This week, I’ve decided to take a brief side route away from my posts about the Theology of Sound to raise public awareness of a particular disease. It’s an old disease – very old, in fact – and it has never been cured, nor will it ever be. It is not a bacteria, and hence cannot be medicated away; it is not a virus, and thus its symptoms cannot be eased by modern medicine. It is an idea, an idea both gloriously wonderful and brutally vicious at the same time. This disease could be medically termed GODS, the Good Old Days Syndrome, although it is more widely known by its common name: nostalgia.
You’ve heard it before. “Man, TV shows were so much better when I was younger.” “Music was way better way back when. It’s all just trash today.” “America is in such a bad state right now, with all this invasion of privacy and corporate greed. We need to return to the time of the Founding Fathers.” Heck, you’ve probably even used one of these lines yourself, or perhaps currently find yourself violently trying not to agree wholeheartedly with one of them.
But shall we examine the premises of this yearning for the glory days of yore? Were they really better? Were the ’90s actually a better decade for TV? Did the ’70s really by and large produce more valuable music than what we hear on the radio today?
Let us take a journey together through history, searching through the real historical facts to find the answers to these burning questions. First, let’s start with TV shows. (Why? Because I can, that’s why.) The common complaint goes something like this: “I really hate the TV shows they have for kids nowadays. You’ve got all these dumb shows now, like Sanjay and Craig and Hannah Montana and Bucket and Skinner – none of that is even half as good as the stuff in the ’90s. All That, Legends of the Hidden Temple, Rocko’s Modern Life… now THAT was TV. I wish we had ’90s TV back.”
But herein lies the problem: the comparison is wholly unfair due to nostalgic bias. Sanjay and Craig? Sure, it’s a pretty dumb show, and is far inferior to the zany goodness of, say, Hey Arnold. But what about Phineas and Ferb? That’s another currently-running cartoon, even featuring a similarly eponymous odd-couple pair of heroes whose names are a uniquely foreign gem and a flat monosyllable, respectively, and yet Phineas and Ferb is quite an excellent little piece of programming. Similarly, you could argue that Katy Perry and Justin Bieber don’t hold a candle to Queen and Journey, and you’d be right on the money. But what if you switch Katy Perry for the insanely talented Adele? Or Justin Bieber for someone far more likely to make a lasting impression on music, like Mumford and Sons?
The problem here lies not in the inadequacy of modern media – it lies in an unfair comparison. If you cherry-pick the worst of the present and the best of the past, then of course the past will look golden in comparison. But the Golden Days of Yore were perhaps not as golden as you might remember. Let’s take 1993 – typically considered part of TV’s Golden Age by nostalgia-frenzied college students and disaffected twenty-somethings all over America. What shows were on TV exactly 20 years ago? Boy Meets World? Yes, good stuff. X-Files? Good deal. Power Rangers? Aww yeah. Biker Mice From Mars? Umm, okay, maybe not that one. The John Larroquette Show? Wait… what? Who’s John Larroquette? He had his own SHOW?
As it turns out, if you look at a list of shows from 1993, you’ll find several shows you loved, several you thought were okay, several that were terrible, and a ton that you didn’t even know were on TV. Kinda like today – you can sift through the trash like Jersey Shore, Revenge, and What Would Ryan Lochte Do? to find the gems like NCIS, Doctor Who, and Breaking Bad, shows that you’ll remember for years to come. Similarly, with music, people tend to remember 1973’s long-standing hits like “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, and “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye… but not the crappy-but-still-somehow-popular tunes that died out as the years rolled on, like “Pillow Talk” by Sylvia (#22 on 1973’s Billboard Top 100), “Wildflower” by Skylark (#25), or “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross (which somehow came in at #10 that year).
The fact is, our music and TV shows, as a collective whole, are not really any better or worse off now than they were then. The status quo has remained essentially unchanged – a few truly good things, a fair number of decent things, and a whole lot of junk all around them. The only difference is our perceptions; classic rock or oldies stations only play the best music from back then, whereas current stations have to play Pitbull alongside Mumford and Sons.
But, you object, this is a Catholic blog. What does this have to do with Catholicism? I’m glad you asked, imaginary-but-not-really-imaginary reader, because applying this truth to the Church is something like getting kicked in the teeth by history.
There are those who loudly and insistently claim that the Church has gone downhill in recent years, that Catholicism has generally experienced a decline in faithfulness and understanding among its members. “The average layperson doesn’t have the respect for God and the Mass that we used to,” they huff. “Back when Mass was all in Latin, and the priest really put the fear of God in you – those were the days! We didn’t have any of these wishy-washy ignorant Catholics like Nancy Pelosi in office! Back in my day, you never woulda seen something like that!”
Really? What day was that, exactly? The day of Fr. Charles Coughlin, the priest who publicly supported Hitler and Mussolini in World War II? Or the day of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain, who essentially were the motivating force behind the Spanish Inquisition? Or perhaps the day of Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity but retained all the images, symbols, and pageantry of sun-god worship?
The point is not that things were worse back then. It is that they were never as good as you remember them to be. The Good Old Days weren’t as good as you might think. But why point this out? Why bring up the issue at all? What I am getting at, dear friends, and fellow Catholics, is this: we are a Church that moves forward. We build ourselves on Sacred Tradition, but we expound and expand that Tradition in new and powerful ways. Every year that passes by is not a loss, but a gain. The world is not constantly getting worse, as we may fear. Sure, perhaps we may now be fighting against the idea that a fetus is not a human being and does not deserve to live, but that isn’t any worse than what St. Basil the Great had to face in his day:
Sure, we may be fighting against a president who doesn’t respect our religious freedoms, but hey, he’s not Nero or Diocletian. Things are not deteriorating, going downhill, or generally going to hell in a handbasket. The Catholic Church is surviving and even thriving in the modern age, just as it has throughout history. We’re going to be okay.
There is HOPE.
There is hope.
Boy Meets World is still showing reruns.
There is hope.