Saturday, May 9, 2015

Nostalgia Part II: American Pie?

In Nostalgia or Tradition? I portrayed nostalgia as a yearning for a golden age that never was, exemplifying the vagrant communities of Old Believer Russian Orthodox who focus not primarily on the unreformed Byzantine liturgy, but on safeguarding against electricity, the sowing machine, and the gas oven. There is another kind of nostalgia, though: yearning for a golden that can really be remembered, or at least imagined.

My father is not a Baby Boomer (thank God). He was born two months before the Japanese bombed the United States into the Second World War. His life's perspective within the United States can be summarized in Don McLean's enduring folk tune, American Pie (for international readers: American Pie, about the death of three singers in a plane crash in 1959, is one of the most popular songs in American history). Although he dislikes the length of the song, he finds the content sympathetic. Life in 1950s America retrospectively seems idyllic, happy, optimistic, and yet, somehow, settled. We had won the War with our social structure seemingly preserved. We could be confident going forward that we were the good guys and the Red Ruskies were the bad guys. Our forebearers watched those dashing chaps from Harvard and Yale get all the good jobs, but now the GI Bill will allow us to go to college, get those jobs, and start families. The technology boom during the War and the industrial culture which resulted meant less hard work and more money for leisure going forward. The Church had enormous prestige and the Pope was the chaplain to the United Nations. And of course that new style of music, Rock 'n' Roll, added some spunk to the well-behaved high school danced attended by our exemplary children. Then it all faded.

The "music died" was when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and JP Richards went down in a plane piloted by an unqualified man and America was never the same. Without its own music and culture, we greeted with open arms the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the rest. They brought with them Europe's rebellious youthful attitude, their socialism, their tendency towards mocking old forms of order, their detestation of War—even though they were all born after the War—and their nihilism. McLean's religious imagery in his song is the culture version of an icon, a glimpse into another world or reality. One gets the impression that McLean and those like him no longer believe in the ideas of the 1950s generation because they watched them fail, but wish they still could because they did not like what came afterward:
Did you write the Book of Love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Do you believe in rock and roll
Can music save your mortal soul
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Or was it really an ideal era lost? Is it a false nostalgia? The America that survived the War retreated into a uniform, bakelite form of existence in Sears-built factory houses, shiny cars, newfangled televisions, and other forms of living that curtailed original thought and encouraged a sedentary existence predicated on entertainment. The old social norms and behavioral expectations remained externally, but long ago cleaned itself inside with Brillo. Much like the 1990s to my generation, the peaceful and well-mannered decade after World War II was a break from history because people were growing tired of the old way and were not quite ready for the new. Was it a better era than what succeeded it? Of course. However, much like the Church during the same period, the firm shell eventually betrayed that the egg inside was going bad. It is with great nostalgia that people said "Bye, bye Miss American Pie", but they did.

Perhaps cognizant that the 1950s were not a golden era, after America got over its hipster phase it did not seek to return to the bye-gone lifestyle still within living memory. They voted for Nixon, Carter, and Reagan in subsequent elections. Like McLean and my father, they missed what they had, but realized they could not return to it. The damage of the music's "death" on them had changed them, too. They no longer had their religion, social norms, and sense of responsibility. They enjoyed material culture and were not political radicals. Little else. These were the children of the '50s, America's bygone golden age.

As Catholics, we can take a lesson from this. The kingdom of heaven is upon. It is not a past age that ended in 1789 or 1962—although certain years are certainly watersheds for the de-Christianization of society. The kingdom of heaven is perpetual and not of this world. Although we cannot built it, we can make room for it in this world. Perhaps then we will not be nostalgic, but appreciative of what God has given us now.


  1. "the Pope was the chaplain to the United Nations"...yeah, that was the beginning of the end of the Church as we knew it. During his visit to the UN in NYC in 1965, Pope Paul VI sat below the then Secretary General, U Thant, a Burmese Buddhist. In the same visit, he gave his Papal ring and pectoral cross to said pagan secretary. What symbolism!

    The insignia were intended to be auctioned to raise money for Humanitarian efforts and split between four UN agencies. That was the same UN that came to the Solomon Islands right after WWII and told the native Catholics that polygamy was more fitting for them. (See my blog here:

    But this was just the beginning. Pope Francis is the best enforcer of the UN agenda up to date. Brace yourselves for the Climate Change encyclical.

    1. I was actually referring to Pius XII, who the press nicknamed the "Chaplain to the United Nations" because of his post-War optimism for the future of peace keeping establishments. Paul VI was his successor in so many ways....

  2. The money was split between the four agencies, btw.

  3. It is not a past age that ended in 1789 or 1962.

    True enough.

    And I have no desire to go back to 50's church architecture, St. Louis Jesuits, crypto-modernism in seminaries, or treating Holy Week like a giant liturgical lab experiment.

    We got some hard lessons along the way. We need to learn from them.

    1. The St. Louis Jesuits are not from the 1950s. They did not get together until the 1960s and did not come to fame until the 1970s. They are very much a product of the Spirit of Vatican II. My impression is that the 1950s were not characterized by the so-called folk music of the 60s, but rather by stodgy, Protestant metrical hymns replacing the proper music of the mass.

      Listening to many hours of "Christian" (read, "Baptist") radio in the car over the last week, there is a fairly wide range of music played in between shows. Curiously, a lot of the things they play (which my wife informs me would be classed among the highfalutin category, very "high-church") often sound like 1940s-era pop standards. I imagine that pop music has always exerted a strong influence over what people have heard in church services for better or worse.

    2. Check out things like "Holy God We Praise Thy Name". I went to Latin Mass churches for years that said the mass just as it was done in the 50's. It is always a quiet low mass (if your 2 month old baby makes a noise be prepared for the wrath of the scowling old ladies: 5 scapulars around their neck, a rosary around their wrist, a black mantilla, and a denim skirt). The sermon is as long as the actual mass, which is concluded with some popular 19th or 20th century tune.