Nineteen eighty-three was an amazing year, chiefly because my wife was born in it. Less notable happenings—like a barely averted nuclear war, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and The A-Team’s debut success—made the news. And yeah, Fraggle Rock, the world record high dive, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign were pretty cool, but there was also an impactful focus on religious revival.
In that same year, films like WarGames introduced people to AI while entrenching their end times fears of nuclear war, elevating the perception that change was necessary. Books like Revival, God’s Way! had good intentions demanding revival, but couched its importance in Christian nationalism. We’ve seen the effects of these fears in 2023 in events like the screenwriters’ and actors’ strikes, the Barbenheimer phenomenon, and the intermeshing of religion with politics in books like The Ballot and the Bible and Christ and the Culture Wars. But amidst these and other content, hope for spiritual revolution sprung anew.
In order to answer our question, “When is revival right for America?” we must consider the social context of our focus years. We’ll start with a religious framework, then compare pop culture while challenging Christian misassumptions, and explore God’s will and timing behind revival and revolution.
The Framework Method
“Revival” has such religious connotations, that I wonder if it has much meaning for those outside the Church. And even for those Christians constantly shaking their heads and saying the only solution to every problem is that, “We need revival,” I wonder if their definition matches up with God’s. A way to bridge this gap is to use the term “revolution,” as the 2023 film Jesus Revolution (and the 2018 book it’s based on) defines it.
I’ve wrestled, researched, and prayed over it throughout 2023, and I believe revival needs two things: (1) for groups of people to feel genuine remorse for bad stuff they’ve done (repentance), and (2) for people to believe in Jesus and obey His instructions. Jesus Revolution tells the story of the ’60s revival unintentionally “started” by Chuck Smith, and which influenced hippies like Greg Laurie. “The Jesus movement is no longer a California fad,” a reporter says. “It’s a song-singing, hand-clapping, full-fledged, old-fashioned revival that’s sweeping the country. The converts are young people who are turning to Christ as their personal savior.”
The film matched a desire from 2023’s cultural moment as seen in the Asbury revival which kicked off several other revivals. One Asbury alumnus said, “True revivals, throughout history, have led to evangelism, missions and ‘efforts for social justice’ at the national and global levels.”
If revival’s core is repentance and joyfully obeying Jesus, and its outcome is sharing Jesus and social justice in one’s country and around the world, did the culture of 1983 align with that? Leonard Ravenhill’s 1983 book Revival, God’s Way! gives a similar, albeit collegiate and somewhat boring, definition: “[R]evival presupposes declension, sickness, weakness. Another definition is ‘to recover, repair, and restore.’”1
He excitedly continues, “A spiritual revival is not important to the Church and to America; it is imperative!”2 Notice Ravenhill incorrectly makes spiritual awakening and the United States codependent; the fact that he never once acknowledges the Jesus revolution is disconcerting.
Furthermore, in her 2023 book The Ballot and the Bible, Kaitlyn Schiess notes that President Reagan named 1983 the “Year of the Bible” and writes, “The 1980s were a turning point for small-government enthusiasm—and a turning point for religion in America—after the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, the ’80s experienced an ‘awakening.’ This wasn’t necessarily the spiritual revival of previous awakenings, but a revival of interest in the Bible in public: reading the Bible in public schools, appealing to its authority in legal matters, and supporting politicians who openly quoted it.”
What caused Ravenhill to miss two revivals? Was he too close? Maybe. But I think these revivals didn’t fit his expectations. So we must return, ironically, to Ravenhill’s title: “God’s way.” The Bible says the Lord is patient because, “He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.” God’s will, or “God’s way,” means that how He asks people to join Him and when He decides to bring revival is up to Him. Since God is concerned with individuals worldwide, maybe now isn’t His timing for revival amongst multitudes of Americans.
Some Christians want their version of revival so desperately (and with varying motivations) that they try to usurp God’s timing. Unfortunately, a major way American Christians try to force revival is through fearmongering.
