The Power of Story from Back to the Future

The Power of Story from Back to the Future

I am a die-hard Back to the Future fan. I have watched all three movies dozens of times, can quote most lines from the movies1, and I have my own Marty McFly outfit. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the first Back to the Future, as well as the future date Marty & co. travel to in Part 2.

In preparation for that date in October, I recently read We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy. Getting unparalleled access to the director, writers, cast, and crew behind the trilogy, author Caseen Gaines provides a compelling read on the long and complicated journey these movies took to get to the screen.

In the chapters describing the first movie, I was impressed by the significance everyone put on the strength of the story. Steven Spielberg, a producer of the trilogy, loved it immediately upon first read; so did many of the cast and crew. But what impressed me the most was the reaction from the movie’s first audience.

As Gaines describes, the film the audience saw was a “work-print,” meaning it had rough transitions, lacked most of the visual and sound effects, and was without the soundtrack. This viewing took place in May 1985, less than a month after shooting wrapped on the movie. The audience was told little about the movie they were about to see, only that it starred Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

For the first 20 minutes, the audience seemed unimpressed; some thought there was too much dialogue and buildup, and they couldn’t see a purpose or direction for the movie. But, with that famous scene in the Twin Pines Mall parking lot, when the DeLorean rolls out, the audience was sucked back in. Over the next few minutes, when the DeLorean actually goes back in time, the audience was hooked.

When the movie finally ended, the audience erupted into applause. Response cards filled out by this first audience reported that 90% of them thought the movie was “excellent” or “very good;” and that was without any special effects! As Neil Canton, a producer on the film, later said:

It was still a work in progress at the time of that screening… visual effect shots weren’t done, and the music wasn’t done, but the audience was just so into the story. (Quoted in Gaines, We Don’t Need Roads, 107).

In an age where special effects, graphic designs, and pretty typography can add a lot when done right, the core thing that matters is a good story. Too many movies2 have had massive budgets for special effects, but because they were lacking in story, they ultimately failed. And yet, partially based on the strength of its story, Back to the Future was the highest-grossing film of 1985. Moreover, the movie has endured for a long time; so much so that a person like me, who was only born in 1985, still loves it.


  1. To the annoyance of my wife. 

  2. See G.I. Joe or any of the later Transformer movies. 

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How A Baseball Game is Like A Church

How A Baseball Game Is Like A Church

Last night my wife and I had the opportunity to go to the Phillies/Mets baseball game in Philadelphia. Now that we live several hours away from Philly, we can only go to one game per season. The evening was great: the weather was fantastic, and there were plenty of home runs; unfortunately too many of them were by Mets players.

At one point during the evening, I reflected on some similarities between going to a baseball game and being a part of a local church. I’m sure others have noted these and even greater similarities; here’s just what I saw.

A Sense of Liturgy

At a baseball game—regardless of league or team—there are some standard elements. Someone will throw out a first pitch. Someone will sing the National Anthem. In the 7th inning someone else will sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” There will be chanting and cheering and boos, depending on the calls in the field. And most will partake in the ritual meal: pretzel, hot dog, ice cream, beer or soda.

A Sense of Identity

Almost everyone comes to the game with similar clothing: a jersey or shirsy of the home team, a baseball cap, and perhaps a baseball glove. My wife and I ate at a local restaurant before the game, and we could immediately identify every person that was going to the game later solely based on their clothing.

A Sense of Community

Rarely do you ever go up to a complete stranger and high five them, yet this always happens at a baseball game. Strangers are united behind their common love of a team, as well as their common hatred of the other team. In our section of the stadium, we were surrounded by Mets fans. They came from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, but they left the game like brothers.

And this community also holds the past in high regard. I saw dozens of people wearing jerseys of players from previous eras: Schmidt and Halladay and Seaver—the greats from the history of both teams. Fathers told their sons about the time they went to the ballpark and saw this player do that amazing thing. And at Citizens Bank Park, like many other stadiums in America, there are plaques and monuments venerating these great players.

Harry Kalas statue
Me posing with the statue of Harry Kalas #legend

A Sense of Wonder

In the game last night, the two teams combined for a total of 11 home runs—tying the NL record for most in a single game. The Mets fans were especially euphoric, as their team had 8 of them! Throughout the night, this sense of amazement and wonder was draped over all who were present; we knew we would never see another game like this. And perhaps that is why people love baseball so much, because at every game, and with every pitch, you have the opportunity to see something amazing. Whether it is a massive home run, a diving catch, or a fantastic throw, spectators are left in wonder of a remarkable play that just happened on the field.

