Feels like the blog’s been a little too focused on history of late, so I’m dwelling a bit more on current events and popular culture this week. And, at the risk of my least favorite of the four major professional team sports showing up in this blog’s tag cloud, that attitude seems to beg a post on Tim Tebow.

Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow - Creative Commons (Jeffrey Beall)

While you might suspect that I’m Tebowing in a transparent bid for higher page view numbers, my interest is an honest and recent one, as my own hometown team was the latest victim of the Tebow magic this past week. Though fortunately I was busy showing our kids how to video chat with their grandparents and missed the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Vikings’ last-second loss to the now (say it with me) division-leading Denver Broncos.

Still, I saw enough of that game — and have paid enough attention to Tebow’s career, especially the last two months of it — that I don’t think Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King was exaggerating the next day in his “Monday Morning QB” column, where he called Tebow’s “the best story in sports. Shoot, and maybe the best story overall.”

The “best story in sports” not simply because he’s the author of a sizable winning streak built on repeated fourth quarter heroics, but because any success he enjoys seems so surprising to NFL insiders (his own coach and general manager included). I love that an inaccurate quarterback running a high school offense can win with such regularity for the same reason that I was a fan of the supposedly undersized Doug Flutie, the same reason that I root for knuckleball pitchers and goalies who refuse to butterfly: they defy the expectations of an increasingly industrial sports culture dominated by coaches and executives who trademark a successful system that specializes labor to the point that players become replaceable parts of a machine.

But R.A. Dickey and Evgeni Nabokov don’t get Tebow’s press. So the “best story overall” at least in the sense that it seems to inspire commentary from all sorts of writers who may not even know what the spread option is but fall all over themselves either to praise or condemn one marginally talented pro quarterback. Or to spin out from his story some commentary on the spirit of the times. One of the most interesting essays of this type came yesterday from Chuck Klosterman, who suggested that the reason for the attention (especially the negative kind) paid to Tebow is that “His faith in God, his followers’ faith in him — it all defies modernity.”

Oh, did I mention that Tim Tebow is an evangelical Christian? Perhaps you haven’t heard. (Or that his parents are missionaries and his foundation benefits Filipino orphans — here he is on The Daily Show talking about that topic with more self-deprecation than his critics probably think he possesses.) And he’s an unusually vocal one in a profession whose members typically either (a) bend over backwards to be appealing to everyone by not saying anything remotely off-putting to anyone (see: Michael “Republicans Buy Sneakers Too” Jordan), or (b) exhibit a religiosity that seems to start and stop with ascribing success (but not failure) to God’s blessing on them (but not their opponents — or, sometimes, their teammates).

I give Tebow credit (as I would athletes of other faiths, like Muhammad Ali and Sandy Koufax) for refusing to keep his faith private and compartmentalized. After former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer proclaimed himself weary of hearing Tebow talking about his faith (“I think that when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ then I think I’ll like him a little better. I don’t hate him because of that, I just would rather not have to hear that every time he takes a good snap or makes a good handoff”), Tebow responded:

If you’re married, and you have a wife, and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife, I love her, the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and have the opportunity? And that’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ. It is the most important thing in my life, so every opportunity I have to tell him I love him, or I’m given an opportunity to shout him out on national TV, I’m going to take that opportunity.

Which, as a fellow evangelical, I can understand entirely. Loving Jesus Christ, and being loved by him, is the central fact of my life, and sharing that love is imperative. But as a Pietist evangelical, I’m also very much aware that a movement emphasizing public piety also risks pharisaism (see Luke 18:9-14).

Tebow, it seems to me, comes off far more like the publican than the pharisee. Still, it’s been interesting to hear two vastly more talented Christian quarterbacks weigh in on this question and advise Tebow to witness in a different fashion.

First, Kurt Warner: while very similar to Tim Tebow in having burst into NFL stardom as an outspoken evangelical, he advised Tebow in a recent interview with the Arizona Republic (H/T Christianity Today) to speak more quietly about his faith:

Kurt and Brenda Warner
Kurt Warner and wife Brenda, visiting Indonesian victims of the 2004 tsunami - U.S. Navy

You can’t help but cheer for a guy like that… But I’d tell him, “Put down the boldness in regards to the words, and keep living the way you’re living. Let your teammates do the talking for you. Let them cheer on your testimony.”

I know what he’s going through, and I know what he wants to accomplish, but I don’t want anybody to become calloused toward Tim because they don’t understand him, or are not fully aware of who he is. And you’re starting to see that a little bit….

There’s almost a faith cliche, where [athletes] come out and say, “I want to thank my Lord and savior”… As soon as you say that, the guard goes up, the walls go up, and I came to realize you have to be more strategic.

The greatest impact you can have on people is never what you say, but how you live. When you speak and represent the person of Jesus Christ in all actions of your life, people are drawn to that. You set the standard with your actions. The words can come after.

Peter King reported a similar but even more intriguing comment from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, made on his local radio show:

Well I started playing before Tim, so these are things I’ve thought about for a long time, and I think one thing that I try to look at when I was a younger player, and I mean, in high school, junior college and Division I, I was always interested in seeing how guys talked in their interviews, talked about their faith, or didn’t talk about their faith. And then the reactions at times, I know Bob Costas at one point was critical about a player thanking Jesus Christ after a win, questioning what would happen if that player had lost, or do you really think God cares about winning and losing.

I feel like my stance and my desire has always been to follow a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” So basically, I’m not an over-the-top, or an in-your-face kind of guy with my faith. I would rather people have questions about why I act the way I act, whether they view it as positive or not, and ask questions, and then given an opportunity at some point, then you can talk about your faith a little bit. I firmly believe, just personally, what works for me, and what I enjoy doing is letting my actions speak about the kind of character that I want to have, and following that quote from St. Francis.

Wow – it kills me to look favorably on anything said or done by a Packer, but it’s hard not to admire a professional athlete who could quote Francis of Assisi (even his most famous epigram) and do it so appropriately. And it squares with how Rodgers — garnering vastly less attention for such comments than Tebow — and other Packers talked about their faith before winning the Super Bowl earlier this year.

2 thoughts on “Tebow

  1. I enjoyed your blog post on Tebow. I’m a fan of him and even wrote a blog about it (albeit on how he has impacted the NFL). I’m a Christian but not for or against the way Tebow portrays himself.

    I think another topic that would be interesting to explore is why we give famous people so much credibility to talk about areas outside their expertise. I think it is so bizarre when CNN will have some celebrities take on an issue they have no particular expertise in. Why do we treat these opinions as relevant news?

    1. Thanks, Taylor! Though as a historian blogging about everything from football to theology, I’m probably the last person who should cast stones at celebrities who “talk about areas outside their expertise.” 🙂

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