The church can sure be a nostalgic group. It often seems that Christian folk can be nearly obsessed with their perception of the “good old days.” Maybe it’s a kind of eschatological malaise, but to believers the past often seems brighter than the present or the future.
I often sense more of a cultural longing than a spiritual one when I hear these ruminations. It seems many disciples pine for the days of Christendom with its supposed grip on public morality. As long as we don’t scratch at the image too long the patina lingers like a haze on a Rockwell print. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.
This notion plays a central part in Woody Allen's latest film, "Midnight in Paris," one of the most charming and thought-provoking movies I have seen in years. In fact, I would classify "Midnight in Paris" as a must-see for artists, believers and dreamers of all kinds.
This modern fairy tale reminds me of some of the sweeter "Twilight Zone" stories, if they had been spun into a non-conformist romantic comedy. The plot centers around a self-proclaimed “hack writer” named Gil (Owen Wilson) who longs to write a truly great novel that will somehow redeem him from the meaningless movie scripts that have made him rich and miserable. Gil travels to Paris with his externally beautiful fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and obsesses over the romance of the city and its legendary history. Gil would like to move there to finish his novel about a man who runs a nostalgia shop. Inez wants to move to a rich suburb of Hollywood and get on with being comfortable.
Gil wanders down some Parisian side streets one night, losing his way amidst cafes and pubs. He ends his meandering on the steps of a grand church, where at the stroke of midnight the real magic begins. He is transported back to Paris in the 1920s - the age he most admires - and finds himself in the company of all of his cultural heroes. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso and many other wonderfully crafted legends of the Jazz Age befriend him and pull him into a fresh understanding of his own creativity and purpose.
At the heart of the story is the challenge so many artists face to embrace their calling and discover their own voice while not losing touch with their heritage. Gil romanticizes Paris in the 1920s and believes there is nowhere he would rather be. The fact is that many of us would rather be anywhere other than where we actually are. We fall so deeply into the machinery of our lives that we risk losing our direction in the process. Gil’s trip to his dream era eventually clarifies his purpose in the present - after he rejects the temptation to try to set up shop in the past.
I have long idealized the music and culture of the 1960s. From the age of about 13 I felt that I had been born a couple decades too late. What if I could have spent time with Dylan in Greenwich Village or Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill in San Francisco? Would my spiritual life be more exciting if I had been baptized in the ocean by Chuck Smith or had waxed theological with John Stott in England or Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri? I can even be tempted to live in my own past - like my own heady early 20s - and long for simpler times. The enemy of my purpose and calling would love nothing more than to see me dwelling in the past instead of busy in the present.
Finding the balance between a truthful connection to places, times and people past and a vision for the present and future is one of the great challenges for all of us. Allen’s gorgeous, soulful film left me smiling ear to ear and encouraged to draw inspiration from my forebears without trying to tabernacle with them.
“JJT” has been chasing the thread dangling between eternal truths and temporal creative experiences for nearly three decades. He is a writer, a businessman, a father, an artist and a seeker. Read more about him at JohnJThompson.com.