Fearmongering: Politics in War and Religions of War
Although many Americans would be reluctant to admit it, the U.S. mindset is significantly fear-based. That’s not to say these fears are always unfounded, but it’s certainly important to acknowledge this element in our individual and corporate decision making.
Schiess explains, “Americans have always wanted to find their country in biblical prophecy… Fears of ultimate judgment have fueled religious revivals and political action. Some historians have argued that apocalypticism—the warning of sudden, approaching end times—defines American religion.”
Here is our first driver for revival: fear of the apocalypse. The Cold War served as a tsunami of end times obliteration with Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) kickstarting a wave of terror that had deafening resonance in 1983.
As Asia Times reported: “The nuclear scare resulting from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Able Archer exercise of 1983 served as a wake-up call to Reagan—as did the American Broadcasting Company television movie The Day After, which is said to have made a deep impression on the president.”
Nineteen eighties’ staples Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Steve(n) Guttenberg star in The Day After, a study of what the U.S. would look like if there was a nuclear attack. There is one scene, weeks after the bombs detonate, that is a quintessential American moment. Radios are working again and the President addresses the nation, saying, “During this hour of sorrow, I wish to assure you that America has survived this terrible tribulation. There has been no surrender, no retreat from the principles of liberty and democracy for which the free world looks to us for leadership! We remain undaunted before all but almighty God.”
Millions have died and the survivors are passing away from radiation poisoning, but the nation can take comfort in knowing democracy and manifest destiny live on, so there’s no reason to humble themselves… unless God comes down from heaven and makes them. This isn’t as ironic as it might seem if we consider the temptation of replacing fear with familiarity and the illusion of control.
Americans seemed to take comfort in President Reagan’s militaristic strength and love of pop culture. Seemingly as free publicity for 1983’s Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Reagan spoke to the National Association of Evangelicals, where he famously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”3 Days later, Reagan pitched a defense shield, partly based in space, known as “Star Wars.” Americans have learned to somehow strike a posture of (illusory) control while simultaneously preaching how scared they are at impending doom.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that Oppenheimer’s nuclear bomb tale was successful in 2023. What did shock everyone was the success of Barbenheimer—the combination of watching both Barbie and Oppenheimer—as number crunchers and critics alike hailed the event as a revival of the film industry. Barbie’s message, toted as a revival of hyper-feminism, made some fearful (as we’ll see shortly).
Oddly, criticizing how fearful people were in 1983, Ravenhill quotes an author of the time: “…for the first time in your life, the match is so close to the fuse, Armageddon is actually possible.”4 This laid the groundwork for the Satanic Panic, which we’ll talk about in a few years. (In the meantime, The Department of Truth graphic novel series has done an excellent job comparing those ’80s events to the 2020s.)
When I was growing up in the ’80s, I had been so end-times conditioned that every time a big truck drove by I was pulverized by fear that the Rapture had started. This is so common, pop culture mocks it—like this 2023 meme: “‘You’re so well behaved’ thanks, I was raised in constant fear of the rapture happening in the next 20 seconds.”
Dear Boomers, you make fun of our generation’s anxiety and wonder why we’ve left the Church: is it possible you told us ad nauseam the world was ending, and when nothing happened, we stopped listening to the supposed prophets? We didn’t need preachers like Ravenhill to paint a horrifying picture; those colors were on our gnawed-off neon nail polish and tear-streaked mascara.
Since this type of fear is such a powerful poison, is there any antidote? Interestingly, at the same time the Able Archer exercise confusion brought us to the brink of nuclear war, ground was gained when Reagan ordered an invasion of Grenada. The Reagan administration called the invasion “the first successful rollback of communist influence since the beginning of the Cold War,” and in 2018 The Wall Street Journal claimed, “The Cold War began to end on Oct. 25, 1983.” Revolution like that in Grenada sounds like a good thing, and yet fearmongering refuses to acknowledge hopeful possibilities.
