel that seemingly progressive “gay churches” fall back to the same old methods and music and styles of religious culture. I wonder sometimes we mistake nostalgia for a moving of the Spirit. We need new wine in new wine skins.


This post has 5 Comments

  1. paul on October 25, 2008 at 3:15 pm


    Last year, a year after my coming out to my adult kids, I found myself alone at Christmas. My family traveled to my sons house in San Diego to celebrate Christmas together and I was not invited.

    Having only a lifetime of living the ex-gay lifestyle (though it really doesn’t have much ‘style’ to recommend it) I found my self quite alone and friendless. So, I thought I would visit my local MC Church. I visited once and haven’t been back since. “Triggered” describes what I felt perfectly. It was like the proverbial dog returning to it’s vomit.

    This summer, I also finally found a place at a Quaker assembly. “Worship” is pretty much “sit down, shut up and listen.” I suspect that it is the image we often have of God is what most separates us from God. We are rushing down this raging river called life, and God is all around us, we only get partial glimpses and never grasp the scenery. I think acknowledging our ignorance is the bigger part of faith, hope and love. We do indeed see through a glass darkly.

  2. Tim Morris on October 25, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    What I find most frustrating is the loss of community I once had. Before my wife and I came out as straight allies to GLBT’s we trusted church friends. Since leaving our church to find a more accepting place, the idea of fellowship has left us feeling empty. The styles of service don’t matter much and leave me empty as I am now a more cautious observer than a participant.
    For me the opposite of what you experience is true. When at church I am reminded of when I was respected and considered a valuable part of the church.
    While I wouldn’t go back to the old days I do miss belonging to a faith community. Attending is not belonging.

  3. Michelle on October 27, 2008 at 1:55 am

    Wow. I am so glad you wrote about this. “Religious nostalgia” is a perfect description of many of the feelings I’ve experienced in the past year and a half, but for a different reason. After leaving my Christian faith behind back in the summer of 2007, the memory of hundreds of worshipers singing and raising their hands at our diocesan convention would bring me to tears. Likewise small compline gatherings, even holding the guitar I once played at summer camp. My natural tendency for nostalgia and the fact that I worked at a Christian retreat center long after I stopped believing exacerbated my feelings of loss.

    The beauty of the Quaker stillness you describe reminds me of the beauty I find when I sit in silent meditation, gaze out the window on the bus, or just contemplate how fantastic the world still is.

  4. P on October 27, 2008 at 4:09 am

    I never heard it put that way. You probably have a point here -although this post completely shattered my dreams of hosting a gay friendly tent-revival with a tambourine under every seat and a few healings thrown in for good measure. Damn. 😉

  5. p2son on October 27, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you for sharing your own experiences with “Religious Nostalgia.”

    According to Wikipedia, “The term nostalgia describes a longing for the past, often in idealized form. The word is made up of two Greek roots (νόστος nostos “returning home”, and άλγος algos “pain”), to refer to “the pain a sick person feels because he wishes to return to his native home, and fears never to see it again”.”

    For me I think the pain is that I can never return ‘home.’ Those places that housed me and served as spiritual family do not welcome me anymore. We have grown apart, distant and although I can go back, I can never go ‘home.’ Being in a service that reminds me of home brings up the bitter sweet memories and the longing–the good, the bad and the uncertain.