Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tebow and Jeffress Have Dropped the Ball

Some trust in chariots and horses.

Some also trust in preachers and sports celebrities.

I don't trust in any of them.  After all, even though we know preachers and sports celebrities can't save us from our sins, we still trust them to save us from less fulfilled lives.  I've come to the conclusion that if hero worship isn't wrong, it's at least woefully unproductive.

As you might imagine, some evangelicals jeer when I bluntly say I have no heroes.

"Oh, sure you do!" they retort.  "What about Elizabeth Elliott or Nate Saint?  What about Amy Carmichael or Billy Graham or William Wilberforce?"


The idea that we all need mortal heroes to model our lives after seems such an intrinsic part of our human nature, it confounds people when I flatly denounce the idea.

"What about the 'Heroes of the Faith' extolled by the writer of the book of Hebrews?" friends of mine will persist.  But we forget that this chapter is about faith, not heroes.  It's been scholars, preachers, and Sunday School teachers who've lumped all of those famous Biblical characters into the category of "hero."  Meanwhile, the author of Hebrews was pointing out how they trusted in God, and how God used them despite their deficiencies, hence all of the "by faith" clarifications.  Read Hebrews 11 carefully, and you'll see that while their actions may have been what we'd consider to be heroic, their examples are to point us to God.

Can you see Moses, or David, or even Rahab going on the lecture circuit today, giving seminars on faith and raising funds for their personal ministries and charities?  These were flawed, sinful, and even sometimes extraordinarily corrupt people whom God plucked out of the times and places in which they were living for His use.  Not their glory.

And can't the same be said for people like Jim and Elizabeth Elliott, and even William Wilberforce?  They're famous today because of what they allowed God to do through them, and while Mrs. Elliott may have made a career out of lectures, speeches, and books, it's entirely possible that she viewed the adulation that followed her around the world more as a casualty of her ministry than a benefit of it.

I think most solid, Christ-centered believers who happen to be famous view whatever celebrity status they have in our Christian culture in the same light.  Maybe it's just my cynicism at work, but it seems to me that the people who most actively court attention are the ones who probably are the ones who shouldn't be.

Apparently, "Risk" Isn't Really Part of Tebow's Vocabulary

So to hear this morning that Jets football sensation Tim Tebow has cancelled an upcoming appearance at First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas neither surprises me, or even disappoints me.  According to First Baptist's pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, Tebow called him and explained that since his role at the New York Jets is up in the air right now, "for personal and professional reasons," he can't afford to add any more bad media exposure to his resume than what he's already been dealing with.

And yes, the media had been loudly criticizing the NFL star for even being willing to make a personal appearance at what some consider - in the ironic twist that is left-wing "hate" speech - a hate-mongering church.

Tebow's already been excoriated in New York's media cauldron for all sorts of deficiencies on the field.  His Jets coaches barely hide their disdain of him, and his years of sometimes silly Christian grandstanding plays crudely in the nation's largest and most caustic sports town.  Our national press loves Tebow because of his studly good looks and his gushing fan base, both of which virtually guarantee lots of attention to any coverage of him, but that fan base is located mostly in middle America - an area of the country just as pejoratively maligned by both armchair quarterbacks and the press as Tebow himself.

First Baptist Has Its Own Motives Issue

And what of First Baptist Dallas?  This venerable megachurch has served as the Southern Baptist's flagship congregation for generations, and just as its most famous pastor, Dr. W.A. Criswell, could set local tongues wagging with his gaudy self-aggrandizement, its current pastor, although appearing far more stoic in his dark business suits and bland executive-style haircuts, has made a name for himself by boldly speaking out on a variety of hot social topics.

Only these days, it's not just north Texas watching the goings-on from First Baptist's towering downtown campus with a mixture of agreement, bemusement, and incredulity; it's the entire world, thanks to modern communication technology.  Only the rest of the world isn't as socially and politically conservative as our little corner of it.  And there's precious little agreement even here in Big D with the things Dr. Jeffress has been saying.

Granted, lots of what Jeffress has been quoted as saying has actually been misquoted, or taken out of context, by a hostile media.  I've heard him live on our local TV news stations here, talking about homosexuality and Islam, and I've found him to be kind, patient, and eager to explain things from a Biblical perspective.

