With the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, looking back at the biggest football story of the year and its effect on religious discourse.
I was a bit out of the loop as Tim Tebow rocketed his way to “America’s Most Popular Athlete” status. My wife and I cancelled our cable TV last year, and I haven’t been watching nearly as many sporting events or sports commentary shows. I now get most of my sports-related news from the status updates that show up in my Facebook feed and the articles I read on the sports and pop culture website Grantland. Thus, I watched the Tebow story unfold online, outside the influence of hyperbolic TV commentators, and unswayed by any emotional investment in the games themselves. Somehow, this perspective seemed to highlight the exceedingly strange way in which the Tebow story was covered throughout the year.
My introduction to the Tebow storyline was a Grantland article titled “Tim Tebow, Converter of Passes,” which appeared a couple of days after Tebow’s first start of the season. Unaware as I was of the details of the game—let alone the popular reaction to it—I was a bit caught off guard by author Brian Phillips’ opening assertion:
Here’s how I think it works, this Tebow madness. Somewhere within all our reptilian hearts lurks an instinct for trial-by-combat. This instinct tells us that when a person is strongly associated with an idea, we can use that person’s success or failure within the sphere of competitive athletics as a legitimate indication of the quality of the idea… We all know that this is ludicrous, but we all kind of feel it anyway. As a result, it’s basically impossible not to see Tebow’s ability or inability to complete a 15-yard out pattern to Matt Willis as a referendum on the Book of Deuteronomy… Whenever I catch one of Tebow’s games, I tend to lose sight of the scoreboard and just focus on the metacompetition, the weird Joan of Arc drama that seems to go along with everything he does. I imagine a bar under a train station somewhere where the relevant ideas men gather to learn their fates. Did a receiver drop a pass? James Dobson just choked on a nacho. Did Tim throw an interception? Daniel Dennett just chest-bumped Richard Dawkins. Again, I realize that this is stupid, that it’s beyond stupid, but compared to actually watching the Broncos? It’ll do.
Really? I mean, this seems—to put it kindly—superstitious. Or to put it less kindly: a bit loony; not altogether unlike Monty Python’s King Arthur weighing a woman to see if she’s a witch. And yet, Phillips continues:
I find myself half-consciously rooting for Tebow to fail, even though I have nothing against him, have lots of religious friends, am not especially tribal by nature, and wouldn’t want to be responsible for the nacho-related deaths of any prominent evangelical leaders, even if I detest their politics. Doesn’t matter. The part of me that wants to eat pork and not stone people just switches on and cheers for the blitzing linebacker.
Now, it would have been easy to dismiss this article altogether if not for two things:
1) Apparently Phillips thinks Christians believe in stoning people and abstaining from pork.
2) Phillips’ tongue-in-cheek-but-kind-of-serious “meta-competition” theory would go on to become the defining narrative of Grantland’s Tebow coverage.
Grantland bills itself as the sports source for smart people who want to read articles written by intellectuals, as opposed to ex-jocks. Best-selling author Chuck Klosterman is an editor and contributor. So is Dave Eggers. Malcolm Gladwell contributes essays. It’s all young, hip literary types; the kind of people you expect to be reasonably well-educated and informed. The lesson here being, you can write about religion for a popular, intellectual-ish online mag without knowing the first thing about the world’s most popular religion.
As the weeks went by and Tebow led the Broncos from last to first place with seven victories in his first eight starts, Grantland continued to revel in tongue-in-cheek Christian allegory, publishing articles like “Five Tim Tebow Stories You Meet in Heaven,” “What Would Tebow Do?,” “Tim Tebow and the Miracles,” “And a Tebow Shall Lead Them,” “Tim Tebow’s Personal Rapture,” and “And On the Third Day, Tim Tebow…” All the while, Phillips’ meta-competition angle continued to be the driving narrative.
Even Grantland’s more “serious” attempts to talk about Tebow devolved into similarly superstitious assumptions. Chuck Klosterman writes, in his article “The People Who Hate Tim Tebow,” that as Denver and Minnesota headed into overtime in their Dec. 4 game, he thought Minnesota had all the tangible advantages, “Yet I believed Denver would win. My reasoning? I had no reasoning. And I did not like how that felt.” But instead of criticizing the superstitious meta-competition nonsense behind his own belief that Denver would win, he instead decides to equate his complete lack of reasoning with…Christianity.
In a long, tortured analogy he explains that, just as there was no “tangible evidence” that Denver would beat Minnesota, there is “no tangible evidence” for God, specifically the God of Christianity. Now, given the history of Western philosophical thought, that is a rather bold claim to make out of hand. Its merit depends quite a bit on what he means by “tangible evidence.” There are those who see “tangible evidence” for God in the design and complexity of natural systems—from the human body to the solar system. There are also those who see “tangible evidence” for God in the existence of beauty and the human ability to perceive it. Others see “tangible evidence” in the way their lives have changes as a result of an “encounter” or “relationship” with God. In any event, the merits of these various “evidences” have been the subject of theological and philosophical debates for centuries. And so Klosterman is way out on a philosophical limb when he flatly concludes that “blind faith is the only kind of faith there is” and therefore choosing whether or not to have faith in God (or Tebow—he treats them as virtually the same thing) is the “choice between embracing a warm feeling that makes no sense or a cold pragmatism that’s probably true.”
