Religious nostalgia – God will meet us where we are

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If you grew up within any kind of religious context, you know what religious nostalgia is. It can be the wooden benches and that coffee smell, or the adrenaline of picking up as many chairs as possible to impress the girls. If you grew up in a more high-church environment, it can be the smell of incense, the candles, the Gregorian chants, and the taste of the Eucharist. If you grew up Jewish, it is the tallith, the Torah scroll and the chants of the chazan, and if Muslim, the minaret’s call to prayer. Whichever it is, these things will make your heart flutter a little extra.

But if you were hurt by religious leaders within such a context, these symbols and smells might give you the exact opposite experience. You don’t associate them with childhood, safety, and security, but with trauma, pain, and calamity. You might have picked a different religion or a different cultural expression of it, just to get as far away as possible from those smells and sounds.

You might also have developed an automatic love and connection or hatred and repulsion against the sounds and smells of a different religion you don’t know much about. Either love because they are those exciting exotic ones, or hatred because they are the evil repulsive “other ones.” Growing up in Israel, no matter how many nice Muslims I’d meet on the streets of Jerusalem, my brain would still connect the minaret calls for prayer with terror and evil. And no matter how many bad religious Jews I’d meet, my brain would still connect the Torah scroll and the synagogue chants to security and safety. To be perfectly honest, I feel very much at home in a baptist or even charismatic church, but if I ever visit a high-church environment, even if it’s Lutheran or Anglican, my thoughts immediately go to their anti-Semitic past.

It took me a while to realize that my emotions were not really logic, and that there are a lot of people out there who are not me, and have developed different emotions.

Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for advocating women’s right to education in Pakistan, and received the Nobel Peace Prize when she was 17, wrote in her book about how the minaret’s calls for prayer give her joy and peace. It made me think – if she ever got saved, how would that shape her faith and her ability to participate in a congregation? How do Muslim-background Christians navigate it?

I guess that’s up to them to answer. I’m not well-versed enough in Islam or the Muslim culture to answer. But this thought made me realize that a large part of the “controversy” about Messianic Judaism and Christianity is not necessarily a debate about theology and faith, but about the cultural expression of our faith, and the religious nostalgia baggage we all bring with us. We feel weird and repulsed by certain expressions of faith, while other expressions make our heart flutter a little extra, and it’s not necessarily connected to the faith and theology itself.

I’m a big believer in the “low church” approach to religious expression. Both because it emphasizes that salvation doesn’t come from doing rituals in the exact right way (no matter how biblical they are) and also because we minimize the learning curve for new believers.

I do, however, recognize the place rituals have in helping us focus on God. We see it in the Biblical rituals of the tabernacle, and we see similar things today in synagogues and high-churches. The troubles arise when we assign religious and theological meaning to the rituals. Many religions, including false expressions of Christianity, do that. If you didn’t take the Eucharist the right way, you didn’t eat from Christ’s body. If you don’t pray the Shacharit before the deadline that the halacha prescribed, it’s as if you prayed to a wall, because somehow God can’t hear you anymore. It’s not very different from secular superstition, of not walking under ladders and avoiding black cats.

But if you are truly born again, you are free. Free from condemnation and free from human made-up constraints. But you are not only free from having to keep the rituals, you are also free to keep them. As long as you don’t turn the ritual into an idol, you are free to do whatever helps you personally to focus more on God. For one person, the ritual that helps them focus on God is a cup of coffee, a screaming preacher with a strong rural American accent, and Chick Fil-A after the service. For someone else, it is the Torah scroll and chanting the prayers in Hebrew. For one person, it is painted glass windows and receiving the Lord’s Supper on the tongue. For someone else, it is a lively gospel choir.

And I’m pretty sure this is exactly what the first century church envisioned when they scandalously preached the gospel among the gentiles without bringing with them the Jewish symbols, rituals, and holidays. Faith in Yeshua should be available to everyone – no matter their background or religious nostalgia.

So no matter what makes your heart flutter or what repulses you – God will meet you where you are, and he can make something beautiful out of if.

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
Colossians 2:16-17

This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog, October 21, 2022, and reposted with permission.