Wednesday, December 14, 2011

G-d’s Quarterback?
Of humility, mindfulness and evangelism on - and off - the football field

I have a long love/hate relationship with Tim Tebow. As the former quarterback for one of my alma maters, the University of Florida Gators, Tebow was the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy and led his team to the national championship. In former years, that would have been cause for great celebration though in my graying years college football commands a fairly low level of my attention these days.

My sense of Tebow is that he is basically a nice young man. He is known for his ability to lead teams by whipping them into frenzies of esprit du corps. He has a rather charming “Aw, shucks” manner about him that is no doubt authentic arising from his upbringing in a part of Florida which marks the beginning of the Bible Belt, a region I tend to avoid at all costs. Generally, Tebow comes across as humble and respectable, a real credit to his momma and diddy, no doubt.

As he left the University of Florida, Tebow was roundly dismissed as incapable of surviving in professional football. His wide open approach to quarterbacking developed in high school football (his home schooling did not prevent him from playing for the local high school team under FHSAA rules) and honed at UF was seen as inconsistent with the rigor and pressures of professional play. And yet, under Tebow’s leadership which only began midway through the season, the Denver Broncos are now 7-1, many of those victories being carved out in the final seconds of the game after miserable Tebow performances for the first three quarters.

It’s this pattern that has led publications like the Wall Street Journal to run stories on what they are calling “God’s Quarterback.” Somehow, G_d takes time from the divine daily schedule to micromanage essentially meaningless athletic contests between two corporate entertainment units. While nothing short of ludicrous, that perception is fed by the behavior of people like Tim Tebow who routinely engages in the increasing tendency for players to point to the sky, supposedly to thank G-d for touchdowns, or to kneel in the end zone after the same. Tebow takes it a step further by thanking G-d and “Jesus Christ, my personal lord and savior” for his successes on the gridiron in his post-game interviews.

Murdoch Mindlessness

In the shameless religious right cheerleading which wound up in Rupert Murdoch’s formerly venerable rag, Tebow was described as having a “candid piety.” That evoked my response in the comments which follow the story:

Of course there is nothing candid about this piety. It's shameless, highly public and egotistical. If Tim had done a little better job reading his scripture he'd recognize himself in the Gospel of Luke: 18:11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people..." Or maybe he missed the verse in Matthew 6:6 "But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." I am a UF grad and admire Tim Tebow. But it's despite this inappropriate piety and self-focused proselytizing, not because of it.

Dueling Bible Verses

Not surprisingly, that drew a response from a no-doubt religious right reader who sought to engage in dueling bible verses:

Perhaps he was reading Matthew 10:32-33 - “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven" or Romans 10:8-10 - "[I]f you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved."…People love a humble spirit more than they love a Tiger Woods.

What a well trained evangelical. Never waste an opportunity to witness, regardless of how inane the testimony might be and how inappropriate the circumstances. I had to really pull back the throttle to respond:

"Perhaps he was reading Matthew 10:32-33 - “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men..."

Perhaps. But the context of this verse is much more appropriate in an actual religious setting. The context of Jesus' critique of the Pharisee is precisely that which has drawn the comments here - a public setting unrelated to religion in which the behavior was designed more to draw attention to the Pharisee than his faith.

That's the egocentrism I'm talking about. It's the presumptuousness that marks most adolescent college boys who feel the need to make their testimonies regardless of the context. It's the same egocentrism that quickly plays the role of the martyr when they are called on that inappropriateness and egocentrism. There is a time and a place for evangelism, if it absolutely must happen. The football field is neither. Frankly, a religion which manages to convert adherents by scoring winning touchdowns is observably rather shallow. But don't let that stop the true believer. After all, while the rhetoric may suggest it's all about G-d the behavior reveals it's all about me.

Again, I admire Tebow as an athlete, as a young man and as a fellow UF grad. But I find the perceived need of any athlete to improperly use the sporting arena to promote their limited vision of religion to be lamentable. If anything, the egocentrism and inappropriate behavior takes away from the performance worth holding up as an example. Moreover, the absurdity of suggesting that G-d has assisted one corporate sports team win a meaningless contest with another corporate sports team is astonishing.

I agree that people love a humble spirit. The problem is that this behavior displays just the opposite.

The Right to Limited Visions

No doubt my acontextual biblical sparring partner will not hear this. He has clearly bought into a vision of religion which is egocentric – the only real value of religion is to offer the believer a sense of existential security and a hope of a positive afterlife no matter how contrived. It’s also a vision which is highly tribal – we have an obligation to insure that everyone shares our perceptions of religion otherwise cognitive dissonance may set in and reveal that our socially constructed beliefs are not terribly believable. Therefore, any context will do to shore up our fragile faith system through gaining more people to affirm those beliefs. The bottom line is feeling secure.

Of course, the Tim Tebows of the world have the right under our First Amendment to articulate their limited visions of faith as they see fit, even to abuse the context of sporting events to do so. And the Murdochs of the world have the right under the same amendment to pimp the fears and play to the mindlessness of their readers so long as it brings them yet another buck. Finally, the religious right readers of the world have the right to engage in dueling bible verses, even as they are offered completely out of context.

But, Mr. Tebow’s conduct causes any admiration a thoughtful person might have for him to be qualified at best if not begrudging. Even more ironic, it is precisely this kind of conduct with its obliviousness to context that makes even a neutral stance toward his religious beliefs by outsiders difficult at best. My guess is that he is unaware of the irony in that and I fear he would no doubt be quick to cast himself in the egocentric martyr’s role if ever called on his adolescent behavior. Aw shucks only runs so deep and it only goes so far.

Clearly, humble, mindful athletes – and their supporters - are a rare breed. Perhaps that's why Jesus never played football?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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