Even though I didn’t grow up in Colorado, I have been a Denver Broncos fan for as long as I can remember. It’s a love I inherited from my father, and one I hope to pass on to my own kids.
I remember cheering for the Broncos when they lost the Super Bowl in 1987 (to the Giants); another Super Bowl in 1988 (to the Redskins); and yet another in 1990 (to the 49ers). They finally pulled off back-to-back Superbowl wins in 1997–98. But after those final two seasons with John Elway, the Broncos slipped into the oblivion of mediocrity.
Until this year … when unexpectedly, the last place Broncos went on a dramatic run to win their division, led by second-year quarterback Tim Tebow. As a Broncos’ fan, I’ve been thrilled to see Denver start winning. I have been cheering for “Team Tebow” all along the way (even though I’m often not able to watch the games).
Just this last weekend, the entire nation was mesmerized as the Broncos’ quarterback threw a game-winning touchdown pass in the first 11 seconds of overtime. Even some of the biggest Tebow detractors were impressed. (The victory was even sweeter for me because several of my close friends are Pittsburgh Steeler fans.)
But the Tebow phenomenon has grown larger than football.
As an outspoken Christian, Tim Tebow has sparked a much bigger discussion in the American media about faith, sports, and the relationship between the two. The debate has so polarized the country that there seems to be no middle ground left. Express even the mildest appreciation for Denver’s quarterback, and you’re labeled a “Tebow-lover” by his detractors. Offer but the most measured criticism, and his supporters will categorically denounce you as a “hater.”
So here’s my attempt to do the impossible: stake out some middle ground.
The “Tim Tebow phenomenon” has garnered so much media buzz — especially this week when it almost broke Twitter — that I think it warrants a closer look from a Christian point of view. Obviously, a lot has been written about Tebow, mostly focused on his unconventional style of play and the media splash his short career has generated.
But as believers, what are we supposed to think about the cultural phenomenon that centers around this young quarterback? At the risk of offending someone (and possibly everyone), here are ten thoughts in answer to that question.
Five Reasons I Like Tim Tebow:
1. For His Christian Earnestness. I should start by making it clear that I like Tim Tebow as a person, even though I don’t know him personally. From all I can tell, his Christian testimony is genuine. I believe he is absolutely sincere in professing his love for the Lord — and I applaud that sincerity without reservation.
In a November 22, 2010 interview with ESPN’s Skip Bayless, Tebow said this about his Christian testimony:
[M]y relationship with Jesus Christ is … the most important thing in my life. So any time I get an opportunity to tell Him that I love Him or [get] an opportunity to shout Him out on national TV I’m going to take that opportunity. So I look at it as a relationship that I have with Him, that I want to give Him the honor and glory any time I have the opportunity. And then, right after I give Him the honor and glory, I always try to give my teammates the honor and glory. And that’s how it works, because Christ comes first in my life, and then my family, and then my teammates.
2. For His Well-Rounded Perspective. In interviews with the secular media, Tebow has repeatedly noted that there are more important things in life than playing football. That may sound obvious, but it’s good to hear, especially from a professional athlete. In the same interview cited above, Tebow explained:
I know that no matter what happens on the football field, win or lose, that God is in control and He has a plan for my life. And I think the greatest thing that gives me perspective is that I know that no matter what happens on the football field, that’s not what defines my life. That’s not what defines Tim Tebow as a person. But what it does give me, is it gives me a platform and an opportunity to try to be a great role model for this next generation. … At the end of the day, if all we’re doing is winning and losing football games and scoring touchdowns, then we really haven’t done a lot with our lives.
3. For His Off-the-Field Activities. Tim exemplifies a disciplined work ethic, a heart of compassion for those in need, and a zeal for missions work. All of those are noble pursuits. In a February 22, 2011 interview with the St. Augustine Record, Tim talked about the foundation he started to help needy children.
My No. 1 heart is with orphans. The foundation supports 600 orphans in different places around the world. That’s what I want to do for a long time and make it bigger. I want to support kids that not a lot of people believe in. Give them an opportunity to do good in school, play sports and get scholarships.
4. For His Clear Pro-Life Message. It is pretty amazing to consider that Tim’s mother — who was told by doctors that she should have an abortion — instead gave birth to a son who is now leading a professional football team into the playoffs. According to the Flordia Times-Union:
Because they believed the baby would not survive, doctors recommended an abortion so that Pam Tebow’s life would not be risked. … She refused the abortion because of her faith; she prayed that she and her husband would have a healthy son.
