Marty McFly and Social Distancing

No one wants to give in to fear. Not you, not Marty McFly. Not only do we dislike the emotion, it feels shameful to be afraid. We hate it even more when others accuse us of being fearful. Whether the accusation comes from Biff, Griff, Needles, a pastor, or politician, the Back to the Future trilogy shows us how to overcome our fear of being fearful.

What’s Wrong, McFly? Chicken?

Marty McFly repeatedly shows his bravery by standing up to bullies and old west criminals. He risks his life for others. Nevertheless, when accused of being fearful, he stops in his tracks, exclaims that “Nobody calls me chicken,”  and acts foolishly to prove his bravery. He does whatever his accuser wants him to do out of his fear of being a coward.

In his original timeline (remember it’s a time travel movie), he enters a drag race when Needles calls him a chicken. As a result, he hits a Rolls-Royce, injures his hand, and destroys his dream of being a musician. Thirty years later, McFly gets fired because Needles similarly provokes him in the video above. Marty continually allows others to manipulate him.

COVID-19, Fear, and the Fear of Fear

As I write this post in the spring of 2020, most of the world practices social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes staying at home as much as possible and wearing face masks when out.

Most church leadership have acted responsibly by cancelling their services and putting them online. Unfortunately, some refuse and meet in person despite the danger it causes to the flock in their care and the essential workers the flock will meet elsewhere. To make matters worse, some leaders imply or explicitly say that social distancing and wearing masks is fearful. These words place guilt on their listeners as the speaker condemns fear as the opposite of faith.

While Needles and Tannen (including Biff, Griff and Mad Dog), maliciously manipulate their listeners, I hope most of these pastors at least mean well. Nevertheless, their words have the same effect of causing people to act against their better judgement in order to prove to themselves that they are not fearful. Regardless of the intentions, they endanger their congregants and the rest of society.

What’s Wrong, Jesus? Chicken?

Of course, this is not the first time an accuser asks a person to act foolishly and implies that they do not trust God if they refuse.

 Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:5-7)

Jesus Carried up to a Pinnacle of the Temple (Jésus porté sur le pinacle du Temple) by James Tissot

As Satan tells Jesus that God will protect him, some pastors argue (with less scriptural basis or even the same passage) that their parishioners will not catch the virus if they have faith.

It’s Not About You

Of course, there is a time and place for encouraging faith and dissuading fear. How can we know if someone tries to help us or manipulate us?

Both Needles and Satan ask their listener to do something unnecessary: drag race or jump from the temple. They focus on whether or not the listener is a coward or an impostor, i.e. if Jesus is truly the Son of God. They ask the person to prove themselves.

Instead, an exhortation to faith should focus on love and the positive benefits of the act of faith, not the act itself. As Paul writes, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to focus on love and not fear. As most of us are not in a high risk demographic, we can make the sacrifice of social distancing (and it is a sacrifice) to minimize the spread of the virus, which especially helps the elderly and immunocompromised. In this way, far from demonstrating cowardice, social distancing and wearing face masks embodies love. After all, wearing a face mask primarily prevents others from catching the disease from you.

Back To The Future emphasizes love in the timeline in which Marty does not drag race Needles. The audience sees that Marty is not in the car alone. The reckless action would have endangered his girlfriend, Jennifer, as well as himself, not to mention everyone in Needles’s car and others on the road. Refusing to prove himself brave, he instead shows concern for those around him.

Looking out the back window, Marty and Jennifer see that they would have hit the Rolls-Royce. © Universal Studios

The first film in the trilogy provides an additional insight regarding love and fear. While Marty desperately tries to show others that he’s unafraid, fear controls his father, George McFly. Near the movie’s end, George learns to overcome his fear when he finally says “no” to Biff Tannen, the man who has bullied him for years. Though he had never stood up for himself, he risks his life to protect a woman from being sexually assaulted by Biff.