Joshua and the Battle of AI
Likewise, condemning technology because of negative possibilities can easily become fearmongering. Most technology can be used for good or evil because it is a tool for the human heart. The internet was created because the U.S. Defense Department wanted a way to communicate after a nuclear attack. “A new communications protocol was established [which] allowed different kinds of computers on different networks to ‘talk’ to each other.” Therefore, “January 1, 1983 is considered the official birthday of the Internet.”
The internet’s massive ramifications weren’t felt immediately, but that didn’t stop the speculation of dreamers. On the fiction side, William Gibson penned Neuromancer (written in 1983 but published in 1984) which became the poster child for the cyberpunk genre. The weird, sometimes confusing story uses a network that people can jack their minds into (yes, The Matrix “borrowed” it from here). On the very real side of (computer) science, as I mentioned in my Jurassic Park article, in 1983 Daniel Hilis created “connection machines” which were supposed to be an AI (Artificial Intelligence) link.
The subject of AI has always caused debate, but 2023 was a banner year. Tools like ChatGPT, Bard and Jasper delivered software that could mine the internet, learn, and ultimately create new content. AI was sometimes the subject of union strikes5 (it seemed every time I heard the news another union was striking), but none had as much publicity as the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild. And a cute nod came from 2023’s The Fall of the House of Usher when someone in the early ’80s discussed how algorithms could write movies and TV shows.
As a creative, I can sympathize with writers’ concerns of machines replacing humans, but what really has me worried is how generative AI (GAI) may affect politics. I could care less if a program forms pictures or soundbites or newsclips, but I have serious doubts that many Americans will question (or care about) important content’s authenticity. (It keeps Marty Baron up at night.)
The kid in the ’80s running a D&D campaign in the basement could now fabricate President Biden’s voice and get millions to unquestioningly believe the falsehood. And yet, as scary as that is, a fearful or angered response to the possibilities that technologies pose does a great disservice to the very idea that revival is change from the status quo. Gibson, speaking through Neuromancer’s protagonist, says, “But he also saw a certain sense in the notion that burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself.”
As we’ll see shortly, experimentation and thinking critically can constructively use inventive technologies for revival. Although the simplicity of the gospel message shouldn’t change, an awareness of how technology and philosophical thought (currently postmodernism) have molded the minds we’re trying to convince is imperative.
Shortly after President Reagan saw 1983’s WarGames, he asked the joint chiefs if the plot was possible: could someone hack military systems and ignite World War III? (Not to mention how scary the AI personality Joshua’s sentience is.) A week later the Cabinet was shocked to hear an affirmative. And real-life hacker Kevin Mitnick (who passed away in 2023) believed he was found guilty because “…the movie convinced people that this stuff was real.”
So on the one hand we have Reagan thinking critically, beefing up security, and on the other hand we have society so affected by a movie that a judge and jury convict someone on “questionable evidence.” It seems that a modicum of calm diligence to research the facts presented to us, whether regarding technology or anything else, may be best. Asking questions on whether information has been designed to provoke our fear might be helpful too. But maybe it’s too much to ask people to release their illusion of control.
Let the Music Take Control
Control is another crucial aspect of revival. We can picture “revolution” as citizens taking back control from a defective government. Similarly, Christians expect revival to function as God taking control of a nation (is He ever not in control?). Unfortunately, those “helping” God often take control. One area in which we see the grabbing and giving of control is music.
Possibly the most fun way to start exploring 1983 pop music is to list heavy metal YouTuber Leo Moracchioli’s six covers just from 2023: “The A-Team Theme Song,” Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
It’s my humble opinion that 2023 was the most epic year for Christian metal ever, purely by the quantity of bands that released albums. One such powerhouse is August Burns Red with a fitting song titled “Revival.”
