Jumping the Shark and the Trajectory of Sin

by Benjamin Vrbicek July 4, 2018

A few years ago a radio personality coined the phrase “jumping the shark.” The genesis of the phrase comes from an episode in the 70's television show Happy Days. While waterskiing in his leather jacket, Fonzie actually jumped over a shark. 

The phrase now refers to a scene within any television series that provides incriminating evidence that the series is no longer any good. It’s the moment of ridiculousness when the plot is so threadbare and characters so clichéd that you roll not just your eyes, but your whole body grimaces: Are you kidding me—he just jumped the shark?! 

In comedy sitcoms especially, main characters invariably become caricatures of themselves. In other eras it was George Costanza on Seinfeld, Michael Scott on The Office, and Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation. Their original caricature was of something based in reality, but eventually they all became caricatures of their own caricature, which is absurdity. Laughs came only with more difficulty, exaggeration, and convolution. The contemporary show The Man in the High Castle is very well directed, but if it should continue for another five seasons, I suspect even the beautiful complexities of a character like Juliana Crain will be extruded thinner and thinner. 

Not only can sitcoms jump the shark, but television genres can as well. I’m no expert in the CSI franchise, but it seems to me that subtlety was long ago replaced with the overt. Slow-cooked, rising tension was replaced with extravagant, violent twists of plot all splashed with sexual innuendo. An early episode of Law and Order, a forerunner in the crime investigation genre, would look boring in comparison—better, but boring. 

Sin Aims to the Utmost

My point is not to engage in a “they don’t make them like they used to” rant. The slow, degradation of characters is actually a microcosm showing us the trajectory of sin. 

Sin always promises to taste good, and there’s some truth in its promise. Eve saw that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “was good for food . . . a delight to the eyes, and . . . to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). Yet, what looked good and tasted good didn’t leave them very wise; they wore fig leaves and hid in shame from their Creator and were eventually banished from paradise.  

Lady Folly in Proverbs says, “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (9:17). Perhaps it is, but this view is nearsighted. When the stolen meal is consumed, sin still won’t be satisfied. Sin will want to eat the styrofoam plate the food was served on, and will still be hungry to gnaw off the arm that held the plate.

This is because, as seventeenth-century pastor John Owen wrote, “Sin always aims to the utmost.” He continues:

[E]very time [sin] rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head. . . . [E]very rise of lust, might it have its course, would come to the height of villainy: it is like the grave that is never satisfied. (The Mortification of Sin)

We see the absurdity of sin “aiming to the utmost” in Luke 13. A crippled woman who was bound by Satan for 18 years was healed by Jesus. But then. the synagogue ruler berates Jesus while saying to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day” (v. 14). This man’s desire to keep the Sabbath became so intensely myopic—a caricature of a caricature, if you will. This caused him to miss the whole point of the Sabbath. 

This is the trajectory of sin. At some point, it jumps the shark. Sin makes people less human and more beast-like. As we see in Romans, when we go deeper into sin and exchange the glory of God for that which is not God, things go from bad to worse. Paul writes of thinking that becomes futile and hearts that become darkened and fools claiming to be wise, which all eventually leads to the degrading of bodies (vv. 21–24). 

No man who begins with pornography wants to end up addicted. No woman who wants to look beautiful intends to end up anorexic. But that’s where things can go. I remember running myself absolutely ragged in college trying to keep up my test scores as an act of worship of academics. And even today, I sometimes marvel at how slow my Christian maturity has developed when I find myself running myself ragged trying to be the pastor I think everyone wants me to be, coveting lofty opinions from my church.

Jesus Came to Give Life to the Utmost

Godliness, on the other hand, does the opposite. Over time, our increasing conformity to the image of Christ makes us more human in all the ways we are meant to be human, not less. For those who push themselves to grow in their relationship with God, for those who immerse themselves in the depths of the gospel, and for those who surround themselves with Christian community in the local church, they tend to become the type of humans we were meant to be: humble and happy children of our God.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This life Jesus offers in the gospel is life to the utmost, life that never leaves you cowering in shame wearing fig leaves. This life begins now and, as Paul wrote in Ephesians, extends unendingly into the coming ages where God will continually show his children the immeasurable riches of his grace (2:7). Those are returns that never diminish and only increase.