Most of the problems people seem to have with Jeffress isn't what he says, per say, but their own inability to translate what he says into a secular mindset that embraces few moral absolutes and honors God's sovereignty.  There truly is a point at which the Gospel of Christ is foolishness to those who don't believe it, and more often than not, Jeffress breaches that point, even as he's being earnest in his desire for clarity.  Of course, that's not Jeffress' fault, but the media and his unsaved audience prefer to blame him, instead of themselves.

So it's not just that First Baptist Dallas is what many in America's coastal media markets consider to be controversial, it's that, as Jeffress himself explains, society has changed, and God's Word hasn't.

However, what adds to First Baptist's PR woes is that it's just constructed a mammoth new $115-million-dollar facility - itself a point of consternation for critics of wasted resources by religious groups.  With the congregation's neighborhood downtown turning into a glitzy arts district, and more people moving downtown to live in urbane apartments, not to mention the city's wealthy mayor at the time being one of their most prominent members, First Baptist realized it could afford to fantasize about the physical image it wanted to project.  So they tore down some of their older - yet still functional - buildings to make way for a sweeping new worship complex, a glassy bauble juxtaposed alongside its traditional brick sanctuary (which they're preserving to ameliorate the ire of historic preservationists.)  And, just as the church wants to wow Dallasites with flashy architecture, they'd hoped Tebow's celebrity would spice up their grand opening celebrations. 

The fact that the church was able to raise $115 million in just seven months has been lauded by Baptists across Texas as a "tremendous" act of God, but others have wondered if all that money has brought more prestige to Jeffress and his flock than unadulterated honor to God Himself.  Having somebody like Tim Tebow come and help inaugurate their new digs could have only made it more spectacle than sanctification.  After all, while Tebow has honed his Christian image with chunky cross necklaces, "Tebowing" after significant plays on the gridiron, and pro-life television commercials, he has yet to convincingly articulate a personal faith in Jesus Christ that goes beyond thanking God for the cushy life he's been able to live.  It's an easy-faith message that has played more to the shallow Joel Osteen side of Christendom than the dogmatic John MacArthur side.  And while the teens and single women at First Baptist would have been thrilled at an appearance by Tebow, how disconnected a vignette would that have been to the homeless panhandlers and throngs of gay hipsters for whom a gentrifying downtown has become home?

Idol Worship Gets Us Every Time

Okay, so the NFL is trying to get its players to tone down the anti-gay bigotry, and it's a given that the pro-gay-marriage lobby would have complained bitterly about Tebow's appearance on the same stage as Jeffress, whom they erroneously consider to be an arch-enemy of theirs.  But how out of touch with normal evangelical culture has Tebow been to not have known the accusations swirling around Jeffress?  Tebow tweeted that "new information" had been brought to his attention, as if Jeffress hasn't spent years rocking the politically correct boat.  And if Tebow's public relations folks had no idea who Jeffress is, couldn't they have Googled him way before inking the personal appearance contract with First Baptist?  Instead, they cover up their blunder with a sloppy, vapid tweet about continuing "to use the platform God has blessed me with to bring Faith, Hope and Love to all those needing a brighter day."

Sounds like Tebow needs those three things more that the hapless folks he thinks need a "brighter day."  If he had true faith in Christ, he'd know that even if his PR agency got him a gig they decided would be bad for him, he could trust that Christ could use his appearance at First Baptist for God's glory.  Not his own.

That's a major fail for a guy many evangelicals have been idolizing as a Christian hero.

Hebrews 11 reminds us that Moses "chose to be mistreated along with the people of God."  Other faithful servants of God "faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated - the world was not worthy of them."

And Tebow is apparently worried about his NFL career?

First Baptist has already tried to diffuse the situation by saying they'd be glad to welcome Tebow back at some other time.  Jeffress told a reporter today that he'd "never condemn" Tebow for doing "what he thinks is right."

Oh, really?  Not only has Tebow given First Baptist a good reason why they should not reschedule his celebrity appearance at their glitzy new church home, but Jeffress has weakened his own platform when it comes to calling sin a sin.  He's comfortable branding Mormonism a cult - which it is - and homosexual marriage a travesty - which it is, but he can't bring himself to point out the fallacy in Tebow's excruciatingly public misstep.

If you're going to fashion yourself as a hero of the faith, don't you gotta have the faith?

Still, I'm very sorry for Tebow, especially since, if evangelicals spent less time fussing over Christian celebrities and more time focusing their hero worship onto Christ, Tebow likely wouldn't have fumbled so publicly in the first place.

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