Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tebowie: The Tone Deaf Would-Be Hero

Jimmy Fallon has outdone himself this time. I love Jimmy, particularly his ability to laugh at himself and others, giggling amidst his routines. But his recent video in which he combines David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Tim Tebow’s antics on and off the football field is priceless.

Dressed as Bowie, complete with Mohawk, platform boots and face paint, Fallon combines Tebow’s Bronco’s jersey and sings the following:

"Tim Tebow to Jesus Christ...commencing fourth-down hut, hut, hike.
Snap the football and may G-d’s love be with me….
This is Jesus Christ to Tim Tebow...
please leave me alone...
don't you know my day of rest is Sunday...
and I'm sick of watching all these Broncos games.
I hear you play New England next week.
Dude, you’re on your own…."

It's clever and amusing. And, in Fallon’s inimitable manner, he manages to tread gingerly on a subject that has roused passionate commentary both for and against the young man some are calling “G-d’s quarterback.” My guess is that even Timmy boy probably found it entertaining.

Civil Liberties v. Consideration for Others

I find myself puzzled at why I find this whole thing so troubling. As a civil libertarian, I strongly support Tebow’s right to speak freely and to believe as he sees fit. But what troubles me about his behavior is what I see as an increasing tendency in a media-driven culture to think in the superficial and simplistic terms lacking context or complexity, a pattern that underlies most fundamentalisms today.

The question is not whether Tebow can presume that G-d has provided him the sports arena for proselytizing as he has suggested. Clearly he does presume that. Rather, the question is why he would.

The other question is why he would presume a right to ignore and thus abuse the context of this behavior so completely. There are many in his audiences who do not wish to have simplistic religious ideation imposed upon them as the cost for watching a professional sporting event. While Tebow has the right to believe and express himself as he sees fit, the question is why he does not recognize and honor the responsibilities to others which his behaviors ignore and trample in the process. As with most adolescent libertarians, a focus on individual rights, freedoms and liberties almost inevitably ends up in the trampling of the rights of others and the demeaning of the public sphere.

Tone Deafness to Context

I should quickly add here that I do not share the view that some are asserting that Tebow should somehow be prohibited from his network proselytizing. We’re not talking about a breach of protocol such as Robert Novak’s revelation in The Washington Post of Valerie Plame’s undercover status as a CIA agent, a move designed to besmirch her husband Joe Wilson’s reputation and protect George Bush’s deceit which prompted our invasion of Iraq. Novak’s column cost a number of lives of Plame’s contacts around the world and would result in the indictment of Bush aide Scooter Libby.

Tebow’s conduct, on the other hand, is more analogous to the frat boy who shows up at the wedding rehearsal party intoxicated and includes in his toast comments bawdy stories about bride-to-be laced with profanities. In other contexts (such as the locker room) the off-color sexual jokes and the crude language might be appropriate but not in a setting where such behavior is unexpected and undesired by the bulk of the attendees. It’s not behavior that merits intervention or punishment, it’s simply inappropriate given the context and a failure of consideration for others.

I also find the critique of many who see Tebow as somehow insincere or hypocritical as pretty shallow. I have no doubt that Tebow believes what he says. Indeed, I sense that it is precisely those beliefs from which his work in charity arises.

What is perhaps most frustrating for this Franciscan in watching this debacle is that Tebow’s actions off the field make a far more convincing case for his religious beliefs than anything he might say at a press conference or any pious theodrama performed in an endzone. Here Timmy might learn an important lesson from another young man of privilege who after conversion spent a lifetime serving the less fortunate of his day. St. Francis of Assisi might well sit down this young quarterback and teach him an important lesson: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words – and theatrics – only when necessary.”

Gratitude for Unearned Privilege, Not Divine Favor

What is ironic in the many paeans to Tebow flooding the internet and airwaves is that the overriding commentary seeks to construct an image of this young man as somehow humble. For the most part, Tim is respectful of his teammates (though clearly not his audience) and like most evangelicals who confuse conventional middle class morality with religion probably wouldn’t utter profanities like “Shit!” even if he had a mouthful. He’s a good boy, as we say here in the South.

But, like most evangelicals, he is also entirely lacking in insight when it comes to his religion. After his miraculous comeback performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, tossing a pass for an 80 yard touchdown in overtime to stay alive in the NFL playoffs, Tebow reacted as follows:

Teow after congratulating his Roman receiver knelt on one knee and thanked God. His recollections convey the essential Tebow. "When I saw him scoring," recalled the victorious quarterback, "first of all, I just thought, 'Thank you, Lord.' (from R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., “Thank you, God, for Tim Tebow,” American Spectator)

In all honesty, Tebow has much to be thankful for. If he’s being honest with himself, he will thank G-d for winning the genetic lottery that provided him with the superior musculature, speed and endurance that have helped him become a professional athlete. A single allele on his DNA chain configured differently and he could have been born with Downs Syndrome or a spina bifida. He is also the beneficiary of unearned privilege as a white, straight male born into a wealthy family in a culture which provides unearned privilege for all of those attributes.

