1981 was an amazing year, chiefly because I was born in it. Less notable happenings like Reagan’s election, the advent of MTV, and DeLorean’s DMC car rocked the news. Coupled with those events, media like Devo’s “Whip It,” Escape from New York, and Raiders of the Lost Ark accentuated the deep need for saviors. 2021’s election aftermath, Billie Eilish’s “Your Power,” and sci-fi films like Stowaway and Space Sweepers, as well as books like Project Hail Mary, eerily pointed toward the desire for messiahs. Reviewing the products of these two years shows our desperate search for salvation from death, but also salvation from modern daily life. While I can’t guarantee an explanation of what “Whip It” means, I can promise to explore answers to both needs for salvation.
Polybius Politics and Nouwen’s News
On January 20, 1981, fifty-two American diplomats, who had been held hostage in Iran for 444 days, were released simply because President Ronald Reagan was elected. Forty years later on January 6, 2021, hundreds attacked the U.S. Capital demanding President Trump remain in office. The Iranians of 1981 and the “patriots” of 2021 saw two sides of the same coin: the president was supposedly a savior.
Oddly enough, there are many comparisons to Reagan and Trump. Reagan’s ’80s campaigns promised to bring the U.S. back to its glory days of the ’50s and Trump’s campaign literally stole Reagan’s slogan “Let’s make America great again”—promising the glory days of the ’80s. Both men stood against Communism, looking to the stars—as B-level actors and in space defense—and stated or implied they were Christians.
But when words and actions don’t match belief systems, societies can grow cynical, as has happened with trust in the U.S. government. One example is the arcade game Polybius, a 1981 urban legend of government testing, quietly homaged in 2021’s Loki. This erosion of trust has also bled over to wariness of the news. Before it was cool to distrust the news, theologian and social activist Henri Nouwen warned readers that the then-novel 24-hour news cycle was destructive. In his 1981 book Making All Things New, Nouwen prophesied the relentless sense of emergency and misery would add fabricated depression and concerns about death to existing worries. Consequently, when problems, real or imagined, surface, Americans are apt to search for saviors in the wrong places.
In 2020, while many Americans distrusted the government as a whole, they fervently believed in a political party’s individual pick of the week. And Joe Biden rose to the top. One of Biden’s bigger moves this year was ending the “Forever War” in Afghanistan. In his speech on leaving Afghanistan, President Biden explained that he was following through on an agreement and deadline Trump made. Conducting the evacuation “was designed to save American lives,” President Biden explained in his speech. Usually “American lives” is a bullet-proof defense for doing just about anything, but what if not all American lives are given the same value?
AIDS AND COVID – ALL CAPS MEANS WE’RE ANGRY
For years I asked myself how many lives could have been saved if people reacted quicker to AIDS as it reared up in 1981. And then earlier this year, when the COVID vaccine was made public to the masses, I foolishly thought everyone could agree COVID was bad and a vaccine was good. I now realize there are valid points on either side of the vaccine debate, but it makes me wonder if an urgent AIDS vaccine would have been similarly politicized and debated. Sure, 1981 was a different time, but maybe not so different in the vitriol discharged.
As 2021’s documentary Fiasco pointed out, some pastors like Jerry Falwell were preaching AIDS was God’s judgment on homosexuals. Hearing this sentiment, if gay people were ever interested in salvation, especially the salvation Jesus preached, they, and anyone searching for unconditional love, were naturally turned off from Christianity. The book of Hebrews acknowledges our being “slaves to the fear of dying” but also gives hope that Jesus died to give us life in heaven with him (2:15-17). Even when frustrated by hypocrites and the unrepentant, he promised loving forgiveness if they would follow him as Savior (Romans 10:9-13).
Escape(ism) From New York: The White Savior
But does how we picture Jesus matter? It certainly doesn’t change who he is; but what if the Norwegian Jesus in the paintings of our homes1 had predisposed the world incorrectly to expect salvation from a white man? The “white savior” complex is the representation of a white person, often male, to right injustices people of color supposedly lack the courage, strength, or mental fortitude to accomplish. The complex is prevalent but one example from 1981 seen on the big screen was Paul Newman in Fort Apache, The Bronx. Reporting on protests and controversies around the film, one 1981 reviewer lamented, “Fort Apache is not a deliberately mean-spirited and racist film; it is the product of people who lacked the insight and sensitivity to create a strong, fair movie.”
