Monday, December 12, 2011

Scoring Tebow-mania

Tim Tebow.

You don't need to be a football fanatic to have heard of him.

He's the sports cause célèbre of the moment; a new, young, dynamic, and photogenic NFL quarterback with a tall frame ensconced in enormous muscles and crowned by an all-American visage.

And claiming a faith in Jesus Christ he doesn't let anybody forget about.  Even as some of his fans in the sports world would rather dwell on his stellar athleticism instead.

So Young, and Already a Star

During his high school years, Tebow exhibited such outstanding football acumen, his parents rented an apartment in another district to establish residency so he could play on a better team.  Even despite his being homeschooled.  Today, as homeschooling continues growing in popularity, the precedent Tebow's family helped establish in Florida is directly contributing to new rules for letting homeschooled athletes in other states play on public school teams.

It was the multiple-award-winning collegiate pedigree Tebow accrued at the University of Florida that has given the sports media big expectations for his NFL career.  Perhaps Tebow's biggest prize to date came early, when he became the first sophomore to win college football's coveted Heisman Trophy.  While he was being groomed for prime time, however, Tebow's faith never lingered in the background.  Before graduating, he appeared as a national pitchman for conservative Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family, whose pro-life commercial airing during Super Bowl XLIV elicited howls of protest from pro-choice advocates.

The controversy fomented by the Super Bowl ad ultimately gave the commercial far more exposure to both the pro-life movement and Tebow than they otherwise might have gotten.  It also provided proof that Tim Tebow could attract broad, national recognition - whether it was good or bad, contributing to his allure in the media.

Turned out, too, that Tebow's mother had been encouraged by her doctors to abort his fetus due to some medical complications during her pregnancy with him, but she refused.  The contrast between that desperate hour years ago and the vibrant young man the Tebow's have raised doesn't favor the pro-choice agenda, after all.  It's the same faith-based belief of abortion equalling murder that Tebow, the football star, continues to profess in his own life.  And that continues to compete for attention with his gridiron prowess.

His is a faith that is not only Christian, but evangelical Christian, a flavor which has lost favor with many folks in our society.  And is misunderstood by many more.  For example, some sports pundits have begun crediting Tebow's faith with the improbable success Tebow's NFL employer, the Denver Broncos, has discovered this season; the Bronco's first season with Tebow, and Tebow's first post-college team.

It's an old superstition that refuses to die:  assuming God takes sides in sports.  Remember the late, great Tom Landry?  Even many Christians claimed he experienced success because of his faith, part of the long-observed fallacy that only good things happen to "good" people.  Yet the Bible teaches that the wicked sometimes prosper, while the righteous sometimes suffer.  And the countless "blessings" which God bestows on His faithful children don't necessarily come in the forms mankind considers desirable.

When it comes to sports, particularly since sometimes teams win for no good reason, and lose despite the odds in their favor, invoking the pleasure of God really only attempts to give the pastime more credibility than it deserves.

Football as the Catwalk Where Tebow Models His Faith?

To his credit, Tebow makes a point of supporting virtues like sobriety, chastity, and clean speech that have been marginalized in our society. Unfortunately, however, he sometimes appears to feed this stereotype about God, human performance, and the conventional Christian sports persona. He makes a now-famous spectacle of bowing to pray on one knee during games, and predictably gushes about God whenever a microphone is stuffed in his face.

Not that gushing about God at every opportunity is a bad thing.  But it could eventually become ineffective as a ministry tool.  It's like the age-old dilemma between street preaching and personal evangelism. In the same way that the Bible never tells us to literally couch every public interaction with overt theology, claims that Tebow is overdoing it with his constant proselytizing are not only understandable, they're not exclusive to the secular media.  After a while, making a dramatic public display of devotion to God after key plays during a game tends to appear more like sanctimonious shtick than sacrificial praise. 

But even then, mocking Tebow's demonstrativeness like many in the media and public do, however questionable those acts may be, is a dangerous practice.  God does not suffer lightly those who belittle any of His servants, whether it's Tim Tebow, or you, or me.

