JAWS: An Unexpectedly Timely Message for the Church
Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster classic, JAWS, is the greatest movie ever made and perhaps the peak artistic achievement in the history of Western civilization. Okay, that might be a tad hyperbolic. Nevertheless, JAWS has long been my favorite film. Due to the misfortune of being born 12 years after it was released, I did not have the opportunity to see it in a movie theater until last week, as movie theaters across the country have reopened to show classic films.
I enjoyed the movie as much as I always do, but I was also struck by its timelessness. It has an important message for Christians. No, it is not a neat and tidy C. S. Lewis-esque Christian parable, but JAWS offers an inspiring challenge for the Church today.
A Looming Threat and an Unavoidable Crisis
JAWS is a movie about a crisis—a crisis in the form of a 25-foot, man-eating great white shark. What makes the film so timeless (and timely) is that, much like the whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the titular fish is as much of a metaphor as it is a sea creature. The antagonistic shark embodies fear and danger; it is the unseen terror lurking at the edge of a peaceful and routine life. The film is primarily about how people respond—for better or worse—when crisis strikes.
Whether we live on the coast or far inland, the Bible reveals that we have a similar terror lurking in our world: “The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). How will we, the Church, confront this threat?
From Dry-Toed to Soaking Wet
In JAWS, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is the island’s new chief of police, having moved from New York. Unlike in the big city, he believes he can make a real difference on the small island, even though he is terrified of the water.
In one of the early shark attack scenes, Brody runs along the beach yelling for the swimmers to get out of the water. He stands on the shore, tiptoeing down the water’s edge and never getting his toes wet as he tries to protect the citizens from the approaching danger. I felt convicted that the Church is often like Brody, called to help those in the ocean but unwilling to get wet ourselves; beckoning those lost in the world to come to our safe buildings rather than leaving those sanctuaries and wading into the water to help.
Brody’s resolve changes when the shark almost claims his son’s life. Spielberg uses a brilliant tracking shot from Brody’s POV as he gazes out at the ocean, the movement of the camera symbolizing his newfound understanding that he must go out into the ocean and confront the threat.
This moment sets up the satisfying ending, showcasing the character growth from water-fearing outsider to water-soaked hero. In the final showdown, Brody rests on the mast of the ship as it slowly sinks into the ocean and the shark swims straight toward him. The character who once tried to protect people without getting wet is almost fully submerged as he fires his rifle, exploding the air canister caught in the shark’s mouth and saving the island.
Chief Brody is joined by Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a marine biologist and shark expert, and Quint (Robert Shaw), a Captain Ahab-inspired professional shark hunter. After the midpoint of the film, the story focuses exclusively on this trinity of characters as they hunt the man-eating shark. In the process, the thrown-together crew of the Orca provides a compelling picture of how the Church should function.
Quint represents the “old school” tradition, while Hooper represents the new. Quint prefers the archaic method of drawing the shark in close and stabbing it with a blade, whereas Hooper brings aboard a wide collection of fancy gear and gadgets. Both men are distrustful of the other, their prejudices leading them to judge and look down on each other. Brody—an inexperienced seaman—is trapped in the middle, a proverbial angel on each shoulder.
There is no forced, sentimental moment when the characters suddenly grasp hands and declare, “I guess we needed each other after all!” Yet, over the course of their shark hunt, they slowly become united. Hooper defers to Quint’s hands-on expertise, and Quint is eventually willing to try Hooper’s modern methods. Their unity is finally achieved in the film’s standout scene.
At the start of the scene, all three characters are physically separated from each other, representing their distrust and disunity. Quint and Hooper begin comparing “scars,” attempting to one-up each other. In the process, they move physically and figuratively closer until their legs are overlapped on the table, having found a shared experience and humanity. By the end of the scene (after Robert Shaw’s exquisite monologue), all three characters are sitting together at the table singing and laughing, a team at last.
Significantly, during the final showdown between Brody and the shark, the shark is defeated by the combination of both Quint’s and Hooper’s methods—Quint’s rifle and Hooper’s air canister. All three men brought a different area of expertise, experience, and personality to their small crew, and, in the end, only by coming together could they overcome the crisis.
The Bible describes the Church as one body with many parts. While we are not submerged in shark-infested waters, we are baptized by one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). Diverse believers are brought together and unified by a greater purpose. We might be tempted to look down on another part of the body or distrust what is different or unfamiliar. A film like JAWS, perhaps unexpectedly, reminds us that we have a greater calling.
There are crises in the world today, and America needs the Church to work together, get into the water, and make a difference. JAWS provides a timely metaphor for the Church; but, in the end, it’s up to us to live it.