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On Self and Finding Perspective

Cogito, ergo sum

Rene Descartes (translated as I think, therefore I am.)

The power of self is a truly powerful thing. For Descartes, it was a paradigm-shift, enabling him to rest his entire philosophy of the world on the core truth that he existed. Skepticism and doubt could challenge any other statement, but this statement rang true.

The idea of self is helpful for human beings. We have an innate sense of self-preservation, keeping us alive longer than perhaps we should. For many people, their self—filled with optimism and positive thinking—allows them to endure through trying times.

But the idea of self can also be harmful to individuals. When self turns into selfish behavior, it can do serious harm to loved ones who get in the way. An overinflated sense of self leads to egotism, conceit, and narcissism.

Often times the best remedy for self-centeredness is a helpful dose of perspective. A person needs to recognize that life is short, the world is big, and that we only get to play a small part in this grand cosmic play.

Powers of Ten, a video produced in 1977 by Charles and Ray Eames, is one of the best ways I know to provide perspective in one’s life. Using cutting-edge technology (at the time), this video shows how a human is both massive and insignificant, all at the same time.

Zooming away from the central figures, our planet, solar system, and galaxy don’t even register in the grand scale of the cosmos. And yet zooming in, we see that there is plenty of things happening within our bodies, without our full knowledge. In both instances, we can see that knowledge of our self is just one small part of the greater and grander things that are taking place on this cosmic stage.

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pastors and science conference

My Reflection on Pastors and Science Conference

This past week I attended a conference on science for pastors. Held at Gordon College, this small-scale conference featured tons of reading, even more lectures, and plenty of learning around the intersection of science and faith. We learned from professors and scientists who work for NASA, Oak Ridge Labs, and MIT. And we even got to try things out, using microscopes to look at shale and experimenting with DNA and bacteria.

 

After a few days of decompression—both for my body and my brain—here are a few big-picture ideas I took away from the pastors and science conference.

Science is not scary

In some Christian circles, there is this apprehension towards science, almost as if science is scary. But after I learned from several research scientists this week, that is far from the truth.

From the unfathomable scale of the universe to the utterly complex nature of DNA and genetics, science is big, bold, and incredibly intricate. The scientists making these discoveries are ordinary people: they work hard, think deep, and try to better understand their area of research. But boy are they passionate! One presenter has studied DNA, specifically of bacteria, for most of his career. To hear him talk about e coli you would think it was the most exciting topic ever! And as he explained the intricacies and capabilities of this small bacteria, I even started getting a little excited!

After spending a week learning from scientists sharing glimpses from their field, I left with an amazement at this magnificent creation we are a part of. Even more, I left with a greater wonder and awe of the Creator behind it all.

Science raises plenty of theological questions

One topic that I have been reflecting on after the conference is the limitations of science—specifically in answering theological or ethical questions. Research in genetics and bioengineering are presenting plenty of things that mankind can now do; it is the realm of theology and ethics that speaks to whether we should do them. These are important conversations that we should be having in the greater culture as well as within the church.

We need to become science-literate

Of course, we cannot have helpful conversations about science and its theological implications if we are ignorant of the science behind it. And as the scientific advances continue at a rapid pace, we need to stay as informed as we can. But we also need to retain what we learned in high school so many years ago.

There are two books that I have been relying on to increase my scientific literacy. The first one is Science Matters, which was assigned reading for this conference; it provides a clear and concise summary of core areas of science. Another book, called Physics for Future Presidents, translates the findings of science into popular political or cultural debates—like biological terrorism, nuclear weapons, and renewable energy. The goal of both books—and perhaps a greater goal for all of us—is to combat scientific ignorance within discussions.

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beauty and science

Beauty and Science

beauty and scienceI’m currently away at a weeklong conference for pastors on the topic of science (more on that later). In one session, we were talking about the role, responsibility, and limitations of science. And in this discussion, someone presented this video on beauty and science—which is an animation of a quote by Richard Feynman:

My take on the quote: Science does not restrict but rather adds to beauty, wonder, and amazement.

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praying for the global church

Three Tools to Pray for the Global Church

praying for the global churchAs part of learning God’s greater story, we need to see how God is working outside our community and local church. We need to see how God is moving in the global Church, and learn the stories of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world.

Fifty years ago, American Christians would hear about God’s work overseas primarily through missionaries. Every few years or so, a missionary would take a furlough back to the United States; they would then visit their supporters, sharing what God was doing on the missions field. Over time, prayer letters and prayer emails developed, allowing missionaries to share their stories quicker with their partners in ministry.

