Nik Wallenda, the Grand Canyon, and Faith in Jesus Christ

This is strictly an opinion piece and therefore open to debate which I invite, but as always, be charitable in your comments to me, to one another, and to Nik Wallenda!

high wire 2So last night, daredevil Nik Wallenda made his historic walk across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope with no tether and no safety net, gluing countless numbers of viewers like myself to the live broadcast. In addition to the drama of the stunt itself, I was struck by Wallenda’s public profession of faith as he called on the name of Jesus and offered praise to Jesus throughout his stunt. But that’s what bothers me about the whole thing: it was a stunt. I have no doubt that Nik Wallenda is a good man and a man of deep faith and that his faith in Jesus Christ helped him to remain focused as he crossed the wire. I am not questioning the man’s faith. I admire his talent and ability to stay focused and to accomplish amazing fetes. Heck, I can barely keep my balance and chew gum at the same time so I have great respect for what he can accomplish. What I do question, however, is why this stunt is being held up by Christians as a model for faith and especially for evangelism. People are saying that his faith guided him, kept him calm, kept him focused, and enabled him to do a mighty deed that most people could not (and should not) even attempt. True enough. People are also saying that his faith was so strong that he was willing to risk death and that what he did is comparable to what the apostles did in the name of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles or for that matter, what any Bible hero accomplished in the name of God: they were mere mortals calling on the name of God to perform mighty deeds…same with Wallenda.

There are 2 HUGE reasons why we should not be comparing Wallenda’s fete to the mighty deeds performed by people in Scripture in the name of God. First, the fact that Wallenda was willing to risk death should trouble any Christian. It is one thing to trust that God will walk you through the flames of the fiery furnace or the lion’s den to which you have been sentenced to die because of your faith in God. Nobody was holding a gun to Wallenda’s head and telling him that he had to walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon without a tether or a net because of his faith in Jesus. He chose to risk death as part of the stunt, merely for the sake of titillation to which I and many other gullible viewers succumbed. If, God forbid, he had fallen to his death, that would not make him a martyr, which the Holy Father described yesterday as those “who are imprisoned or killed for the sole reason of being Christian” nor would it qualify for the Pope’s description of “daily martyrdom” which consists of people “doing their duty with love, according to the logic of Jesus” – it was not Wallenda’s duty nor was it the “logic of Christ” to walk that tightrope without a tether or a net. There’s a reason that the Apostles were never referred to as “daredevils.”

Secondly, what Wallenda did was a stunt. On the other hand, miracles – mighty deeds – in Scripture are never stunts. A stunt is something that is done to draw attention to the stuntman or woman (something that Jesus was tempted by the devil to do – see Mt 4:5-7). Sure, Wallenda said, as he crossed the high wire, “let it be for the glory of God,” but there is no reason to walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon without a tether or a net other than to draw attention to oneself. Mighty deeds done in the name of God, and particularly, in the name of Jesus Christ, are done to draw attention to the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God and thus, their purpose is to reveal how God’s plan for us is to be delivered from sickness, lack of sustenance, natural disasters, and ultimately death itself. Walking across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope without a tether or a net may inspire us to be better focused under stress and to overcome obstacles in life but it does nothing to reveal God’s ultimate plan for us which is why it does not measure up to the mighty deeds performed in the name of Christ in the New Testament.

I’m glad Nik Wallenda accomplished his stunt. His wife and family need him. I’m glad that he professes faith in Jesus Christ and I’m glad that he modeled for us the powerful and universal prayer, “God help me” which is the proper stance to take before God when faced with the challenges of this world (preferably not self-created challenges like crossing the Grand Canyon on a high wire). But please, let’s not make his stunt out to be the model for evangelism.

What do you think?

[photo courtesy of  Graeme Maclean via Compfight]

About Joe Paprocki 2367 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.

15 Comments on Nik Wallenda, the Grand Canyon, and Faith in Jesus Christ

  1. i believe that him knowing through god all things are possible is his reason for being so confident and i feel what he did is a great way to profess the faith of the lord knowing thats what guided him across that wire and thats what he was getting at.