John Carpenter expanded South Bronx’s warzone to make all Manhattan a prison in 1981’s Escape From New York. Condemning the Presidency’s racism, terrorists crash Air Force One into the Twin Towers, necessitating antihero Snake Plissken’s rescue attempt. Only the white savior can subdue the Black gang lord (Isaac Hayes) who kidnapped the white president. Although those messages taint films like this, I’m not alone in enjoying the overall picture, as seen in Endseeker’s 2021 metal cover of Escape’s theme song where Snake is reimagined as a zombie.
And our obsession with zombies, the search for life beyond the grave, is another recognition there must be a cost to eternal life. White saviors and supernatural life were seen on the small screen in 1981’s The Greatest American Hero’s pilot. Possibly better known than the show itself, the theme song (heard most recently in 2021’s Free Guy), appeared in the pilot’s portrayal of a religious cult of skinheads claiming salvation by killing a Black man. When the man is raised from the dead by aliens, he begs the white champion to “save this planet from destruction.”
In real life, people who don’t believe in God tend not to believe in an afterlife, often leading to discontentment and hopelessness, a gnawing fear that death is truly the end. When watching 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, no one questions Toht and Belloq’s eternal resting place after God’s glory melts their faces off; we’re rooting for the hero Indiana Jones (sadly, another thinly veiled white savior). We expect punishment for evil and paradise for doing good.
Pop culture admits to needing saviors but often pretends that we make the rules for who gets punishment or paradise. And if Jesus’ statement that he’s the only way into heaven (John 14:5-6) offends us, we reject him. It’s as ridiculous as Indy not accepting Marian’s countless rescues because she’s not a white male.
Out of Eternity and Into the Earthly
But if we believe Jesus is rescuing us from death is that the end of the salvation we need or that he promises? Whether we’ve worried about life after death or had assurance of heaven, many of us also struggle with needing a savior from daily life. Henri Nouwen understood this in 1981 and did an excellent job of explaining how the most significant sentiments of unfulfillment are boredom, resentment, and depression. This idea of discontentment and new types of anxiety so many of us are facing was the theme of my article, “1980 vs. 2020: Anxiety We Have Heard on High.”
I believe rapper and social activist Sho Baraka could be the “Henri Nouwen” of this coming decade. His 2021 book He Saw That It Was Good explains how God moving in our creative lives can repair our broken world. Baraka writes, “Brokenness in society reproduces itself when we create from an identity smaller than the one God gave us . . .” Being made in God’s image means we all possess creative impulses and we’re all inspired, but when the pandemic (and other factors) drove change saturation and erupting frustrations over issues like social injustice, misogyny, and climate change, many of us despaired. So even if we’re assured of eternal salvation, we may be begging for a savior to pull us out of daily life.
DeLorean vs. Tesla: Flux No Matter How Dense
Problems and rumors aren’t new to the last forty years, but oddly two car manufacturers shine a spotlight on dealing with them. Many know the DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future (1985) but back in 1981 the startup rose and deflated quickly. Speaking of John DeLorean, a newscaster of the time said, “Five years ago, he dreamt a dream, set up on his own and today finds himself cast as the savior of the jobless in one of the worst areas of unemployment in Western Europe.”2 But charisma wasn’t enough to save DMC, the jobless, or John DeLorean himself.
Although not as egotistical as the self-named DeLorean, Elon Musk’s (short for Elongated Muskrat) Tesla automobiles share similar problems: Droopy doors, long waits, and generally inconsistent quality. But it seems where DeLorean failed in building a positive personal legacy, Musk may be genuinely concerned for humanity’s day-to-day well-being.
Having a track record of trying to save humanity from many things, like climate change, taking his eye off car QC may be part of that plan. And it seems the sustainable vehicle industry doesn’t need Musk behind the wheel anymore, which frees him to pursue colonizing Mars. As Rowan Hooper says, “[Musk’s] passion is getting off planet.” But does getting off this rock ensure a better tomorrow?
Of Stowaways and Sacrifice: The Goldilocks Zone Is for Idiots
Gimmicky media built around COVID-19 like Locked Down and Dashcam were often aimless, like decommissioned Cold War satellites floating through space. Audiences didn’t need to be reminded of the apocalypse they were living through; they wanted to be entertained or escape. And the idea of being saved from the monotony of life, tied to the end of all life, was seen nowhere better in 1981 than in the hilarious BBC TV mini-series adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Interestingly, space hitchhiking, minus the silly humor, was the premise of 2021’s Stowaway. Per the title, the film tells the story of a shuttle crew going to colonize Mars when a technician is found passed out in the ceiling. Stowaway, and other space films such as Voyagers, Seungriho (i.e. Space Sweepers), and The Tomorrow War3 all had a theme of hopelessness in need of a savior. But film wasn’t the only sci-fi format exploring salvation from overwhelming daily decisions.
