By Tom Krattenmaker
Tim Tebow‘s riveting ride to the Super Bowl is over now, two steps short of pay dirt. What a ride it was: a faith-fueling story that instigated and renewed many a fan’s interest in pro football while leaping the bounds of the sports world and entering the wider realm of popular culture.
The rises and falls of Tebow these past few months have provoked all manner of speculation about the theological significance of the Jesus-professing quarterback of the Denver Broncos, just as it has stoked a vociferous proxy battle in the ongoing national argument over the public standing of the evangelical faith embodied by the Broncos’ No. 15. All of this has come at a volume that has made it hard for anyone to think straight.
In the months until the return to training camps this summer, one can only hope that the inevitable Tebow withdrawal comes with a restoration of perspective and sanity — especially among those who have upped the ante to such ridiculous proportions around Tim Tebow, as if Christianity’s validity in American public life rested on the young man’s padded shoulders.
The highs and lows
No, Tebow’s 45-10 loss to the New England Patriots Saturday night does not say anything about the credibility of Christianity or God. But it sure does about those who went overboard in ascribing cosmic significance to Tebow’s touchdowns and victories during the season’s high points, while remaining predictably mute during the low points. Football success, alas, is no place to rest your case for religion.
Twitter was aflutter with claims of divine revelation a week ago following Tebow’s and the Broncos’ stirring upset win over heavily favored Pittsburgh. It wasn’t just that dramatic game-winning touchdown pass that did it. It was those eerily familiar digits— the 316 passing yards on Tebow’s stat sheet and his 31.6 yards-per-completion average. It couldn’t be mere coincidence that these are the same digits as John 3:16, the Bible verse that many believers would single out as the essence of the religion. (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”) As one Tebow promoter offered at a popular sports website, what more proof would anyone need for the truth of Christianity?
Well, a lot. And to say that is no insult against the Christian faith. The opposite, actually.
For all the visibility Tebowmania has given to the faith he so heroically represents, his most carried-away admirers and detractors have brought forth a mother lode of silliness, too. A new poll finds that 43% of people familiar with Tebow believe divine intervention plays a role in his success. Even before the numerology nonsense around Tebow’s 316 passing yards, the season witnessed the appearance of Broncos’ No. 15 jerseys with the name “Jesus” plastered on the name plate — idolatry, anyone? — and an unbecoming defensiveness by some evangelical Tebow enthusiasts who reacted to criticism of his playing ability as if it were an attack on the Christian faith itself.
Same goes for secular snark dispensers such as comedian Bill Maher, who have found Tebow and his constant statements of faith so detestable. Maher — who in 2008 produced an entire documentary, Religulous, to mock all faiths — has used enlightening terms like “douche bag” to articulate his view of Tebow. After a poor Tebow performance in one late-season loss, Maher tweeted, “Wow, Jesus just f—-d #TimTebow bad.” Couldn’t the Tebow haters spare an ounce of credit for a guy whose religious conviction has led him to serve orphans and befriend medically challenged young people, who has had nary an off-field misstep or a harsh word for anyone in his five years in the spotlight?
Pairing sports and faith
Evangelizing on the coattails of a Christian athlete’s victory can be mighty tempting, of course, and we’ve had it in big-time sports for decades now. The late-great Reggie White popularized the practice in pro football in the ’80s and ’90s, and others including Super Bowl-winning quarterback Kurt Warner carried the mantel onward in the following decade. What better way to bring the gospel message to the attention of a sports-obsessed culture? Yet offering the competitive successes of Jesus-loving sports stars as proofs for Christianity, as many Tebow nuts have done, ought to be troubling to anyone intent on a serious conversation about the nation’s dominant religion.
As I have learned in my research on sports ministry organizations such as Athletes in Action, victory-based evangelism is troubling to many faith promoters in athletics, who realize that God is with the losers as much as the winners in sports and other temporal walks of life.
By conventional score-keeping, Jesus was hardly a “winner” when he willingly submitted to his executioners. On the other hand, would the public give a whit about Tebow’s beliefs and Google-search his favorite Bible verses if he were a third-string player on a last place team?
As an Athletes in Action staff member once observed, winning is important not because God cares about the win-loss tally, but because Americans do.
Yet as Tebow’s season-ending defeat demonstrates, Jesus’ favorite quarterback is capable of great failures, too. As is any athlete to whom Christians might point if they’re operating in a celebrity-endorsement mode.
When a subculture hitches its credibility to a star Christian athlete, and said athlete stumbles (as he eventually will), someone ends up with egg on his or His face. Of course, any embarrassment belongs not to God, but to those who would hold up something as fleeting as sports success as evidence for Christianity’s truth, while ignoring the innumerable cases of upstanding Christian figures who fail on the field. Don’t forget: Lots of those Pittsburgh Steelers victimized by Tebow’s heroics a week ago are deep-believing Christians, too.
Anyone with a well-developed handle on the meaning of Christian faith will tell you that God’s presence is not something that waxes and wanes like the fortunes of football players. This is one big reason why it has proved so compelling to so many people over the ages. As Tebow’s bad games and errant passes attest, a football player’s victories and stat-sheet digits are no place to look for Christianity’s vindication.
Sure, use Tim Tebow as your test case for Christianity. Use his irrepressible spirit, his impressive character, his exemplary treatment of his fellow human beings. As for his yardage totals and yards-per-completion percentages? Those are for the football gods.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is the author of the book Onward Christian Athletes on Christianity in professional sports.