At this moment, the most widely talked about evangelical Christian in America is not a pastor, though he is a pastor’s kid; not an evangelist, though his public displays of personal piety have probably caused more people to go scrambling to look up Bible verses than any evangelist in recent memory.
It’s Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, known for silently praying on one knee out on the football field, a signature gesture of faith that has become known as “Tebowing.” After last Sunday’s improbable but breathtaking overtime playoff victory against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Denver faithful were no doubt Tebowing all over the place.
In college, the Heisman Trophy winner was already known for wearing “John 3:16” and other citations of favorite Bible verses on his eyeblack during games. So it didn’t take long for people to notice that in Sunday’s victory, Tebow passed the ball for 316 yards, averaging a record 31.6 yards per completion. Mere coincidence–or a sign? The feat appears to have some people wondering if God is actually a Broncos fan.
I wonder what Roethlisberger, who is also a professing evangelical, would say.
Generally, we love our sports and sports heroes, especially those like Tebow who manage to repeatedly pull off what seem to be impossible–and therefore miraculous–wins. We’re used to hearing athletes credit God for those spectacular comebacks, even when their private lives seem, well, less than admirable. But Tebow’s public confessions of faith in Jesus seem to send some commentators into a frenzy. Bill Maher’s now-infamous tweet after the Broncos lost on Christmas Eve, for example, somehow managed to combine profanity, God, Satan, and Hitler all in one brief and gleeful rant.
I have to confess that I don’t quite get it. Maybe I should disqualify myself right from the start: I’m not a football fan. The game is responsible for the only real sports injury I’ve ever had. As a chubby, uncoordinated, and bespectacled junior-higher playing flag football, I was as surprised as anyone to find the ball in my hands on a broken play. My left ankle was fractured when I slipped on the wet grass and my teammates fell on top of me. Now there’s a highlight for you.
So I don’t really understand the extremes of passion on either side of Tebow-mania. There are those who want to vilify him, and those who want to venerate him. Some merely challenge the hype and criticize his skills as a quarterback. But Maher and others actually seem to hate the man. Many presume that Tebow is grandstanding, using religious antics to grab the spotlight, while others have actually begun speculating whether he might be the second coming of Christ (no, that’s not an exaggeration). If there’s anything that the opposing sides can agree on, it’s probably this: they’re both waiting for the outcome of the next game, so they can rise up and say, “Ha! I told you so.”
I can’t presume to judge either his motives or sincerity; I simply don’t know the man. I would certainly like to believe that he’s the clean-cut kid he seems to be–missionary activity and all–and have no compelling reason not to believe it. In today’s media-saturated, celebrity-crazy world, and the ego-driven debacles that accompany it, wouldn’t it be incredibly refreshing to see a young man of genuine faith who was able to stay humble in the midst of his growing success? Professional sports have certainly given us plenty of the opposite, and I’m open to something new.
But what I fear is that Tebow may actually be the real deal, and will get eaten alive in the fickle jungles of hero-worship, especially the variety that can crop up among Christians. It seems to me that sometimes we evangelicals are looking for someone prominent to back, someone whose every victory fills us with satisfaction and a Take that! form of bragging rights. For his fans, Tebow’s wins are already building a legend. But what happens when he loses? What happens if he never gets the Broncos to the promised land?
It’s possible to appreciate Tebow’s gifts and celebrate his success without his having to prove something for our benefit. Let’s face it: sports make great pastimes but lousy religions. Let the man play; let the man pray. And let’s just enjoy the game while we await the second coming of the real Jesus.
I hope that’s the way Tebow himself would want it.