In Andy Weir’s 2021 book Project Hail Mary, an entity is absorbing the sun’s energy, killing all life on Earth. The world’s governments give the formidable Eva Stratt unlimited power to find a solution. Assuming she’ll go to jail for abuse of power, she shrugs and says, “We all have to make sacrifices. If I have to be the world’s whipping boy to secure our salvation, then that’s my sacrifice to make.” Sounds a lot like Jesus.
As we contemplate how to follow Jesus’s path for salvation from daily life, we have to be willing to sacrifice. After talking about salvation through Jesus, the author of Hebrews acknowledged that although life was difficult, believers would experience “better things… that accompany salvation” (6:9). One of these actions is love in “ministering to the saints” (v. 10). This isn’t just a command to support close friends; it extends to going to church and intentionally interacting with acquaintances and strangers.
After telling us to minister to the saints, the author of Hebrews then exhorts us to have “diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end” (v. 11). And if we’re unsure how to have Jesus’s hope, Hebrews encourages us to “imitate those [who have] faith and patience” (v. 12). Speaking on the hope Black slaves had, Sho Baraka explains “Their imagination consisted not just of a hope for heaven but of a hope to see a little of heaven’s peace and justice on the earth.” But what does that peace and justice look like?
Marathon of Misogynistic Music
Of the many impacts the 1981 debut of MTV had, one was that misogynistic lyrics weren’t just heard but now acted out. Rick James’s “Superfreak,” The Police’s “Don’t Stand so Close to Me,” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,”4 visually portrayed lust songs instead of love songs. Even when Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” flipped the motif with a woman domineering men, all these aforementioned songs and videos were still pretty standard. But it was Devo’s “Whip It” that not only had the new wave synth sound so quintessential to the ’80s but also a performance piece video.
Regardless of Devo’s claims that the video was meant as an encouragement for Carter to beat Reagan, the video seems pretty misogynistic. And as hopeful as Devo and Kim Carnes were, we would expect that after forty years we would have gender equality.
While MTV has evolved into scripted “reality shows,” they still have a music video competition. And although the 2021 MTV music awards celebrated many male artists like Ed Sheeran and BTS, it was Billie Eilish’s “Your Power” that won the interestingly titled “Video for Good” category. Eilish’s whispered delivery forces the listener to pay attention, while elevating the condemnation of chauvinistic abuse. Her simple video of a serpent slowly choking the singer is a powerful metaphor for our culture’s use of sex for profit and power.
As long as sex is profitable, our sexualities will be fed in unhealthy ways. Even when we realize how many sex slaves are in the United States alone or how many people are addicted to porn, we may feel powerless. As I mentioned in my article last Christmas, we can support organizations fighting trafficking and prostitution like Dressember and Samaritan’s Purse. But we must also “minister to the saints” regarding daily addictions and dehumanizing mentalities in our local churches and communities. One way is to have uncomfortable conversations with Christians, especially males, about how to quit and heal from porn addiction.
Still Searching for Salvation
1981 and 2021 had many differences, such as decreasing trust levels in politics and news, coupled with increasing awareness of the white savior trope and misogyny. But two things are always true: life has its tough times and God and his word are faithful. When we are haunted by death or a pandemic, we should take refuge in Jesus’s eternal salvation. And when we have daily struggles, it may be easy to let the John DeLoreans solve unemployment or expect the Billie Eilishes to confront sexual sin, but we’re called to sacrifice and obey. Remember the “formula” from Hebrews 6? By obeying Jesus in ministering to the saints and emulating mature believers, we will find spiritual hope, a hope which imagines and believes heaven’s peace and justice can provide salvation on earth.
1Credit due for this beautifully alarming phrase: Sho Baraka, He Saw That it Was Good, p. 92.
2Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean, Ep. 2: “Bombs, Bullets & Bullsh*t”, Netflix, roughly 41 minutes left, 2021.
3My favorite holiday song is 1981’s “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses, which plays in 2021’s The Tomorrow War.
4Although RCA wouldn’t commission a video for The Nails’ “88 Lines About 44 Women,” it is the epitome of men conquering women sexually, and then bragging about it.