Friday, January 20, 2012

Thoughts on the Tebowing Phenomenon

Much has been made recently of Tim Tebow's spirituality on the field, particularly his religious genuflection as a testament to his Christian faith.  Sally Jenkins wrote an article in defense of Tebow's expression of faith and wonders why so many people are bothered by it.  Here's a fairly lengthy quotation from the piece that gets at the crux of the issue:

What’s more interesting is why Maher, and other political commentators from Bill Press to David Shuster, feel compelled to rip on Tebow simply for kneeling.

“I’m tired of hearing Tim Tebow and all this Jesus talk,” Press said, adding a profane suggestion that Tebow should shut up. They act like he’s trying to personally strip them of their religious liberty, manipulate the markets, and take over our strategic oil transport routes.

What is so threatening about Tebow? It can’t be his views. Tebow has never once suggested God cares about football. Quite the opposite. It’s Maher and company who stupidly suggest a Tebow touchdown scores one for Evangelicals whereas an interception somehow chalks one up for atheism. Anyone who listens to Tebow knows he doesn’t do Jesus talk, he’s mostly show and no tell. His idea of proselytizing is to tweet an abbreviated Bible citation. Mark 8:36. He leaves it up to you whether to look it up. When he takes a knee, it’s perfectly obvious that it’s an expression of humility. He’s crediting his perceived source, telling himself, don’t forget where you came from. On the whole, it’s more restrained than most end-zone shimmies.

So why does Tebow’s expression of faith make people so silly-crazy? Why do they care what he does?

Because he emphasizes the aspect of his talent that is given, not earned.
I've been thinking about this a lot, because the Tim Tebow phenomenon bothers me, too; but I can honestly say that Jenkins' explanation in my case is completely false. My discomfort with "Tebowing" is not that he's emphasizing "an aspect of his talent that is given, not earned." I really have no issues at all with that. What bothers me is that Tebow has always consciously played into the Christian culture wars, and I don't see his Tebowing as an innocent gesture of his faith. It may not be a spiritual proselytization, but I think it is clearly a political commentary on the idea of pushing faith in the public square.

In fact, that's why it's his particular gestures of faith on the playing field, as opposed to the hundreds of other gestures of faith that athletes regularly display on the playing field, have resonated so powerfully not only among the likes of Bill Maher, but also among the likes of Pat Robertson. There are hundreds of baseball players who make the sign of the cross as they come up to bat. There are basketball players who emblazon Christian symbols on their bodies (i.e. Jamario Moon). In NASCAR racing, Christian symbolism is extensive.

So why does Tebow elicit so much attention concerning his expression of Christian faith? To get the answer, all one needs to do is to remember how Tebow and faith became so prominent an issue. Remember the anti-abortion Tebow commercial that was supposed to air on Superbowl Sunday? This happened while Tebow was still a quarterback at the University of Florida. And there was no question that this was a politically motivated culture war sortie.  Moreover, Tebow himself supported and promoted it.

What bothers me is that Tebow himself has very much played a part in politicizing his faith; and any subsequent expressions of his faith on the field in full public display must be taken in this context. My discomfort is with that.

I really and truly don't care that Tebow has a strong faith and is confident to express it publicly. And it wouldn't even cross my mind as anything bothersome if he were to do in on the field without the politicized context that he himself has shrouded it with. And the simple fact is that I get uncomfortable when I know that anyone has politicized his faith and then foists that faith on me against my will. I don't watch football as a political statement in the culture wars. And Tim Tebow, unfortunately, has made his expressions of faith into political statements. That is why it bothers me. And that is why I think Andrew Sullivan is on to something about why Tebow's faith on the field should be problematic for Christians.

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