Lyrics like, “The darkness has stricken me with fear… I’m no longer simply existing, I’m pursuing a new mission, this is the start of my comeback,” share hope amidst trepidation. Even if there’s a reliance on God, ABR’s revival is focused on self-renewal (“I need to snap out of this trance and pray for a chance”). Also released in 2023 (but undefinable in genre) is Enter Shikari’s album “A Kiss for the Whole World,” which is exactly what you’d expect if British rockers were heavily influenced by ’80s synth.
Although singer Rou Reynolds sometimes screams, he also sings in tones reminiscent of fellow Brits forty years ago (“(pls) set me on fire” at 1:00 minute), such as Depeche Mode’s 1983 album Construction Time Again. Many noticed the departure from Depeche Mode’s previous perky rhythms (like “Just Can’t Get Enough”) to a still “bouncy” yet “brooding” sound, in reviewer Peter Martin’s words, as the band’s “attention is turned outwards to the world (and all its problems).”
Tracks on Construction Time Again demonized greed and encouraged people to help others, which is one result of revival: an uptick in moral behavior. Nineteen eighty-three love songs like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” new wave songs like the Cure’s “The Walk” and “The Lovecats,” and dance ceiling removers like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”6 album likewise nudged listeners toward altruism. Coincidentally, “Thriller” gained massive popularity in 1983, the year of Jackson’s first moonwalk, and is memorialized as the best-selling album of all time in 2023’s documentary Thriller 40.
DJ Earworm’s mashup of the year’s top 25 pop hits, “United States of Pop 2023” always proves interesting. But Taylor Swift made some of music’s biggest 2023 headlines “regain[ing] control” of her songs, and celebrated with the Eras tour and movie experience. My son’s Economics teacher credited Swift with single-handedly saving the American economy in 2023, which seems reasonable since “The ‘Swiftonomics’ effect has caused countries to vie for her attention.” College classes dedicated to Swift discuss her effect on subject matter such as feminism and post-postmodernism, while reporter fans have laid out why her philosophies resonated in 2023.
Musicians in 1983 participated in the tail-end of modernism, with a focus on facts and right and wrong (even if people landed on opposite sides or didn’t believe “truths”). Ben Chang’s 2023 book Christ and the Culture Wars dives into the top four aspects of identity politics (feminism, racial justice, gay pride, and trans rights), describes Christians’ top three common and ineffective responses, and then advises numerous ways of showing Jesus’s love.
Chang describes 2023 as deeply rooted in postmodernism, which sees people in a secular (rather than religious) frame, and focuses on individual (as opposed to communal) emotions (instead of professionalism). From this perspective, identity politics foundationally frames society as a struggle for control between the oppressed and the oppressors. This concentration on justice is not one to ignore or belittle, but one to listen to and lovingly share truths about.
Barbie’s feminism scared some Christians (possibly as bad as Flashdance did in 1983). Fortunately, some (like Catholic feminist and professor LuElla D’Amico) did a magnificent job of honestly sharing their stories about patriarchal control as mirrored in Barbie. My wife and daughter saw Barbie with friends and then brought me, my son, and some of his guy friends to watch. It took me a couple days to process Greta Gerwig’s masterpiece, but once ready, I appreciated all the conversations it generated. Mostly I just listened.
Barbie’s soundtrack is pivotal to the film and somehow rides the line between frothy and meaningful honesty. It revived songs like 1989’s “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls and Matchbox Twenty’s “Push,” but had plenty of originals like Lizzo’s “Pink,” Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?,” and Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night.” And lyrically I really enjoyed (and had to do some soul-searching in response to) Ronson and Wyatt’s “I’m just Ken” (do yourself a favor and watch the “I’m Just Ken” (Merry Kristmas Barbie)” version). These types of conversations are crucial to revival and understanding oppression and oppressive control.
Racist Revolution: Decentralizing a White Gaze of Control
Postmodernity’s values shouldn’t scare Christians. In the end, the populace of 2023 wants to be shown a concept, not just told. Often that comes in the form of a story, and what better storyteller is there than Jesus, the one who champions the oppressed and provides what people involved in identity politics want: liberation, identity, equity, and justice.