The Lord wonderfully answered her prayer.
5. For the Conversations He Sparks. Finally, Tim’s testimony has given believers everywhere additional opportunities to talk about the gospel with their unsaved friends, family members and co-workers. Starting a conversation about eternal things is now as easy as asking, “So, did you see the football game last week?” I’m glad for those kind of opportunities, and I hope people are making the most of them.
As those five points demonstrate, I appreciate Tim Tebow for many reasons (beyond his winning season with the Denver Broncos). But I also have some concerns about the larger cultural phenomenon surrounding him.
I call it “Tebow-Mania.”
Five Concerns I Have about Tebow-Mania
By “Tebow-Mania” I’m referring to the pop-culture hype that has been stirred up largely by the American media. While I certainly don’t fault Tim Tebow for all (or even most) of the media buzz, I do wonder if perhaps he could do more to correct some of the following misperceptions that I fear are a growing part of Tebow-Mania.
1. The Perception That God Gives Tebow Special Help to Win. The media has turned Tebow-Mania into the NFL’s version of the Prosperity Gospel—making it sound as if spiritual blessing and divine favor come in the form of touchdown passes, division titles, and postseason play. Tebow-Mania has turned Denver’s QB into “God’s Quarterback,” and the Broncos into Heaven’s favorite team. (They are, after all, a mile closer to Heaven in Denver.)
But what about the players on the other side of the ball — the ones who lose the game, including Christians on the other team? Is God not helping them? What about other professing Christian quarterbacks in the NFL (such as Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rogers)? Some of them have had success on the field this year, others not so much. Maybe most importantly, what about the games that the Broncos have lost with Tebow under center? Was God’s power insufficient in those contests? Obviously not.
Because of Tebow’s unexpected success, non-Christians have understandably taken notice. But, like the unbelieving crowds in Jesus’ day, their superficial interest in spiritual things will fade as soon as the “miracles” cease. The reality is that crediting God for specific touchdown scores and football wins can actually become an obstacle for the gospel when a team starts to lose. (It can also lead to taking well-known Bible verses out of context.)
Insofar as Tebow-Mania is responsible for this misperception, I think it is doing more harm than good.
2. The Perception That Tebow’s Statistics Have Supernatural Significance. This last week, I have repeatedly cringed to see the hoopla made about Tebow’s 316 passing yards — as if it were a divine pointer to John 3:16. Don’t get me wrong, John 3:16 is a marvelous verse. The more attention that is drawn to it, the better.
But, fellow Christian, please don’t apply the mystical techniques of misguided numerologists (like the Bible code folks) to Tim Tebow’s stats column. It is bad hermeneutics on every level.
As ESPN’s D. J. Gallo sarcastically quipped:
Yes, even a coincidental stat has become evidence of Tebow’s heavenly favor. And 316 yards is specifically a reference to John 3:16, of course, not any of the 3:16s in the other 66 books of the Bible, such as Leviticus 3:16. … Nope. Totally John 3:16.
Gallo was trying to be funny. But in all seriousness, he made a valid point.
3. The Perception That “Tebowing” Is a Good Thing. I think it’s wonderful that Tebow is committed to public prayer. But I cringe over the fact that his iconic prayer position is now the object of mockery and scorn from the watching world.
At best, “tebowing” has become Denver’s version of Pittsburgh’s “terrible towel” or Green Bay’s cheese-wedge hats. At worst, it has spawned a blasphemous cult following on the part of fans who are more interested in imitating a celebrity-quarterback’s prayer posture than they are in actually addressing God in heartfelt petition. That may sound harsh, but I personally think the “Tebowing” craze is an absolute travesty that turns prayer into a joke and greatly dishonors the Lord.
Having said that, is it Tim’s fault that non-Christians mock his prayer position? No.
But could he do more to put a stop to it? I think he could, rather than giving tacit endorsement to a practice that (in my opinion) has become a sacrilegious fad.
4. The Perception That Christianity Needs Celebrities to Be Relevant. When it comes to Tebow-Mania, I wonder if evangelicalism is once again falling into the trap of “celebrity Christianity.” It feels great to have an evangelical Christian at the height of athletic popularity in our nation. It feels even better when he wins; because — in some small way — it feels as though evangelicalism is winning through him.
