We live in a coastal area, and one of the hobbies we enjoy most is searching for and collecting shark teeth. Living only four blocks from the beach growing up, one would have thought that it was a lifelong pastime, but interestingly enough, it wasn’t. Not until my husband and I moved to our current location over 25 years ago did we even know it was a ‘thing.’
We stopped into a shop near the beach for some reason or another years ago and noticed the business owner had two or three teeth on display behind glass. They had a thin, shiny black strip along the top and matte, grayish-black for the remainder. They each were as large as my husband’s hand! We couldn’t believe they were collected right at our local shore. The shop owner excitedly described to us how he found them, sifting through the sand right at the shore line. He told us we could be especially lucky after a storm, when the ocean floor gets churned up and coughs up more treasure than usual from the deep.
From the day of that fateful conversation on, we pursued this obsession. Our girls laugh at us in our separate postures of searching: their dad, digging great swaths in the sand at the waterline “like a meerkat” and I, myself, strolling along, moving the sand with my foot as the incoming water swirls around and washes over them, separating sand from shells and hopefully, teeth. We even have a particular stretch of beach that we would be willing to bet is the most productive.
Recently my younger daughter, Carolyn, and I made a final trip to the beach before she had to return to college. We spent the majority of the time riding the huge waves on our boards and whooping and hollering in the surf. But there’s always that tug on me to take a look for teeth, drawing me to the spot like a strange, curious undertow. “Just five minutes” turns into enough time to get a solid sunburn on the back of my neck and shoulders.
On this particular trip, as I was scouring through the broken bits of sun-and-sea-faded shells, it occurred to me that not everything that looks like a tooth is, in fact, a tooth. When searching for the telltale shiny and matte black triangles, one often comes across triangle-shaped black broken oyster shell, which may look similar to a reef or bull shark tooth, or the black insides of whelk shells, broken in just the right swirly part to resemble a pointy sand tiger shark tooth. Sometimes there are hardened tar pieces that can sort of look like a bit of tooth from a lemon shark. It seems sometimes that there are more lookalike teeth than real.
This idea that you could mistakenly think you had an authentic shark tooth when, in fact, you do not, got me thinking. How can you be sure that what you find is authentic? How can you avoid the disappointment of thinking you have the real thing but later realizing it’s a counterfeit? How can you spot imposters posing as bona fide fossils? I think there are a few precautions that we can take to be certain that what you see is legitimate.
1. Have someone show you. Go with a trusted friend who has studied and found shark teeth successfully. They will point out the pitfalls and tricky parts to avoid. Many people even suggest that someone ‘hide’ real teeth among the shell beds so you’ll get used to finding them.
2. Know what features make up a true tooth. Prior to knowing what a fossilized shark tooth could look like, I assumed they would be white. Instead, I learned that they usually are dark shades. You’ll usually find that small, dark, triangular shapes will put you on the right track. Like the ways that experts study real paper currency in order to distinguish it from the counterfeit, you, also, can carefully study features of actual teeth so that you’ll come to successfully pick out teeth from broken bits of shell.
3. Consult guides, either in print form or online, to study and learn about the teeth in your area. These supplementary materials will point out details that you as a novice might miss or not easily notice. They will also help you identify the type of teeth you find with accuracy.
4. Have an experienced friend or guide look over your finds. You’d be surprised at how closely the non-tooth items can resemble actual teeth. In fact, on the day that we went to the beach, I thought I found five teeth. Upon showing them to Carolyn, however, I was disappointed to learn that three of them were close, but no cigar, specimens. As let down as I felt initially, I was, in the end, happy to know that I had only added real teeth to my collection.
Digging for the truth about God’s word is a similar pursuit. There are some things commonly thought to be scriptural that simply aren’t, and there are things that are almost correct, but taken out of context, and there are some things that are flat out false and damaging. For example, you probably have heard the adage, “God helps those who help themselves,” but I challenge you to find that in scripture. In fact, rather than biblical, this phrase is more likely reflects a secular humanism world view. Instead, the Psalmist teaches that “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth” (PS. 121:2). Another example that a loving friend or well-meaning family member may say is “This too shall pass.” While that can be encouraging, it is found nowhere in the Bible. Not all painful or difficult circumstances are meant to fade away. Jesus told the apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
While those are examples of things clearly not found in the Bible, other sayings or purported truths include ones that are commonly misquoted, such as “Money is the root of all evil,” or “Pride comes before a fall.” In the first example, the full, correct verse, taken from 1 Timothy 6:10, is as follows (taken from the English Standard Version): “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (emphasis mine). The second quote is close to Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” As you can see, the misquote seems to combine the two portions of scripture into one.
Perhaps more dangerous is when we hear ideas like “God wants you to be happy/prosperous/successful, etc”. Especially in the west, our focus is on our comfort, convenience, and gratified consumerism. This constant pursuit of happiness and the god of instant self-gratification is completely WRONG when held up to the light of God’s purposes. We exist to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We exist to go into the world (our spheres of influence) and make disciples. Period. Hard stop.
So if that’s the case, how can we avoid the pitfalls of inaccurate theology or misguided thinking when it comes to knowing scripture? I think we can reflect back on the shark tooth hunting tips:
1. Have someone show you. When studying the Bible, become a student of a trusted, Bible-based teacher or mentor. Note: Fame does not always equate accuracy. At one time I listened to an up-and-coming preacher who was gaining fame and prestige, but the more I listened, the less Bible I heard. Having said that, if you are able to study under someone who teaches from the Bible, someone who promotes Jesus rather than himself or herself, that’s a good start.
2. Learn on your own. In other words, read your Bible for yourself! Your exposure to scripture should not come only on Sunday morning. You can start in Genesis and make your way through to Revelation, or you could start in the Psalms and Proverbs, or even start in the Gospels, but start somewhere. There are excellent plans on the Bible app or other online resources. Your church may also have suggestions for getting started. The main thing is to start somewhere, and don’t stop.
3. Consult guides, commentaries, maps, timelines, or other resources that will help sort out what you are reading or studying. If your Bible has a commentary, refer to it as you read. It will help construct context for what you are learning. Maps and timelines are also helpful to form the full picture as you study. Many are available free online.
4. Study with others, especially those who have been learning longer than you. Not only does this give depth of knowledge and accountability, but these mentors and friends can help you sort through some of your ideas or questions. Often they can help sift through your notions like my daughter did with my teeth findings, correcting inaccuracies and pointing out details to help you as you seek the truth.
Like hidden shark teeth on the shore, God’s word is full of treasures for the spirit. Take the time to dig in wildly like a meerkat, or gently glean and meditate on what you read. I promise that you’ll come away closer to your Creator with many valuable finds.