Two years ago in “1981 vs. 2021: Searching for Salvation,” we discussed the need for justice relating to racism, and unfortunately, the need was still prevalent in 1983. The A-Team TV show was successful from the moment it debuted. Four bad boys doing good had the perfect mix of action, humor, and heartwarming lessons as a premise. But Mr. T., playing the only Black member of the crew, spoke out against his character. David Sirota explains,
B.A. Baracus [was] The A-Team’s resident slave. Not only was he kept around mostly for his muscle, but he is also shown to be so stupid that he allows himself to be dragged by his white superiors from job to job against his will… This might explain why Mr. T., the actor who played B.A., complained to People magazine in 1983 that Hollywood was still treating him like ‘a higher-priced slave’ and ‘the house n*****.’7
It’s rare for a star to criticize their current production, but Mr. T.’s candor underscores the importance of sharing an honest narrative when fighting tyrannical control. Sadly, the American church doesn’t have a good track record of listening to our BIPOC Christian brothers and sisters, like Mr. T. Revival isn’t just about freedom from the control of sin and death but also about supporting an improvement in society’s moral behavior, like condemning racist stereotypes or rejecting white savior motifs.
Blatant white supremacy is not often seen in white savior tropes, but it’s nevertheless possible. The fourth in a series of TV films on the British educational system titled Made in Britain (which was Tim Roth’s debut,) sees a sneering skinhead in constant conflict with authority figures. In one lengthy and incredibly tense confrontation, Roth screams the foundation of his manifesto: every other person is brainwashed, but not him: his stance against being controlled will ignite a racist revolution.
The A-Team and Made in Britain give us two types of storytelling about persons of color: center the story around them but keep them as slaves, or focus on an oppressor and their actions. So has 2023 changed the narrative?
Not really. Due to the pandemic, strikes, and industry spending cuts, Hollywood is expected to sacrifice diversity and has already cut several shows. An example of what did get made is the 2023 film Killers of the Flower Moon, depicting the true story of murders against the Osage Nation in 1920.
Most critics felt racism was portrayed accurately, although one stated, “…the film’s co-lead, Lily Gladstone, told Vulture the film is not a white saviour story. And it’s true…Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Scorsese and his team to involve the Osage in telling their story, the film adopts a self-flagellating white gaze. At every turn, Killers of the Flower Moon refuses to decentre whiteness. Instead, the film uses the gruesome murder of First Nations people, not to advocate for Indigenous humanity, but to showcase the lack of it in white people.”
So it’s not enough to remove white saviors: when dealing with racism, it’s important not to keep the focus on white supremacy, even if the film is putting that racism in a bad light. (Specific to this article’s focus, Flower Moon caused a revitalization of the Osage language.)
Colorlines, a site dedicated to reporting racial justice news and its context, has the fitting tagline “Join the Organizing Revival.” In the affiliated podcast Momentum’s episode “Pushing Back Against the Rise of Christian Nationalism,” host Dr. Charlene Sinclair has a mesmerizing conversation with Dr. Obery Hendricks. Their discussion covers fatalism, a “revolution of values,”8 a desire to “stand up against manifest evil [rather] than to have some kind of ‘apocalyptic-leave-it-to-Jesus’ theology, and the implication that Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Christianity was imbued with white supremacy.
Even though Dr. Hendricks is a leading biblical scholar and he exhorts us to speak from the Bible, he says we must apply discipline to biblical study and to its exposition. He begs us to become grounded in the gospels, but because he identifies politically with the Left, some Christians will, sadly, ignore or oppose him. Fine. Let’s pretend for a second that the New Testament doesn’t speak extensively about the criticality of Christian unity; if politics has become more important to us than Jesus’s commands, let’s close out with conservative Christian perspectives in America.
