This morning’s Back to the Future wisdom comes from Matt Patrick.
The only problem with Back to the Future marathons is that they don’t happen frequently enough. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to turn one off, and every time I watch, I catch something new. For example, just the other day while taking in the much-underrated Back to the Future Part II, I was struck by a moment of theological profundity. I’m talking, of course, about when Old Biff, from the year 2015 (we’re just two years away from hover boards!), steals the infamous Sports Almanac and goes back in time (1955) in order to pass it on to to his younger self for the purpose of winning a fortune gambling. This is the central event in the film—and ultimately Young Biff revels in all of the fame and power Old Biff had hoped he would.
Old Biff has made his way to his younger self—and after he explains the value of the Sports Almanac, they have a telling (and hilarious) interaction about whether or not Young Biff trusts the random old geezer and his seemingly too-good-to-be-true magic book.
1955 Biff: Alright pops, what’s the gag? How did you know what the score was gonna be?
2015 Biff: I told you, it’s in this book! All you gotta do is bet on the winner, and you’ll never lose.”
The conversation about the Almanac is helpful in seeing how Biff from 2015 hasn’t changed much since 1985—modeling stubbornness, self-interestedness, quick-tempered, and witty. Young Biff is particularly suspicious of the almanac. This sheds light into the notion of our proneness to suspicion of free gifts—especially God’s grace. In this way, I can relate to Biff the Younger.
Robert Capon calls it “balking at grace.” What a great way to put it! There’s something in us that is hesitant, rather scared to death of receiving the free gift of grace—and its free nature makes it most discomforting. It would make perfect sense if the gift could be attained by some of merit, or even a bribe. Givers to free gifts will have no part with the idea of merit—nor will they be bribed. So it is with the ultimate Giver. Our inclination is to wonder “what’s the catch?” But with him and his gift of Grace, there are no if’s, no and’s, or but’s about it.
But that simply won’t do for us. There’s something about “It is finished” that just doesn’t sit well. In accepting a free gift, we are admitting it can’t be received by effort, manipulation or bribing. Young Biff didn’t earn the sports almanac—it was Old Biff who was absolutely committed to tracking young Biff down in order to bless him with the magic book.
Of course, later in the film, Young Biff ultimately receives the sports almanac, which results in Biff turning into the wealthiest (and most corrupt) businessman in Hill Valley. That’s not the point. The point is that young Biff’s suspicion of the almanac—precisely because of it being free (thus, too-good-to-be-true) is a great picture of the ways in which we balk at God’s unconditional love and grace. This zinger from Robert Farrar Capon’s, Between Noon and Three articulates it well:
Restore to us, Preacher, the comfort of merit and demerit. Prove for us that there is at last something we can do, that we are still, at whatever dim recess of our nature, the masters of our relationships. Tell us, Prophet, that in spite of all our nights of losing, there will yet be one redeeming card of our very own to fill the inside straight we have so long and so earnestly tried to draw to. But do not preach us grace. It will not do the split the pot evenly at four a.m. and break out the Chivas Regal. We insist on being reckoned with. Give us something, anything; but spare us the indignity of this indiscriminate acceptance.
Certainly “what’s the catch?” is oftentimes our suspicious response to unmerited and unconditional love. But maybe a more eerily cross-fitting representation of our response to grace is, as Biff notoriously says, “Why don’t you make like a tree, and get outta here.”