When should we accept danger? Not when someone calls us a “chicken” or implies that our actions lack faith, but when others need our help.

May we learn from Marty and George McFly. Do not endanger others to prove yourself brave, but overcome fear to love others.

4 thoughts on “Marty McFly and Social Distancing”

  1. Your passage above about Jesus telling Satan not to put God to the test. Makes me think about these churches (a few of them still exist in Appalachia) that handle snakes or drink poison to prove their faith. They take one verse out of context and basically they are putting God to the test.

    1. I’d previously thought that the snake handling practice is very similar to meeting in large groups during this pandemic. While it is true that God heals, we should not be foolish. Of course, one major difference is that snake handling (and I can’t believe I’m about to point out a positive aspect of snake handling) is that that the poison is not contagious, so the individual is not endangering the rest of society. All that to say, you bring up a very good example!

  2. > During the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to focus on love and not fear.

    I get what you’re saying here, and I agree with your overall sentiment. But a focus on love doesn’t mean that we need to ignore fear; I think “healthy” fear helps us to love better, especially in the case of COVID-19.

    What I mean is this: there is still a lot of uncertainty about the disease, and in many ways, there’s more we don’t know than we know. And a natural human reaction is for us to fear the unknown: we hoard goods, we maniacally disinfect, and we hide away in safe places, all so we can try to control what we do not know.

    And while this kind of fear can be useful, it isn’t always healthy. Past a certain point, it can become very unhealthy (and quite unloving).

    But there’s another kind of fear, too, and I see it in the passage from Matthew you pointed out. It’s not the kind of fear that comes from not-knowing; instead, it’s the kind of fear that actually comes precisely because of knowledge and deep faith.

    I think of a middle school wood shop teacher I once had, who impressed on us the need to respect dull blades. Everyone fears sharp blades, I vividly remember him saying, but most don’t fear dull blades; as a result, they drop their caution and end up getting hurt by the dull blades. To this day, I don’t know whether this is just a tall tale or if it’s actually true. But either way, the point is this: sometimes we fear what we rightly ought to respect, and that fear can guide our actions for the better.

    Likewise, I see Jesus “fearing” God in this same way in the Matthew passage, knowing that God should not be put to the test, but also having a deep trust that God is present, that God will continue to provide for Jesus, and that God is so good and so much higher than the devil that Jesus should aways choose God rather than the Tempter. This is the healthy fear that shapes Jesus’ response, the kind the Bible talks about in Proverbs 9:10:

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

    And so I think there’s plenty for me to fear about COVID-19. I know that, if I get infected, I’ll most likely survive and be spared from the worst symptoms myself. But I also know that there’s a multiple-day period when I’ll infect others before I even show any symptoms. And I know that a small-but-significant percentage of those I personally infected will die from what I give them, or themselves infect others who will die. I know this, and I rightly and healthily fear it. And, as a Christian, I fully intend to let this fear guide my actions, so that I can bless the world and help protect others by staying away.

    (It’s been a while since I’ve watched Back to the Future, so I’d be curious how you think whether this kind of “healthy” fear plays a role in how Marty grows and changes his behavior.)

    1. Thanks for the comment. You raise a number of good points.
      Should we fear? It depends on the definition of the term. If “fear” means to be concerned or cautious, understanding that something or someone is dangerous, and act accordingly, then fear is certainly godly and wise. If it means to feel scared or be anxious, I think that God calls us not to fear. After Jesus explains that we should not worry about food or clothing, he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). We do find that faith, i.e. trusting God, is the antidote to this kind of fear.
      Regarding your question about Marty McFly, I think his healthy fear (i.e. being cautious) grows throughout the trilogy. He starts out rather cavalier, but begins to understand that his actions have consequences. The third film even shows him reversing roles with Doc Brown. As Doc becomes lost in falling in love, Marty becomes the voice of reason. (But to be honest, it’s a long time since I’ve seen it too.)

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