January 10

The Tim Tebow Cult

Help! I’m being attacked by Christians in Denver Broncos jerseys!

Okay, maybe I should start at the beginning. In the beginning, there was a kid in Florida who was really good at football. So good, in fact, that he got a scholarship to play at the University of Florida. He was also raised as a good Christian boy; he was actually born in the Philippines while his parents were serving as missionaries there. While he played for the Florida Gators, he liked to write the words “John 3:16″ on his eye-black. He also liked to kneel in prayer after big plays. Although he lost the SEC Championship game in 2009, he led his team to a Sugar Bowl victory in 2010. And it was good.

Then, Tim Tebow graduated from college. He entered the NFL draft and was picked up by the Denver Broncos. Much to his fans’ dismay, however, he wasn’t the starter. The Broncos stuck with Kyle Orton, with Tebow coming off the bench. In his rookie year, he played 6 games as a back-up before starting the last 3 of the season. Orton was still the starter for the first few games of the 2011 season. In the sixth week of the season, though, Tebow got the starting job. He went 5-0 before losing to the New England Patriots.

Tebow’s fans were ecstatic.

But on January 8, 2012, in the first-round playoff game against the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers, Tim Tebow threw for 316 yards, leading his team to a come-from-behind victory.

And that’s where my story actually begins.

Because that’s when the fans lost their minds, especially the Christian fans.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m a Christian. You may also know that I’m a football fan. I guess I’ve never had much call to say it before, but I’ll say it now: my faith and my football don’t really mix. Oh sure, I make jokes about Bill Belichick being the anti-Christ. I may laughingly beg God to give my poor Colts a victory, but I think He has much more important things to do than watch football.

Sunday night, though, my Facebook page was lit up with posts about the miraculous Tim Tebow and his 316 yards, his 31.6 yards per completion. Surely, God was showing His favor. Surely, it was a sign from Heaven, a reminder of the John 3:16 verse that the NFL won’t allow Tebow to paint on his eye-black!

Oh my.

I’ve followed Tebow’s career since his first Sports Illustrated cover in 2008, which I discovered in a bachelor friend’s house one day. The story was sweet. The kid seemed like a positive role model, which Lord knows we sorely need, especially in sports. I do not like the Florida Gators, but I liked him.

His public displays of affection for God bothered me a little. They reminded me of Matthew, chapter 6: “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 men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

My Christian friends, however, kept coming back to that old standby argument: He’s a good role model. He’s bringing people to Christ by testifying.

Yes. That’s very nice. If Tim Tebow’s Biblical eye-black and public kneeling can convince a few people that Christianity is the way to go, great.

For me, it is far too simple. The people who might be persuaded by Tebow’s actions must be blank slates, perhaps young people, who simply haven’t heard the word of God. Tebow’s testifying may be all they need. Wonderful.

Those people are pretty rare these days, though, especially in the U.S., where Christian teachings and scriptural references are everywhere already. An American who is watching football is highly unlikely to hear the word of God for the first time from Tim Tebow.

So that leaves us with two other groups: the Christians and the more mature non-Christians. Most Christians LOVE Tim Tebow, almost to the point of idolatry, as evidenced by the posts on my Facebook wall.

And the more mature non-Christians? The people who have been hardened against Christianity by what they see as proof of God’s non-existence because their lives have been brutal? The people who have been hardened against Christianity by Christians who professed one thing but did something completely different, completely awful? How do they feel about Tebow and his rabid followers?

I can tell you they are not impressed. I know this because I do not live in a Christian vacuum as many of my friends do. I’m married to an agnostic. I have many atheist, Jewish, Muslim friends. And they are completely indifferent to Tim Tebow. What’s worse – the crazy hero-worship and superstitious numerology currently swirling around Tebow right now is actually driving some of these souls further away from Christ. Like the sad, misguided folks who see Jesus in a piece of toast, the Tebow maniacs are leaving non-believers shaking their heads.

Christianity is supposed to be about bringing others to Jesus, but Christians are so excited about what they perceive as God’s chosen team winning against the Steelers, they are blind to the damage they are inflicting. God is not a football fan. Statistics do not prove the existence of His hand.

But don’t tell them that.

They will attack you. They will surround their precious Tebow idol and swipe at you angrily. The numbers don’t lie! The numbers tell the truth! John 3:16! John 3:16!

Okay, so I’ve got questions then.

  • The Bible warns us against superstition. Is Tebow numerology an exemption from this restriction?
  • If I see the number 15 (Tebow’s jersey number) on a potato, am I allowed to eat it?
  • What if my team is playing the Broncos? Am I still allowed to root for my team or is that now against my religion?
  • What if Tebow loses? Does that mean he has lost favor with God? Does it mean the opposing team is evil? Or does it mean there is a better Christian on the opposing team?
  • What if the next big football star is a Muslim? What if his stats correspond to some important verse in the Koran? Will all the folks who started following Christianity through Tebow now start following Islam?
  • What happens if Tim Tebow messes up in his personal life? If he gets a girl pregnant out of wedlock? If he is arrested for domestic abuse? If he becomes an alcoholic? What then?

I’m reminded of Jeremiah 17:5: “A curse on the man who puts his trust in man, a blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord.” This empty, pop-culture version of Christianity is dangerous stuff. The numerology being tossed around by my fellow Christians is even scarier. Tim Tebow is just a nice kid, doing what he was raised to do. I hope he doesn’t fall. I hope he lives a long, wholesome life. But I’m not going to follow him as a spiritual leader, ordained by God through invisible eye-black as evidenced by his passing percentage.

Several years B.T. (before Tebow), there was another NFL quarterback. Another good Christian soul who played football – Kurt Warner. He too prayed and professed his faith publicly. But he grew up and matured and realized that he might be alienating some fans through his less-than-subtle approach. In November, Warner had some advice for Tebow:

“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.”

My hope is that Tim Tebow will learn the lesson Kurt Warner learned before him. But even more, I hope my fellow Christians will learn it too.

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Posted January 10, 2012 by jpmahoney49 in category Popular Culture