I’ve read enough of Klosterman’s work to expect this kind of reductive logic from him; he wears his pseudo-intellectualism on his sleeve. For instance, in his 2003 book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs he states flatly, “The goal of being alive is to figure out what it means to be alive, and there is a myriad of ways to deduce that answer; I just happen to prefer examining the question through the context of Pamela Anderson and The Real World and Frosted Flakes. It’s certainly no less plausible than trying to understand Kant or Wittgenstein.” But anyone who has studied the Western philosophical, theological, and literary tradition knows that blanket accusations of “Christian anti-intellectualism” just don’t stick. It’s impossible to read classics by Aquinas or Dostoyevsky—or moderns like Maritain or Solzhenitsyn—and conclude that the Christian faith is “a warm feeling that makes no sense;” even a cursory reading of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity could dispel that notion.
It is certainly true that there are Christians who are just as hell-bent on jettisoning their own intellectual tradition as their critics, but there seems to be a growing number of pseudo-intellectual secularists who want to dismiss Christianity as anti-intellectual while simultaneously avoiding Christian intellectuals like the plague. For instance, in his 2008 film Religulous, comedian Bill Maher fails to engage a single Christian intellectual, instead seeking out people like the guy who plays Jesus at “The Holy Land Experience” theme park to make the case for Christianity (with predictable results). And for many critics, the ascendancy of Tim Tebow was little more than another opportunity to lecture us on the preposterousness of Christian belief.
On Dec. 19, a couple of weeks after Klosterman’s article on Tebow, Charlie Pierce published a piece for Grantland called, “Tebow’s Religion: Fair Game.” In it, Pierce comes out firing:
Before [Tebow] ever took a snap in the NFL, he appeared in an anti-choice television ad with his mother that was sponsored by Focus on the Family, an influential anti-choice, anti-gay-rights organization founded by the Rev. James Dobson. He knew what he was doing… It has been argued paradoxically that his faith is both vital to his success and off-limits to criticism. This is, of course, nonsense. He put his business in the street that way, and he did so by allying himself with the softer side of a movement that contains other organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which knows about this stuff, recently designated as hate groups.
Whoa there, Charlie. Yes, Tebow appeared in a television ad with his mother that was paid for by Focus on the Family. In doing so, he most certainly made questions from the media about his religion and politics fair game (though it should be noted that Tebow himself has been conspicuous in his willingness—some might say over eagerness—to answer such questions). But the rest of Pierce’s assertion here contains so many unexplained assumptions and presuppositions that simply decoding them and sorting them out from each other is a task in and of itself. Pierce attempts to draw a line from Tebow’s Super Bowl advertisement to Focus on the Family to some unspecified “movement” (Christianity? Evangelicalism? The Religious Right?) to some further unspecified “organizations” in order to associate Tebow with “hate groups.” It is a convenient way to play to the assumed anti-Christian bias of his readers without having to substantiate a single one of his claims. Of course, such a method may be the only way to counter-intuitively classify as “hateful” what is, in actuality, a rather innocuous commercial (I suggest watching it for yourself and making your own call). But Pierce was on a roll:
Let us be quite clear—Tim Tebow adheres to a particular form of American Protestantism. He belongs to—and proselytizes for—a splinter of a splinter, no more or less than Mitt Romney once did. This particular splinter has a long record in America of fostering anti-Enlightenment thought, retrograde social policies, and, more discreetly, religious bigotry.
The problem here is that Pierce is anything but clear. He doesn’t even bother to say what form of American Protestantism Tebow adheres to. He doesn’t name the Protestant splinter that he belongs to either. And he makes zero effort to justify or substantiate his claims of “anti-Enlightenment thought,” “retrograde social policies,” and “religious bigotry.” Again, he is relying entirely on his readers to make the correct assumptions and draw the appropriate conclusions. The whole thing is an exercise in indignant avoidance. His style reminds me of the kid in junior high who would make a big deal about picking a fight but then fails to show up at the appointed time and place. Even so, Pierce still manages to rally the resolve for a resounding conclusion:
If we’re going to have a real discussion about the place of public religion in our public spectacles, then let’s have one instead of some mushy, Wonder Bread platitudes about how great it is that Tim Tebow talks about Jesus and doesn’t get caught doing strippers two at a time in the hot tub. If religion comes into the public square, it is as vulnerable as any other human institution to be pelted with produce. Ignorance does not become wisdom just because you gussy it up with the Gospels.
If only the folks at Grantland were actually up for a real discussion of religion in the public square. That would be something. But pretending that the merits of Christianity are somehow tied to the quarterback of the Denver Broncos just distracts from that kind of discussion. And using that same quarterback’s religiosity as an excuse to paint all of Christianity with the broad brush of ignorance only further negates the possibility of further consideration. I realize that proponents of Christianity leave a lot of room for improvement on this score as well. But it’s important to point out that a real discussion of religion in the public square requires a good faith effort from both sides.
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