Nostalgic and critical

By John Pierce

Dr. Bill Hoyt chaired the Religion and Philosophy Department at Berry College in the 1970s, when I was one of the few students on the world’s largest campus who chose such a major. It was a wonderful opportunity to benefit from a serious academic approach to such subjects at the hands of thoughtful, Christian scholars.

For my first research paper in my first church history class I chose to write on the formation of my then-beloved Southern Baptist Convention. Accurately, I pulled information (time, place, etc.) about the 1845 gathering in Augusta, Ga. that brought about a new convention.

However, I ignored the overwhelming reality that the SBC had been birthed in defense of slavery. I presented the cause as being more noble — a commitment to missions.

Sort of telling the truth is not being truthful. The dividing issue between Baptists, North and South, was whether slaveholders could be appointed as missionaries.

In a gracious act, my gentle Presbyterian professor acknowledged the accuracy of much of my writing and gave a better grade than I deserved. Then he added this wise note: “One can be loyal and critical at the same time.”

It was a dearly needed lesson, and one I have never forgotten. In fact, it is a lesson that can be expanded a bit as well.

In light of recent events involving symbols, racism, murder and forgiveness, I would add that it is possible to be nostalgic and critical at the same time as well.

Admitting a history of racism — and repenting of our own attitudes that have contributed to such pain — does not require abandoning appreciation for one’s own roots. It does require abandoning defensiveness.

Mississippian Kate Campbell’s moving song, Look Away, always reminds me of the potential to be both nostalgic about my roots while being critical (honestly analytical) about a history less than kind to all of God’s children.

“It’s a long and slow surrender,” Kate reminds us, “retreating from the past.”

For me, it is possible, even helpful and hopeful, to relish in the warm sunshine, to enjoy pinto beans (with chow-chow) and cornbread, to speak in a Southern drawl, while confessing sins of exclusion, past and present, and seeking to make amends for injustice.

To look back; to look ahead; and to look away.

[Photo by John Pierce]


  1. Dr. Hoyt was such a lovely man, he was the most loving of men, and always amazed me how he remembered your name long after the class was over, even years later. I loved him!

  2. Indeed, Laura, indeed.

  3. Johnny – A good lesson from Dr. Hoyt. One of my most influential Berry profs was May Parrish, professor of sociology, who was gone by your time, and she introduced us to the Human Relations Council in Rome – all during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. She cautioned her students not to go home at Thanksgiving and try to convert your parents and grandparents. “Your family you will have with you always. Don’t try to change them. Just let the change begin with you and your generation.” And it did begin to change in our time – the first black students enrolled and all was well on the world’s largest campus. Fred

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