Now in the 21st century the world of missions and the global church have changed significantly. Missionaries no longer stay on the field for their entire lives; instead, many see it as a stage in their ministry lives. The work of missions in many areas have been handed from the missionaries to the locals. Regions such as West Africa, India, and Southeast Asia have become either too dangerous for foreign workers, or the local church has become strong enough to be self-sustaining.

With all these changes happening in missions and the global Church, it is important for us to stay up-to-date on how God is working in these areas. Here are three tools I use to pray for and stay current with God’s working in the global Church.

Social Media

Many of the missionaries that our church supports I now communicate exclusively with via social media. One missionary in particular I have never met, but we are friends on Facebook, and we regularly communicate updates and prayer requests with each other. A missionary can post photos and videos on a social media platform and it instantly reaches hundreds of churches worldwide.

Social media is also becoming a top source for breaking news. So when ISIS beheads more Christians or a church in Nigeria is bombed, we can hear about that relatively quickly. That way we can stay informed, and be praying for our brothers and sisters in near-real time.

Dispatches from the Front

Another tool in hearing the stories from the global church is the DVD series Dispatches from the Front. This series takes you on journeys to the far reaches of the globe, all to show you how God’s kingdom is growing in these fertile areas. These videos are encouraging, helping viewers celebrate in the impact of the Gospel throughout the world.

Operation World

The final tool for keeping a global perspective in God’s story is the series of resources produced by Operation World. For the last few years I have frequently used the seventh edition of Operation World, which provides exhaustive information, stories, and statistics for the spiritual and cultural trends of every country in the world. An included PDF makes it easier to find information, but the physical book is more like a reference book: there when you need it but a bit unwieldy to carry around.

pray for the worldThat’s why I’m so excited that Operation World has just released a new resource. Called Pray for the World, this book is an abridgment of the massive Operation World text. Highlighting the praises and prayer requests for each country in the world, this resource also has a daily prayer guide attached. This way, you can work through the book on a schedule, praying for the entire world in a year. I just got this book the other day, and I am already enjoying how the tangible requests for prayer has shaped my prayers for the world.

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Pastoral Thoughts from Binge-Watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Earlier this month Netflix released the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a comedy by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (the team behind 30 Rock). The show stars Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who was abducted and forced into an apocalyptic cult for 14 years. The first season traces her journey from the bunker—her prison/home for 14 years—to her attempts at fitting in with 21st-century culture in New York City.

My wife and I watched all 13 episodes in the matter of a week—not quite as fast as our binge of Broadchurch—which lead to a few pastoral thoughts. Here’s what I thought after binge-watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt:

Our past does not define us.

The whole season revolved around Kimmy Schmidt trying to be known for something other than her past. Refusing to let others know she was one of the Mole Women, she changed her name and hid her past. And on this journey, she learned that she could move on from her past and the sins committed against her. She could live a normal life—or at least attempt to live a normal life.

We have to deal with consequences.

While Kimmy learned that her past did not have to define her, she also learned that she could not completely abandon her past. Towards the end of the season, the show focuses on the trial of Richard Wayne Gary Wanye, the cult leader and Kimmy’s kidnapper. Kimmy wanted no party of the trial, but eventually realized that she had to deal with the consequences. So she went back to the community and testified against her kidnapper.

We need community to survive.

Probably the most endearing attribute of this show is the emphasis of community. In the bunker, Kimmy served as a mother/big sister to the other 3 captives; it was their relationships with each other that allowed them all to endure and survive. Once she got to New York City, Kimmy was removed from that support community. But as the episodes progress, we see that a new support community organically develops around Kimmy: her landlord Lillian, her roommate Titus, her employer Jacqueline Voorhees, and her friend Dong. Together, this community provides Kimmy with the support and love that she needs to survive.

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More than Conquerers

Over the weekend news came out of the execution of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya. These Coptic Christians were killed by a group sympathetic to ISIS, the extremist religious group seeking to usher in the apocalypse.

The death of these 21 Christians is certainly a tragic event, and should cause all Christians around the world to mourn. But as Christians we also know that death is not the end of their story.

We can also rejoice that Christ’s love is stronger than the blade of ISIS, and that our Egyptian brothers have been united with Christ. We can thank God for the faithfulness of these 21 men, that they loved Christ even unto death (Revelation 12:11).

