I come from a pretty competitive family, so it should have been no surprise to find them enjoying the latest season of Shark Tank. Of this show’s many seductions — the edge-of-your-seat deliberations, the outlandish pitches (looking at you, Pinot Meow) — the biggest hook may be the sense of judgment hovering throughout each episode: a trembling entrepreneur stands up and pitches his or her idea before a squad of potential investors — the sharks! — who decide whether or not the business is worth their money.
The show’s producer, Mark Burnett, made an appearance at Unpolished 2015, an entrepreneurship conference described by Mya Frazier in her recent Bloomberg article, “What Would Jesus Disrupt?” Held by Crossroads Church in Cincinatti, this conference aims to get entrepreneurs on their feet:
There are smoke machines and LED screens, harnessed climbers scaling a scaffold “mountain” and raising their arms in symbolic victory over the startup world’s arduous climb. There’s talk of destiny-defining “exits.” Of Jesus and his disciples: “The most successful startup in history!” Of the parable of the talents, in which two servants are lauded by their master for turning a profit with money he staked them: “The first recorded instance of venture capital and investment banking in history!” Of ancient business elites: “A church is the oldest marketplace in the history of the world.” Of the promised land of angel investing, where divinely inspired entrepreneurs dwell: “Because God creates things, too!” Mark Burnett, the producer of The Apprentice and Shark Tank, shows up to remind everyone that “the Bible is full of merchants and people doing work.”
… At the end of the aisles, attendants await, holding pails overflowing with packets of apple seeds. “God’s placed a seed in you. And he wants to see it come to fruitfulness,” Tome [the head pastor] says to the crowd, his spiked and styled dirty-blond hair and untucked plaid shirt lending him the air of an aging film star. Bowing his head, he prays, asking God to lead everyone to “the right seed that will bring forth the right fruit at the right time in every business.”
It’s a remarkable altar call: Those who feel inspired are to take these seeds from the attendants and go forth, claiming their spiritual destinies … as entrepreneurs. At the edge of the waist-high stage, people mingle, hugging and holding hands. Others bow their head or kneel under the outstretched hands of strangers to receive prayer. Foust [a young entrepreneur who won $3000 in the conference’s pitch contest] joins them, walking down the aisle and asking for blessings and prayers at the start of his entrepreneurship journey.
This is a compelling story not just for entrepreneurs but for anyone taking a daily dip in the shark tank of self-sales. Social media is the most obvious example (your Lenten fast/reprieve is almost up!). For many of us, engineering the perfect profile is not just about approval; it is about branding. Expanding. Writing a narrative. “Growth” is one of Crossroads’ “seven hills to die on”; and, after mulling it over, I think I might die on that hill, too, a miserable, stubborn death (cf. “What can we do that’s bigger?”).
Is there a more promising basket to put your Easter eggs in than a cosmic one like Jesus Christ? He walks into the Shark Tank, flaunting a sculpted beard and rope sandals, and let’s face it: you’re impressed. You run through the list: effective preaching? Check. Loyal friends? Check. Convenient miracles? Big check. Overall good news? Don’t think too hard about the Sermon on the Mount, but generally speaking, yeah. Check.
Entrepreneurial Jesus is opportunistic and excited to share God’s gifts with the people. He’s very concerned with love and, despite a few setbacks (a public flogging, an execution), he’s unendingly successful. Frazier’s article follows budding entrepreneur, Lyden Foust, who explains why Jesus is his champion:
Foust decides that Jesus’ first words in the New Testament, from Mark 1:15, best address his fears: “The time has come,” Jesus says. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”… Foust invokes the Greek translation, interpreting “time” not as chronos, chronological time, but as kairos, the “right or opportune moment.” The word for “repent,” he continues, means “to turn away from” or “to change one’s mind.” The etymology leads him to a decidedly contemporary exegesis of the verse. “The kingdom of God was Jesus’ startup,” he says. “A new future he was selling to people. And that’s the same thing I’m saying as a startup founder—a moment of time has come, and there’s a new future for us.”
And—perfect timing! Some would say kairotic, even—last week, on Palm Sunday, we saw Jesus riding forward, entering Jerusalem on a valiant steed! In the Gospel of John, a cadre of jealous Pharisees gawk at Jesus’ procession, saying, “Look, the world has gone after him!” And it has: Jesus enters Jerusalem through a jungle of fanning palms and a chorus of melodic hosannas…but that very same day, things begin to go awry. He acts in increasingly frustrating ways—not just for the crowds, but for his own disciples, too, the very men who gave up their lives, everything they had, to follow him.
