Thinking Evangelically About Tim Tebow
I like Tim Tebow a lot. As an athlete and a person. Two seasons ago his run with the Denver Broncos, though for the sober-minded somewhat ill-fated, was thrilling to watch. He’s fun to root for, on and off the field. Like many Christians and sports fans, I have enjoyed Tebowmania, don’t mind the constant ESPN stories, and really hope he lands a starting gig with an NFL team.
As a Patriots fan, I was overjoyed when he signed with New England in the off-season. I suppose the Patriots ended up with one of the few third-string quarterbacks the fans were excited to watch. And we really wanted him to succeed. I was disappointed when he was cut, but I understand that football is football, and as much as the Patriots organization enjoyed and admired Tebow, they are ultimately in the business of winning football games. If Belichick and company really believed Tebow would be integral in getting to the playoffs and winning another championship, they would not have cut him.
But I’m a little concerned about the way many of my fellow evangelicals think about the phenomenon that is Tim Tebow, and I’m a little concerned about the way Tim Tebow may think about the phenomenon that is Tim Tebow. I think in general evangelicals could think more evangelically — which is to say, guided by the gospel, soberly. Some thoughts:
1. People who follow me regularly on Twitter know that I tweet a lot about NFL football. And I usually do so in a joking, even sarcastic, manner. I enjoy football a lot. Making fun of the players and teams is my way of not enjoying it too much (let the reader understand). I am up-front about my “man-crush” on Tom Brady and take all the ribbing this entitles me too. And I hope I give as much as I get. It’s all in good fun for me. I don’t hate anybody I joke about. Most people understand this. Except when I make a joke about Tebow. Most of my Tebow jokes poke fun at aspects of Christian culture, having some fun about his squeaky clean image. (“Tebow was late to practice because he was slipping tracts in his teammates’ lockers.” That kind of thing.) Some people understand I’m being light-hearted and that I actually like Tebow. Many people do not. Some have accused me not just of hating the guy but of damaging the testimony of the gospel.
2. I think we need to make a clear distinction between the reputation of the gospel and our desire to see Christian “celebrities” succeed. When we don’t, we lose our sense of humor. And what makes a better witness for the gospel — being super-serious about a Christian role model or demonstrating that we can have a sense of humor about ourselves? I fear that the Tebow-mania is just another manifestation of the way evangelicals think cultural cache and celebrity influence is vital to the cause of Christ. When I read the Bible, I see the opposite, actually, how God uses the low, the weak, the despised, the cultural cast-offs to further his kingdom. I am not against Christians in the entertainment or athletic spotlights, of course, but I am against the idolization of these people, which I think much of our fandom becomes. To be clear: The cause of Christ is not dependent on Tim Tebow’s success in the NFL. And, by the way, neither is his witness! So:
3. What do we communicate to young Christians when we overlook Tebow’s obvious deficiencies because of his faith? When we insist that his being cut is the result of his outspoken faith, that he’s some kind of martyr? I think we inadvertently teach that 1) you can only make an impact for God if you are high-profile, and 2) you should never admit your weaknesses or flaws because God works best through the strong and powerful.
4. I think evangelicals have an honesty problem when it comes to this part of the cultural marketplace. (I’m about to be pretty blunt.) We think our concert-like church services rival MTV and Disney. But they really don’t. We think our mainstream Christian music and Christian movies are just as artful as the best of the world’s offerings. But they really aren’t. We think if we pass around the right email stories and sketchy news links we will save America (or whatever). But we won’t. And we think our favorite Christian role models are the untouchable anointed. But they aren’t. What I’m saying is: It is not helpful, nor even Christian, to not be honest about Tim Tebow. So:
5. It’s becoming clear to most sober-minded folks that Tebow’s skill-set is not conducive to being a starting quarterback in the NFL. It says nothing about his character or faith to make this admission. He is, by all indications, a great guy with a great testimony and a great heart. This does not make him a great quarterback. And to be more direct, I have to wonder if anyone close to Tebow is enabled to speak truthfully to him about this matter. When he was cut from the Patriots roster last week, he characteristically went out with his head high and respect on display. On his Twitter, he thanked the Patriots organization for the opportunity, and then he tweeted a few Bible verses, and then he tweeted that his dream is still to be an NFL quarterback. Now, perhaps this dream is realistic. But most people, including people who want it to be realistic, are acknowledging it doesn’t seem realistic at all. He’s had ample opportunities. Here’s my thing: The NFL is full of starting players who played one position in college that is not their position today. This includes college starting quarterbacks who find their place in the NFL as safeties, running backs, tight ends, etc. I just have to ask: At what point is Tebow’s inflexibility about his dream actually a manifestation of pride? At what point does he need to say, “Well, I can’t be a quarterback, but I will play fullback”? I can’t say. Maybe you can’t say. But surely we are close to that day? I don’t know. I just hope he doesn’t ride his stubborn dream into athletic obscurity. He is, I think, talented enough to play in the NFL, but (probably) not as quarterback. I will close with this:
6. “Follow your dreams and don’t give up” is a message our young people hear a lot. Like, a lot. But it is not a uniquely Christian message. Divorced from the clear commands of Scripture and without the heart-shaping of the gospel of Jesus Christ, “follow your dreams and don’t give up” is actually a recipe for self-exaltation. Maybe we can help the church, especially our young believers, and maybe we can help Tebow himself, by taking him off the pedestal and loving him enough to believe that it’s not very Christlike to deceive ourselves or push headlong into a dream that might ought to be sacrificed. (I’m just thinking aloud here. Maybe he’ll get signed by the Buffalo Bills or something.)
I expect a lot of push-back on this post. And that’s okay. Thanks for reading it.