It’s time for America’s annual mid-summer obsession with sharks.
NatGeo’s Sharkfest, a four-week celebration of the fearsome eating machines, kicked off two nights ago. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which begins on July 24, is now the longest-running cable television programming event in history. This will be the hit show’s 35th consecutive summer.
It can be argued that our country has never been the same since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws arrived in theaters in 1975. That movie not only changed the swimming habits of millions of people, but launched a decades-long, can’t-get-enough fascination with the ocean’s apex predator.
No one disagrees that it would be a dreadful thing to become a dinner option for a hungry shark.
But let’s do a quick reality check. If we take into account all the coastlines of all the countries in the world, how many people are killed by sharks every year?
The number is surprisingly low – on average, just six people. Sharks, on the other hand, fare much worse at the hands of humans. It’s estimated that shark hunters and fishermen kill more than 100 million sharks every 12 months.
How about lions, then? Is that the creature we most need to fear? On average 22 people a year are lost to lions.
So what is the greatest animal threat to human safety? That would be the mosquito, which can carry malaria and a number of other virulent organisms. The blood-seeking insects are annually responsible for at least 750,000 deaths worldwide. Snakes come in third, taking another 100,000 lives. Dogs (aka Man’s Best Friend) occupy fourth place, accounting for about 35,000 deaths, many of them connected with rabies. The biggest surprise is probably the fifth most potent killer from the animal kingdom. Poisonous snails annually take around 20,000 human lives.
As far as we know, Discovery Channel has no current plans to produce Snail Week.
So what creature occupies second place on the global human mortality list? That would be human beings.
People kill at least 437,000 other people every year. Depending on the number and severity of wars during a particular year – the United Nations currently recognizes 10 ongoing military conflicts, including those in Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen – that heartbreaking total may even exceed the deaths wrought by mosquitoes.
Why do people kill other people?
Here we turn to the humble New Testament letter of James, which deservedly bears the reputation of the Bible’s bluntest book:
“Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way” (James 4:1-3, “The Message”).
James is describing idolatry. No, not the adulation of figurines that might one day capture the attention of Indiana Jones.
Idolatry means setting our hearts on something that God assures us we do not need and must not pursue. Author and pastor Time Keller points out that when we say, “I won’t serve you, God, unless you give me X,” then X is our true god. Our bottom line. Our ultimate idol. And such idols will always betray us.
X might be financial security. Or getting revenge. Or “true love.” Or possessing something of great value. Or making sure we get the last word. People are sometimes willing to take the lives of other people to obtain such things. Nations might even be willing to go to war.
As long as our hearts are set on something that is Not-God, we will lose our way. Idols are false gods in the sense that they make the same promise God makes: “If you give yourself to me, you will at last be truly happy.” But that’s a promise a phony god can never keep.
To place ultimate value on anything less than God means we will sooner or later experience crushing disappointment and loss.
And along the way our fixation on pursuing what is second best might even prove disastrous for other people.
“Shark news” always seems to be scary news, even if most of us will never be seriously threatened by one.
But there really is a danger every one of us will face this summer. It’s the temptation to bet our lives that something less than God will somehow be able to keep the promises only God can keep.