  2. Joe, I agree with you 100%. If Wallenda truly believed that his feat was God’s will for him, then he was right to do what he believed to be God’s will. But I wonder if he checked his perception of the will of God with a Christian community that would help him look at his responsibility to his family as part of God’s will for his life? I think that when we perceive God’s will to do something so far out of the ordinary, and courting danger unnecessarily, we need to consider the possibility that we may not have understood God’s will correctly.

    • Louisa, very good comment about checking what you perceive to be God’s will with the community. That is a very Catholic notion.

  3. Joe,
    I completely agree with you. And correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it part of Catholic philosophy that a father or mother should not place themselves in danger when they have responsibilities at home such as Nik Wallenda’s responsibility to his three young children and his wife?
    Mary

    • Mary, I think that is a legitimate concern. Again, no one had a gun to his head telling him he had to do this in order for his family to survive or anything like that. So risking your life, without a tether or a net, for the sake of a stunt, is questionable judgment.

  4. I am grateful for your wisdom Joe. Without “truth” we will lose our balance. Thanks for the good reminder! God’s blessings~

  5. Your analysis is excellent. In fact, it is perfect. I thank you for it. Although it is always precarious to say that any particular person committed a mortal sin in any particular situation, we are permitted — and even obliged — to identify “grave matter” when it comes into our consciousness. I have no doubt that walking a tight wire across a yawning gorge while not wearing a tether or using a net is “grave matter”. It makes no difference how prepared or skillful the person is. Therefore, it is POSSIBLE that Nik Wallenda committed mortal sin by doing what he did. What makes us recoil from asserting this is that he is obviously a religious man. Christians were edified by Nik’s continued invocations of God and of Jesus. Quite frankly, I think these invocations were repeated violations of the second commandment: Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain. “In vain” means literally “for vain things” or “for reasons of vanity”. After the walk, Nik made several references to his “fans” and his “fan club”. I think Nik was using Jesus in order to enhance his vanity. Sorry to say so. The truth is not always pleasant! I hope he retires and finds some other line of work.

    • I imagine it is very hard to draw a line as to precisely when someone in sports/entertainment has gone “too far.” I love hockey and yet it is a dangerous sport. Football, in particular, is a violent sport as is boxing and yet we watch these athletes risk much. My point about Wallenda is that what he did should not be held up as a model for how to evangelize (i.e. “look how great God is because he enables me to complete this wild stunt!”)

  6. I am big on “you shall not tempt the LORD your God. Foolishness is just that. God would have been better praised if his life had been filled with something other than over paid stunt craft.

  7. Thank you to all for these thoughts. I was extremely troubled by this broadcast last night and unsure if I should let my children watch it. To risk God’s great gift of life seemed reckless and sinful to me.

  8. I think men are designed for physical life-endangering selfless heroism, but there are few bears or lions left to kill, and everyone can’t be a soldier, cop, fireman, or pararescue jumper. So in these modern times men unfortunately compensate by seeking out life-threatening substitutes such as mountain climbing, auto racing, bullfighting, and tightrope-walking.

  9. We didn’t see the stunt – we gathered around the tv (with the kids) and the first advertisement was for a tv show with naked people. I figured we had seen enough at that point – but that is a whole different conversation!

  10. Totally agreed with your synopsis before reading Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey piece for the 27th of June-knew for sure that you had it right… Nouwen wrote “Courage is connected with taking risks.Jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorbike, coming over Niagara Falls in a barrel, walking on a tightrope between the towers of NY World Trade Center (definitely dated here) or crossing the ocean in a rowboat are called courageous acts because people risk their lives by doing these things. But none of these daredevil acts comes from the center of our being. They come from the desire to test our physical limits and to become famous and popular.
    Spiritual courage is completely different. It is following the deepest desires of our hearts at the risk of losing fame and popularity. It asks our willingness to lose our temporal lives in order to gain eternal life.
    After reading this, the synopsis and comments I am seeing that we DO know what evangelization is…and is not.

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