Epidemic in the American evangelical psyche is the idea that celebrity status is essential to reaching our society for the sake of the kingdom. We can be tempted to think that the more superstars we have on our side (whether from sports or politics or Hollywood), the better equipped we will be to advance God’s work — as though cultural popularity were the key to effective gospel proclamation.
Again, I don’t lay the blame for this celebrity-mindset at Tim Tebow’s feet. His celebrity status has been thrust upon him by the media. Moreover, I applaud his desire to use the platform he’s been given to exalt Christ.
However, insofar as Tebow-Mania contributes to evangelicalism’s infatuation with the cult of celebrity or the myth of influence, I do not believe it is helpful.
5. The Perception That Christianity Consists of Clichés. Walk into just about any Christian bookstore and you’ll quickly see that popular American evangelicalism loves clichés: pithy little slogans of feel-good spirituality. They are printed on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and motivational posters. They litter the pages of bestselling Christian books and are permanently etched into trinkets like key-chains and money clips. The roadside marquis of the average evangelical church contains new editions of these short little sayings every week — from messages like “Need a Faith Lift?” to “C H _ _ C H. What’s Missing? U R.”
I fear Tebow-Mania highlights this sappy side of mainstream evangelicalism more than it showcases the arresting truth of the biblical gospel. When discussing the Tebow phenomenon, media outlets often talk about faith in a cheesy “just-believe-in-yourself-and-make-your-dreams-come-true” kind of way. Numerous pundits have suggested that the Broncos’ sudden success should be made into a movie. One article joked that, if it were a screen play, the Tebow story would be too sentimental even for Disney.
To be fair, my concern in this final point again has much more to do with popular evangelicalism as a whole than with Tim Tebow as an individual. (As I noted earlier, I believe Tim to be a young man of great personal integrity and sincerity.) Nonetheless, the phenomenon that is Tebow-Mania has cast the public spotlight on American evangelicalism; and mainstream evangelicalism is often more wide than it is deep.
So those are my ten thoughts. I’m sure the cloud of dust will come in the comments section below.
As you can see, most of my concerns have less to do with Tim Tebow as an individual, and more to do with the larger media-driven craze that has exploded around him. (I have tried to affirm Tim Tebow, the person, while also wanting to think carefully about Tim Tebow, the cultural phenomenon.) On a personal level, I wish God’s best for Tim’s future — both as a professional football player and as a devout Christian man in his early twenties.
As a Denver Broncos’ football fan, I hope he wins the Super Bowl. More importantly, as an evangelical Christian, I am thankful for his personal testimony and integrity.
At the same time, I cannot embrace everything that popular culture has come to associate with Tebow-Mania. And I sometimes wonder if perhaps Tim himself could do more to offset some of the negative by-products that come from all the media hype.
Does articulating my concerns make me a “hater”? I certainly hope not.
But if it does, rest assured that this hater will be heartily cheering for Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos when they face the New England Patriots on Saturday.
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Update: Rick Holland has written a thoughtful post on the same topic. Click here to read, “If I Were Tim Tebow’s Pastor.”
Update 2: My brother sent me this article from ESPN: “I Believe in Tim Tebow.” It’s an inspirational reminder of some of the exceptional personal qualities that I admire about Tim Tebow.
Update 3: This update comes after the Broncos 10-45 loss to the Patriots on Saturday, January 14. In his press conference, Tim Tebow was asked, “There’s been a lot of talk this year about faith and winning. As Solomon said, ‘Victory belongs to the Lord.’ What about losing? How do you make sense of what’s the end of your season …?”
I thought Tim’s response was excellent and worth noting. He said, “Well, something I pray before games, during games, and after games is regardless whether I win, whether I lose, whether I’m the hero or the goat — it doesn’t matter — that I still honor the Lord and give Him the glory because He’s deserving of it. And just like my effort shouldn’t change, neither should that. So that’s how I try to approach it. Sometimes even in a loss you can honor Him more. And so, for me I just pray that my character and who I am doesn’t change. Even though you can be dejected, you can still feel hurt, you can be disappointed; but you can still honor the Lord with how you handle things.”
Click here to read my follow up post.