To Get in the Way of Actual Revolution
At the end of this year, Terry Gross interviewed Tim Alberta on his book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, which is about the evangelical church’s polarization due to Donald Trump’s politics. The entire “Fresh Air” interview is phenomenal, but Alberta’s discussion on the intertwining of early ’80s church and government suits our purposes.
Tim Alberta found that Jerry Falwell, Sr. and his compatriots didn’t really believe their own “end is nigh” propaganda, but they felt it served the higher purpose of sparking revival and political control in America (while making millions). When Gross asked about the connection to today, Alberta confirmed that the through-line is evangelical leaders (like Jerry Falwell, Jr.) who don’t want to give up the governmental control they have.
Why are we perpetuating a phobia our predecessors didn’t even believe in? Nineteen eighty-three was far from perfect, but it checked a lot of boxes for evangelicals: a Christian President, the Moral Majority crusade, a resurgence in “the Bible in public.” But if society and politics can be fickle and American presidential elections every four years guarantee constant flux, doesn’t it make sense to just let God accomplish His plan?
Granted, we can say we’re inside God’s plan, but with various motivations, biases, and biblical interpretations, what accountability and biblical discipline should we use? Well, we can read books like The Ballot and the Bible, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, and Christ and the Culture Wars, which address these very concerns. But we can also search our hearts’ motivations for our demands of revival.
And we can heed Ben Chang’s advice to adapt by using identity politics buzzwords through a biblical lens. Christ and the Culture Wars’ transformative mindset is built on the foundational question: “Is it really adequate to ignore the social revolution happening in our culture and continue doing the same evangelistic talks and events that we have been doing for the last fifty years?”
One way we can use the revolution is by showing where identity politics have gotten it right (compared to the Bible and not our political beliefs) and lovingly sharing where the movements have incomplete versions of God’s values. This may mean lifestyle changes for us Christians, like questioning fearmongering or not attending end times prophecy conferences.
When Christians beg for revival is there any retrospection on the messages we’re trying desperately to share? Do the sermons, soundbites and podcasts serve the gospel message, or have secondary issues overridden Jesus? Does our favorite Christian speaker spend a majority of the time championing a politician or denouncing a senate bill or heralding the end times or bemoaning the evils of identity politics (as Alberta mentions, where some churches have betrayed their Sunday morning services to worship Trump)?
No one can hope for revival if we’re not showing the unmatched love of Jesus in an unhypocritical and approachable way. No country on earth, including the United States, needs revival unless it is in God’s plan. And if we believe that God always desires revival in the United States, then we haven’t read our Bibles and seen how God’s timing usually doesn’t make sense to people in the moment. I’m not saying to stop praying for revival, just to take a break from the news and stop unquestioningly regurgitating what we’ve heard.
Think critically, consider the value in the social justice similarities to biblical teaching, and give up control. Chuck Smith certainly didn’t expect revival to come in the form of barefoot hippies.
But for the millions like Greg Laurie, it didn’t matter what revival looked like. The fact that God orchestrated it, and that women and men took action, was enough for them. If God continues bringing pockets of revival to America, even if the whole nation isn’t swept up, loving people well regardless of politics is when revival is right.
- Leonard Ravenhill, Revival, God’s Way! (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1983), 63. ↩︎
- Ibid, p. 55. ↩︎
- Technically this was the second time he used the phrase. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute and History.com say the first time was at the British House of Commons in 1982. ↩︎
- Ravenhill, Revival, God’s Way!, 39. ↩︎
- One such case was the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike. I was excited to compare 2023’s strike (and President Shawn Fain) to the Canadian UAW strike (and President Bob White) chronicled in the riveting documentary Final Offer, but that happened in 1984 and therefore was ineligible for this 1983 article. ↩︎
- “Thriller” released late in 1982, as mentioned in last year’s article “1982 vs. 2022: Greed vs. Giving.” ↩︎
- David Sirota, Back to Our Future (New York: Ballantine Books, 2011), 187. ↩︎
- Dr. Hendricks uses this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. several times. ↩︎