Lately, my American friends on Facebook have been rather exercised by the adventures of one Tim Tebow. “Who he?” thought I, but quickly realised he plays that staged impersonation of rugby that our friends west of the Pond call football. (No ‘American’ to prefix it for the same reason that their baseball has a World Series.)
Furthermore, young Mr Tebow is rather good at the sport, having engineered some remarkable comebacks for his team the Denver Broncos – although they came unstuck against the New England Patriots 45-10 and won’t make the Super Bowl as a result.
Not only that, my American friends are excited because he is a Christian. Born to Baptist missionaries in the Philippines, he has appeared in an advertisement for Focus on the Family, and is overt in owning his faith.
Given some of the hysteria generated by Tebow Time, perhaps it’s actually time to nail some of the Christian myths about famous believing sporting heroes.
Number one (in no particular order) is about prayer. My American Football loving friend Will Grady retweeted the comedian Paula Poundstone, who said,
If football players on opposing teams each pray to win does God choose who wins or does he just watch the game?
Prayer doesn’t make a Christian win, or even a better athlete. There is no spiritual gift of sporting ability, and Christians have the same mix of natural talents that the rest of the population has. The place of prayer for the sporting Christian is in the request to glorify God in the way they participate. Winning isn’t guaranteed, nor is performance.
Number two, and very dangerous, is the whole notion of celebrity. Tebow is in the public eye, and I hope his Christian supporters are praying for him. But there is nothing of intrinsically greater worth about the testimony of a famous Christian than that of you or me. It plays into the hands of all the unhealthy contemporary obsession with celebrity. And isn’t that a matter of idolatry, and broken idols at that? We build up these people in some kind of false worship, then watch their images smash.
What’s more, your non-Christian friends who like American Football may well watch Tim Tebow with interest. But they will be watching your life more closely and more regularly. Rather than trumpeting a famous Christian, we should be considering our own witness, however quiet and humble it is.
Number three is about priorities. British sport fans thinking about this kind of issue will probably remember the words of Bill Shankly, the late great manager of Liverpool FC, who once remarked,
Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.
In a way, this ties into the idolatry issue. Were Shankly being serious, his words would be appalling. I like to think they were satirical. I love it when my team wins. I hate it when they lose. My son is worse. But what matters in the end?
Thankfully, Tebow has a sense of real priorities, and what his fame can and cannot achieve. The Boston Globe reported his reaction to yesterday’s defeat:
“It still wasn’t a bad day,” Tebow said after the game. “It still was a good day, because I got to spend some time before the game with Zack McLeod [a 20-year-old Cambridge native who suffered a traumatic brain injury playing football] and make him smile, and overall when you get to do that, it’s still a positive day. Sometimes that’s hard to see, but it depends what lens you’re looking through. I choose to look through those lenses, and I got to make a kid’s day, that’s more important than winning the game. So, I am proud of that.”
Tebow was asked if the glare of the spotlight this season ever became too much.
“There are pros and cons with everything,” Tebow said. “Sometimes, you don’t want it all. You just like to be able to go to dinner, hang out with friends, be a normal 24-year-old. So that makes it sometimes hard. But I wouldn’t change it for the world, because by having that, I have the platform to walk into a hospital to walk into the hospital and share with kids, I have the opportunity to hang out with Zack before a game, I have the opportunity to go build a hospital in the Philippines or to do a lot more important things than football.”
That sounds like a guy who has got his head screwed on. The rest of us need to do the same.
As a fan of “American” football, and a fan of Tebow’s, I appreciate your post on the subject. This is a really good, smart way to look at it. I don’t look to Tebow for my inspiration, nor do I hope he will be Christ’s witness for me. That’s why I like the way you point out that, no matter what Tebow does, I still have to maintain my witness.
One thing that I think Christians in America do (maybe in England as well?) is that we think we can take a break because someone famous is doing the legwork. I think that’s one of the reasons we like Christian politicians. They will legislate morality so we won’t actually have to live it in a hostile situation. But it’s not like that. We have to pay our price ourselves.
Dan, thanks. The Tebow phenomenon also interests me because (as you rightly guess) the Christian addiction to celebrity exists over here, too. Sporting stars, musicians, other entertainers, and so on – even politicians! We ask too much of these people and avoid responsibility ourselves.
And not just the Christians – sometimes I can’t believe how often I hear that, say, a young footballer who gets in trouble is castigated because he is supposed to be a ‘role model’. Says who? Not to deny that what he has done is wrong, but ‘role model’ adds on layers. He never went into sport to be a role model, he went into it with his abilities with a desire to be successful. .