Interestingly, after he graduated from the University of Florida, the NCAA banned one of Tebow's favorite - and most intriguing - evangelism tools.  Tebow had become famous for wearing eye paint emblazoned with Scripture verses that tens of millions of people would Google after his games.  The NCAA maintains that other college athletes did the same thing, albeit with non-religious messages, and they wanted to end the trend before it got out of hand.  What's interesting about the NCAA's actions, though, is that plenty, far more questionable practices continue to abound in college sports than what athletes wear under their eyes.

Because that eye paint messaging in college - and a questionable residency switcheroo so he could play on a particular high school team - comprise the only remotely scandal-esque episodes attributable to Tim Tebow, there's not much controversy about the guy.  His squeaky-clean image, coupled with his proven athleticism, have helped Tebow become a media darling. But not because the media adores his morality any more than their consumers do. Tebow is a media darling precisely because his lifestyle so starkly contrasts with our culture, and ironically, Americans can't seem to get enough of it. Not to emulate it, necessarily.  But to ogle at it, and maybe even watch to see how long it lasts.

Fame, Faith, and What the Media Really Wants to See

Tebow news doesn't just run on the sports pages anymore.  We read about it in mainstream newspapers, we surf it on social blogs and websites, and we chat about it on FaceBook and Twitter.  For the most part, America's media machine either pretends it's really charmed by the guy, or at least convinced his undeniable success is more fluke than farce.  Yet increasingly, it's hard to escape the media's cynical build-up of a public character that many people may privately hope self-destructs in some dramatic fall from grace.

Because in the end, that's what entertainment in America has come to these days. Not celebrating a person during the good times, but gloating about a person's weaknesses during bad times.  Might spending all this time and effort on favorable coverage of Tebow be the price Big Media has to pay in order to score the big bucks when scandal eventually hits?

Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of this is due to the fact that most writers and producers in American media don't have a clue about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nor do most of their consumers, if over 90 million viewers - ninety million! - have to Google "John 3:16" to know what it is.  To them, Tebow is speaking some ancient language of some relic religion that does more to validate his naive Southern upbringing than affirming adherence to a creed more powerful than anything on this planet.

Just today, in conjunction with a similarly-themed article, CNN ran a reader poll on its website asking, "Is the success of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow attributable to God?"

But that's not the question, is it?  Success in sports victories is not the type of reward God grants His followers simply because they're His followers.  What about all the athletes of faith who never make the team?  What about any of the born-again football players against whom Tebow has ever played?

If CNN knew what it was talking about, they'd have worded the question, "Is Tim Tebow attributing his success as the Denver Broncos quarterback to God?"

And I think that even people who don't believe in God would admit that yes, he is.  Not all of us may agree with how he's doing it, but nobody can deny that he's doing it.  And isn't that more than can be said for most of us?

Which also means that those of us who share his faith need to pray for him.  After all, he's good-looking enough to make really squalid headlines if he falls into sexual sin.  He's already won enough sporting awards to make imperious sports reporters crow incessantly should he collapse under the media glare.  And whether it's been through his own extraordinary effusiveness or the media's preoccupation with his faith, if Tebow compromises the Gospel, Christianity will likely take a massive public relations hit.

Not that people of faith live to relish the praise of others.  Or that Tebow needs to live under a constant fear of failure.  Yet to the extent that he's participated in the creation of a Christian sports persona for himself, we believers should care about him enough to not assume that Satan isn't watching from the sidelines, salivating at the chance to so publicly wreak a little havoc against the Kingdom.

After all, even with all that he's accomplished, Tebow's still only human.  With abilities that are more easily visible to the naked eye, surely, than perhaps yours or mine.  Yet with a soul just as significant to God as yours and mine.

To the extent that Tebow wants his fame deferred to His Creator, then let's prayerfully support him as we would any of the rest of us who name the name of Christ.

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