He throws a tantrum in the temple, then runs away to the neighboring town. He returns the following morning, seething with a series of cryptic parables (which he tells, admittedly, to throw people off (Mt 13:13)). He denounces the Religious Right and hosts a dinner where he invites his disciples to eat his metaphorical flesh, and to drink his blood. He accuses them of imminent betrayal. He prays for way too long and gets arrested. He gets cagey on trial. And finally, he gets killed.
This, to me, is probably not the best way to start a business.
In the final book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, we find Katniss running for her life through the Capitol. The streets have been booby-trapped with “pods”—traps which, when triggered, unleash a deadly challenge. I think the crowds following Jesus, at this time, must have felt a lot like Katniss: tired, confused, frantic.
Just when it seems we might have caught a break, there’s a cracking sound, like an egg hitting the side of a bowl but magnified a thousand times. We stop, look around for the pod. There’s nothing. Then I feel the tips of my boots beginning to tilt ever so slightly. “Run!” I cry to Gale. There’s no time to explain, but in a few seconds, the nature of the pod becomes clear to everyone. A seam has opened up down the center of the block. The two sides of the street are folding down like flaps, slowly emptying the people into whatever lies beneath.
The floor is falling out beneath them — the sturdy ground of their expectations is dissolving. Times like these, we begin to realize that Jesus isn’t the lucrative investment we imagined he was: moreover, we missed the clues that suggested this was so. “People…learn selectively,” Julie Beck wrote in The Atlantic last month. “They’re better at learning facts that confirm their worldview than facts that challenge it.” Three times Jesus predicted his death, but did his disciples believe him? Did we? Galloping to victory on a steed was never his intention; all along, he was slinking on a donkey to his death.
At this, our eyes go lightning-struck and, like the crowd who chose Barabbas, and like the far-superior investors from Shark Tank, we devour the trembling man on trial. “The most successful startup in history”? “Crucify him!”
It was L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of what we now know as the harrowing religion of scientology, who allegedly said, “If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” On Good Friday, however, Jesus has no interest in selling anything. His gaze is set far beyond what money, or religion, could buy. Of course this is not to say that entrepreneurship is un-Christian; on the contrary, Good Friday has no judgments — nothing to say whatsoever — about the career path of entrepreneurs, nor real estate agents, nor clerics, nor bloggers.
But the question remains: Does God speak up in the event of a failure? When your startup flops — that thing you’ve put all your time, money, and hope in — and it’s time to go home, does God look away?
It’s a Good day to answer that question.
There is a Renaissance-era altarpiece called the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grunewald for a monastery that treated patients with deadly skin diseases. Depicting the brutality of the crucifixion, the painting also shows Christ with sores on his skin. I have often wondered what it might have been like to be a patient in that monastery, to sit before that altarpiece, to see God sharing my suffering.
Of course I don’t have to wonder long. In the crucifixion, the thing God shares with us is, primarily, failure, and the waters around us are murky with it. Another divorce, another funeral, another miscarriage. I recently caught a glimpse of an unsightly yellow sheen glowing on my toenails. The flowers my wife grew two weeks ago, which were in full bloom last Sunday, are now falling, petal by petal, like that cursed rose in Beauty and the Beast — these are the things that clue me in. Even the most carnivorous sharks among us are victims in the tank, and if we don’t know that by now, we will soon enough.
If we scrutinized the parable of the talents on Good Friday, could we possibly read it as a cautionary tale about making wise investments? Standing trial before the masses, Jesus was told to fight back, to prove himself, “but he never said a mumbling word” and refused to play the game. Maybe, after all, Jesus was the lazy servant in the story, the one who failed to invest, who buried his money and, as promised, was thrown into hell.
When our ventures fail, it is this condemned servant, this failed investment, who becomes our only hope. When we find ourselves to be not just the sharks but the bait as well, the problem becomes the solution; the crucifixion is the only way out. St. Paul describes the experience beautifully: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2.20), and Robert Farrar Capon, in his book Between Noon and Three, explains how that works:
We are dead, and our life is hid with Christ in God. Dead. Out of the causal nexus for good. Dead. Not on trial. Dead. Out of the judicial process altogether. Not indicted, not prosecuted, not bound over, not found guilty. Just dead. And the lovely thing of it is that we were dead even before they came to get us. We have beaten the system. In Christ we have cheated the cosmos and slipped the bonds of every necessity the Old Party will ever wave in front of us. There is therefore now no condemnation. It doesn’t matter what the universe thinks. It doesn’t matter what other people think. It doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t even matter what God thinks, because God has said he isn’t going to think about it anymore. All he thinks now is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus; and Jesus now is all your life. You are, therefore, free…