There is also nothing inappropriate about thanking G-d for a performance which evidences the best and fullest use of all the skills one has been given the potential to develop. Being the best football player that a man with Tebow’s potential has been given is admirable. Indeed, anything less would squander those gifts, a failure of both gratitude and self-actualization.

Where Tebow goes off the rails – and loses all pretenses of humility - is when his words and behaviors suggest that somehow the divine intervenes in that performance to permit him and his team victory over another team. There’s a great deal of difference between praying that G-d will help you to do your very best given the gifts you have been privileged to receive and worked hard to develop and suggesting that somehow G-d was involved in the outcome of a sporting event.

The Gods were not smiling Sunday

Tebow’s behavior suggests a very limited vision of the deity. It is little different from the tribal gods of any honor-shame culture in which one’s validity and value are presumed from victory and the favor of the gods as instrumental to that victory. The clear implication is that the god is on the side of the winner, an idea which dates to ancient cultures which long precede the evangelical Protestantism that Mr. Tebow practices.

Moreover, when Tebow, like most evangelicals, speaks of Jesus Christ as his “personal lord and savior” to whom credit for an athletic performance must be given, the implication of such a statement is that the deity has somehow chosen this particular individual to favor. Somehow, seeing Tim Tebow in the same light as the saints of the church or the Hebrew prophets just doesn’t ring true. And as the second playoff game against New England suggests, this is a fickle deity. Indeed, using the honor/shame tribal deity interpretation, either the gods loved Tom Brady and his Patriots more than Tebow and his Broncos or the latter must have done something major to offend the gods. Thank G-d Colorado has outlawed human sacrifice.

I watched the Tebow fall from grace in snatches between watching the very moving The King’s Speech on Showtime and the smarmy Collision with Earth on SyFy. It made for a rather surreal post-modern experience made possible by remote controls and the multiple channels of the cable television age. I’m glad to have had some alternatives to the drubbing in Gillette Stadium. While I wasn’t particularly invested in the game, I have to admit that by half-time, I was feeling positively sorry for Tebow. I like this kid and I continue to think he’s generally a nice young man if a bit hard headed. And that night, nice guys not only finished last, they were positively embarrassed.

The pre-game show featured Tebow engaging some disabled young adults, hugging them, smiling and laughing. This is a Tebow who is eminently admirable. How much of that is NFL and television channel puffery and how much is real is unclear. But given Tebow’s work with charities away from the field, I tend to think it’s perhaps more indicative of his character than his religious rantings. Which is why his periodic lapses into a glazed over automaton status to proselytize inappropriately are so troubling.

Like most evangelicals, Tebow is tone deaf to the counterproductive potential of his endeavors. Where a handful of religious conservatives and social conservative bloggers will no doubt find Tebow’s religious antics on and off the field to be acceptable if not admirable, to the wider public the lack of consideration for others is immediately evident. Never underestimate the conservative devotion to self-interest and corresponding oblivion to duties to others.

A Tribal Deity in a Commercial Venue

But what is the implication of a religion which demands its followers seek to impose their religion in any venue regardless of the context? What kind of G-d would invert the Great Commandment such that the consideration of the feelings of one’s neighbor implicit in loving them as oneself would be entirely negated in an obsessive drive to convert them to one’s religious ideational system? What demons of doubt drive such obsessions?

Finally, what kind of religion would find commercial sporting venues appropriate for proselytizing? The selling of a faith in a G-d who supposedly stands outside of time - much less his own creation - in venues which emphasize instant gratification consumerism (it’s all about me) and competition (he who dies with the most toys wins) does not speak of gods who are eternal and omnipotent. Rather it speaks to constructions of the divine whose credibility and compelling natures turn on the vicissitudes of the market and the sporting arena. That’s perhaps a very American way of constructing G-d but it hardly speaks to a G-d worth trusting, much less worshipping.

At some level, I also see this as a matter of maturity. Tebow is young. He has much growing up to do both athletically as well as personally. In time, perhaps he will learn important lessons about the freedoms of expression and religion and the contextual concerns for time, place and manner not to mention consideration of others. It is my prayer that he does. I have supported him for a long time and I continue to do so now despite my reservations about his religious behaviors. As always, I continue to wish Tim Tebow well. Go Gator!

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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