And as Paul reminds us, death has been the fate of our brothers and sisters in Christ for millennia. But even in spite of death, the Christian story does not change: we are more than conquerers.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

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our great big american god square

Our Great Big American God – A Review

our great big american godIn Our Great Big American God, author Matthew Paul Turner looks at this complex relationship between America and Christianity. Specifically, he reflects on how God is portrayed by his followers throughout the decades. What Christians valued—what doctrines, morals, and behaviors they enforced—has changed in the course of America’s story; in this book, Turner argues that this demonstrates how cultural Christianity shapes and molds God into its own image. As he writes at the end of the Prologue:

In our efforts to make God known, we’ve quite possibly turned God into something that resembles us, a big fat American with an ever-growing appetite for more. (10)

Structure

Turner starts his journey through American Christianity with the Puritans. Their vision of America as a “City on a Hill” still reverberates through popular Americanism, even though the early Americans were particular as to which form of Christianity that City would reflect. The powerful pull of freedom—perhaps the greatest of American beliefs—drew Christians to America, but also led to infighting and division.

As he moves later in American history, Turner notes how some Christians used theology as a means of control. For some Calvinists, it was the threats of hell and eternal damnation. For the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention, it was the support of slavery. For many groups, it was fear of the enemy, whether it be Satan, a liberal Christian, an evolutionist, or a Communist.

He also looks at the infusion of American beliefs into forms of Christianity. Politicians like Jefferson and Lincoln evoked the name of God in support of their own political or personal views. Traveling evangelists relied on business and marketing techniques as much as they did the Holy Spirit. Prosperity Gospel preachers who reflect the values of capitalism more than the Bible.

My Thoughts

Part history lesson, part cultural commentary, and part humor book, this book is a unique read, albeit one not for everyone. At times I found myself laughing at his wit and clever phrases. Other times I was so frustrated at his caricature of an event or person that I wanted to throw the book1

Reading a book like this can be hard and depressing. It is hard to read when a critique cuts close to home, and depressing because a book like this focuses exclusively on the negative. But we need to have a true view of our past, even if that means revisiting some of our more regrettable mistakes.

Historically, Turner does a good job in describing events, as well as their impact on Christian culture. The myriad footnotes indicate he relied on works by some top American church historians—Noll, Marsden, Wills, Prothero, and Kidd.

Throughout most of the book, Turner is even-handed in his critiques: covering both Calvinists and Methodists, Fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Though at times the book felt like he was targeting a few specific groups:
1. Calvinists (both the Puritans and today’s Reformed crowd).
2. Crazy Uncles (snake handlers, politicians, etc.).
3. Conservative Republicans (Moral Majority, George W. Bush, Pat Robertson).

One area of the book I would have liked to see developed more is the nature of nominal Christianity as a public faith. Throughout most of America’s history, Christianity was the assumed public faith, with all political figures at least claiming some allegiance to a form of Christianity. And Christian language and ideals—even God—were commandeered by politicians to bring some Almighty heft to their own arguments. Some were mentioned—like the Moral Majority’s role in galvanizing the Christian vote—but other important areas were not even mentioned—like the political doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Perhaps this could be the focus for another book; there sure are plenty of examples in American history to fill another manuscript!

Conclusion

In Our Great Big American God, Matthew Paul Turner has produced a commentary of American Christianity that is well worth a read. He calls out the unhealthy infusion of Christianity with American principles, consumerism, patriotism, and individualism. A reader who can identify these influences can then combat them, resulting in a return to the true Jesus: the gracious, merciful Son of God.

Book Info


  1. If I was a good fundamentalist I would opt to burn the book, but alas I am not. 

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office building

The Story of Mankind – Told by our Buildings

Joseph Campbell—a noted mythologist—had a gift for explaining cultures through their stories. His work has influenced religious studies, writers, and even George Lucas.

In an interview he gave in the 1980s, Campbell notes how prominent buildings in the West help explain what we value in our story:

When we approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach a 17th-century city, it’s the political palace that’s the tallest in the place. And when you a modern city, it’s the office buildings and dwellings that’s the tallest things in the place.

He then provides a helpful example:

If you go to Salt Lake City, you can see the whole thing illustrated in front of your face. First the temple was built, right in the center of the city. This was the proper organization, that’s the spiritual center from which all flows in all directions. And then the capitol was built, right beside the temple. And it’s bigger than the temple. And now the biggest thing is the office building that takes care of the affairs of both the temple and the political building.

That’s the history of Western civilization.

Sometime I will try to trace how this can be seen in the church, too; how the church’s story is seen in what we value in architecture.

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