If you enjoy absurd humour with a sprinkling of social commentary, then the series All Hail King Julian is for you. It isn’t for my family (as they question my taste in viewing pleasure), but I like the wise (or not so wise) fool who is the alpha lemur in Madagascar. In one episode they are celebrating their equivalent of the Olympic Games and mention Uncle King Julian’s event, shark jumping. As he was King Julian’s tyrannical predecessor, it seems fitting that he would have created a pointlessly dangerous sport.
But there is another level to the humour. The voice actor for Uncle King Julian is Henry Winkler. Henry Winkler played the role of “the Fonz” in the 1974-1984 family sit-com Happy Days. Arthur Fonzarelli was the next door neighbour to the Cunningham family and as a James Dean-ish mechanic, played the role of cool warrior-sage (or at least the sit-com equivalent). As popularity of the show peaked, the managers aired an episode that had Fonzie waterski over a shark as a stunt. This inspired what is now a common entertainment industry term: “jumping the shark.” The warrior-sage was forced to became a jester, and a key premise of the show was demolished by a desperate plea for ratings.
The church in Western society desperately needs creativity and innovation in connecting with our neighbours, but we can run the risk of jumping the shark? Most of the creativity in new forms or practices of church are valuable experiments, but we need extreme discernment to test ideology that is adopted in the process. Currently there is criticism of consumerism as churches have responded to that social pressure. There are yet a number of ideas and social agendas rooted in secular humanism and pluralism which demand a constructive response from the church because they are so prevalent in Western society.
Consumerism is a great example because it highlights the challenges posed by certain ideas for discernment. The basic concept of providing something that is needed or interesting to people as a way of starting communication about the gospel is not “wrong.” There are numerous biblical examples where Jesus encourages the disciples to provide for others or offers something interesting to an individual (offering living water to the woman at the well). The problem is that if we cannot overcome the very human bent towards self-centredness that is twisted around the exchange of goods or services, we can unintentionally pervert something central to Christian faith. We do not desire discipleship which is about getting but faithfulness which is about giving. Self-sacrificing love is at the heart of the gospel and we want that to be inspired through our practices of worship, community and outreach, rather than the self-serving: “What do I get out of it?”
A definition of the problem: certain attempts at relevance may undermine faithfulness. How do we avoid jumping the shark in our desire for innovation? We have to find ways to stay true to that which was central to the early church: Jesus-centric ethics and gospel saturated ethos. We are challenged to figure out what faithful reading of the scriptures together means. We need biblical reflection and prayer that opens us to God’s direction rather than primarily requesting a blessing on our plans. We should be listening carefully to the different voices asking questions about our progressive plans or out-of-the-box practices to determine who is simply uncomfortable with change, and who is offering a healthy word of caution about unintended consequences.
Will we be guilty of shark jumping? Probably. In the history of the church we can identify ideas and agendas which had to be reviewed, and discarded or redeemed. Why should we be different? Humility and submission to the voice of God are correctives that can help us develop spiritually and renew our direction.We cannot afford status quo, we have to be innovative – Lord, help us be creative and faithful.