“So, if Tebow wins against the Pats on Saturday night, then even the Jews are going to convert to Christianity.” So opined my not-exceedingly observant (or reverent) Jewish breakfast partner yesterday. “What about the Reform Jews?” I asked.
“Absolutely and they’ll be holding tambourines.” he responded.
“Reconstructionist and Secular Humanistic Jews, too?”
“Faster than you can say ‘egalitarian congregation.’”
“What about Jews in like Belgium or Israel?”
“Can’t be sure about Belgium, but if Israeli Jews come to Christ it could refresh certain synergies on the foreign policy level.”
The combination of improbable football success and unabashed faith in the form of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow is now triggering conversations like this across the country (Surely, the essay “Tim Tebow (and the Secular Sikhs)” is going up over at HuffPo as we speak).
Many Conservative Christians complain that American popular culture swarms them with “secular solicitations”–and by “secular solicitations” they refer to prompts endorsing sex outside of monogamous union, non-traditional lifestyles, and all else that distracts one from establishing and/or deepening one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Yet the rampant Tebowmania of the past few months suggests that this is only part of the story. The lesson of the 2011-2012 NFL campaign was that Evangelical Christian solicitations have their own swarming quality in popular culture.
It can range from the John 3:16 invocations that have become Tebow’s trademark scripture. (Parenthetically, permit me to note that I eye-black my signature verse, 1 Samuel 21:15, prior to teaching my advanced seminars in comparative secularisms.)
It can express itself in the giddy triumphalism of Conservative Christian commentators who would never imply that God cares a whit about football, but nevertheless leave untouched the peculiar theological idea that the Big Fella likes to tinker with the box scores. The relentless media coverage of the young athlete also belies the stereotype of a journalistic elite enthralled to Secularism’s alleged mandate to marginalize and/or ridicule all matters of faith.
And, the aforementioned swarm most prominently displays itself in the over-the-top faith-boasting, and “Tebowing” of the quarterback himself. Tebowmania poses many questions for liberal democracies, and one of them is certainly the appropriateness of public figures bringing their faith into the public square.
This a very complex question. An emphasis on keeping one’s religious beliefs private was Standard Secular Dogma in the fading decades of the 20th century. Yet, no matter what the practical advantages of this approach might have been for religious tranquility in America, this conception is more or less off of the table today.
Tonight the Broncos will play the Patriots (and let me note that it is the inexplicable, godforsaken success of the Patriots over the decade and a half which demands theological examination more than anything that has happened this fall in Denver), and should the Tebows prevail the messianic buzz will ratchet up for at least one more week.
Either this season or next, Tim Tebow will experience the invariable fate of all NFL quarterbacks, even the best ones (a category in which few analysts would place the signal-caller for the Broncos). That fate is to lose, to be concussed, to have his shoulder pulverized by a 265-pound defensive end, to be taunted mercilessly by unhinged Raiders’ fans–the veritable Passion Play which comprises the life of a professional football player.
All that will come to pass. But the question will remain concerning what is acceptable religious discourse in public. And permit me to say that we will never be able to honestly assess that problematic as a nation until we stop equating “faith” with Evangelical Christianity.
When a Secular Jewish Tim Tebow emerges and opens his press conference by reading a quote from Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, or a Sikh-American Tim Tebow correspondingly invokes his own beliefs, then a real discussion about irreligion and religion in American public life will have begun.
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