I really don’t know much about Tim Tebow. I haven’t ever watched him play because I don’t really have time to watch pro football since Sunday is a workday for pastors. Sunday afternoon is a time to reach out to visitors and make pastoral care visits. And whenever I get done with that, I sleep. Plus, ever since my family moved to Durham from Houston in 1992, I’ve been more of a college basketball guy than a pro football guy. But I do remember thinking it was really cool when I was a teenager to see football players who would kneel in the end-zone to give God glory instead of spiking the ball or doing a dance.
To some degree, it sounds like Tim Tebow is just doing what Christian football players have always done, though it sounds like he might be doing it more often. Or maybe he’s doing it in an environment in which the culture wars are more bitter and polarized than they were twenty years ago. Or maybe the buzz has come about because Christian bloggers like me need material to generate hits for our sites about so we desperately try to manufacture controversies like the persecution of Christian celebrities. The Tim Tebow controversy has also become an excuse to land some indirect digs on Islam, because if Tebow was a Muslim, nobody would dare criticize him for praying in public (they would just be calling for the FBI to bug his helmet).
But in the midst of all the hoopla and Tim Tebow fans posting pictures of themselves “Tebowing” (praying on one knee) all over the Internet, nobody seems to have adequately dealt with the Biblical passage in which Jesus pretty unequivocally slams public displays of religious piety. It’s from the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most ignored Biblical texts in American Christianity:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. [Matthew 6:5-6]
How does this passage apply to how Christian celebrities should conduct themselves in public? I imagine that people like Tim Tebow see public religious displays as opportunities for evangelism. But how do you balance that with the need to take Jesus’ words seriously? Is it merely a question of what’s going on in the heart of the Christian celebrity or is it the impression that their religious exhibitionism creates? My concern is less with Tebow’s sincerity, which I don’t really question, than with what Tebow’s fans come to think being a Christian is about.
If Tebow starts losing and gets benched, is that automatically “religious persecution”? If he keeps winning, does that mean that if you pray hard enough, God will make you win (and if you lose, it’s because you weren’t praying hard enough)? The gospel is compromised when Christianity is reduced to being a tribe in which we cheer for our tribe and boo for the other tribes. Unfortunately this is a phenomenon that the whole Christian celebrity industrial complex has created. Tim Tebow happens to be a young Christian quarterback who turned pro when jesus.com culture is at its zenith. A lot of the controversy isn’t really his fault.
I do think that Tebow needs to do a better job of rebuking the idolatry of his fans if he wants to show it’s about God’s glory. It should not be acceptable to a Christian quarterback for his fans to create jerseys with his number in which his name is replaced by “Jesus.” That’s over the top.
In any case, I can’t say that I haven’t seen any fruit from Tim Tebow’s witness. I have a buddy who gets frustrated with the Bible sometimes because of Paul’s convoluted language in his letters and the long-winded-ness of prophets like Isaiah. But he gets Tim Tebow. He’s been reading Tebow’s biography and sees him as a role model. I can’t hate on that. I imagine God is using Tim Tebow in a lot of other peoples’ lives like my friend, so all I can say about that is praise God!