Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Even Writers and Scholars Whom I Admire Must Be Held Accountable for Back to the Future-Related Errors

I've been reading Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean at work. It's an excellent book that expands on the findings of the recent National Survey of Youth and Religion and the that work Christian Smith and Melissa Denton did in Soul Searching. I recommend Almost Christian, along with Dean's previous books, to anyone who is invested in youth ministry or Christian education. Kenda is an expert in adolescent spirituality. She knows the subject as well as anyone, and I have no qualms with any of the conclusions she draws regarding the spiritual growth of young people.

But in the opening paragraphs of Chapter 4 in Almost Christian, Dean strays from her area of expertise and wanders into mine. She brings up Back to the Future. On pages 61-62 she writes:

You remember the flux capacitor, Doc Brown's trippy invention that makes time travel possible in the Back to the Future trilogy. The flux capacitor was the mythical contraption that powered the DeLorean time machine, sending Marty McFly back in time to save his parents and therefore ensure his own birth. Once Marty and Doc are safely ensconced back in 1955, however, a problem arises: where to find the 1.21 'jigowatts' of electricity needed to propel Marty home again to 1985? Only lightning packs that kind of wallop—which is when Doc remembers (great Scott!) that a bolt of lightning stopped time on the town clock and precisely 10:04 on a Saturday night in 1955 . . . .

As much as I appreciate Kenda's work, I can't let this slide. There are a couple errors here that I'd like to address:

  • Most significantly, Doc does not remember that "a bolt of lightning stopped time on the town clock at precisely 10:04." Marty does. Marty is the one who has traveled from the future. The Doc whom Marty encounters in 1955 has no idea that lightning will strike the clock tower in the near future because, for him, that moment in time has not yet happened. Marty has the information about the lightning strike because, back in 1985, a community volunteer had asked him to donate money for the restoration of the clock tower. Marty gave her some change, and she handed him a flier telling the story of the tower being struck by lightning at 10:04 on November 12, 1955.

  • Saying that Marty traveled "back in time to save his parents and therefore ensure his own birth" implies that helping his parents fall in love was the purpose of his journey. It wasn't. Marty's jump to 1955 was accidental. His objective was to escape from the "Libyan Nationalists" whom Doc had swindled. He made his escape in the only vehicle he could get to: a DeLorean that also happened to be a time machine. While Doc had briefed Marty on how the machine worked, Marty was fuzzy on the details, was surprised when he traveled through time, and had no hand in choosing his destination. (Doc had punched in a date from 1955 that was significant to him.) Upon his arrival in 1955, Marty inadvertently altered the course of events that would result in his parents' marriage and his birth. Doc explained the severity of the situation, and Marty got to work "[saving] his parents" and "[ensuring] his own birth."

(I won't quibble with "jigowatts," which refers to "gigawatts." "Gigawatts" [one billion watts] is normally pronounced with a hard G, but a soft G is also acceptable. The scientist with whom director Robert Zemeckis consulted pronounced the word with a soft G and Zemeckis wrote it in the script as "jigowatts." Dean, in this instance, gets credit for fidelity to the script.)

Dean's point is that getting Marty back to 1985 requires a specific combination of resources and circumstances. Christian discipleship, by contrast, is messier. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no particular resource or program that will, without fail, mold a young person into a mature disciple. None of Dean's Back to the Future-related errors detract from her larger point.

Again, I'm a huge fan of Kenda Creasy Dean's Work. But Back to the Future is something I take very seriously.


Blogger St. Hornsby (patron saint of lefthanders) said...

Awesome! I too have and enjoy the book. I am happy to see you kept her honest on the facts...that's heavy!

12:42 PM  
Blogger kenda said...

Josh--I take seriously anybody who takes *Back to the Future* so seriously. I've been called out on many things in this book, but you are by far the nicest caller outer. (I even re-watched the movie before I wrote that part...which just goes to show you how carefully I watch movies.) So, okay, you win. I did get the story on "jigowatts" btw (I downloaded the script). Apparently it was mispronounced in rehearsal and Z. decided to keep it because it was funnier that way...

Thanks for your eagle eye. I feel safer already. :)

10:39 PM  
Anonymous Trains O Scale said...

You know, they never did finish releasing the Sam & Max season of games on the iPad. Checking the app store, the first episode continues to live on by its lonely self. Here's to hoping that BTTF will receive better treatment.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Casey said...


Impressive work! Kenda linked you on her blog. Check out the article...

7:09 AM  
Blogger Tinley said...


I'm flattered that you dropped by and commented, and linked to me. I've really enjoyed and benefited from reading Almost Christian, and I thank you for all you've contributed to youth ministry and Christian education.

Also, VH1 is airing all three Back to the Future movies next week.

7:52 AM  

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