I have been an athlete most of my life. I have also been a Christian. But I have never been particularly comfortable with the combination of the two.
Mostly because I do not believe that God is or ever will be in the business of winning and losing football games, track races, tennis, matches or any other sporting event.
Ironically, sports culture is among the most fervently religious sectors of American life. Players often point to heaven after a clutch play or a win, or thank God for success in post event interviews. Last year’s game between the Oregon Ducks and the Auburn Tigers was a particularly conspicuous example of this. (And let me preface this by saying that I love college football and think that both Oregon and Auburn are great teams.)
In the post game interview, when asked a specific question about how Auburn’s defensive line played against the Oregon offensive line, Auburn Head Coach Greg Chizek had this to say:
I just can’t be more blessed to be a part of a whole team like this. Man, God was with us. Our defense played outstanding today.
When Auburn star Cam Newton was asked about dealing with adversity during what was for him a turbulent year, he responded:
You know, it’s just a God thing. You know, I thank God every single day. You know, I’m just his instrument. He’s using me on a consistent basis daily. He’s using me to extend his word. And I’m a prime example of how God can turn something bad into something that was very great.
As an athlete and a pastor, I cringe a bit when I hear things like this. Mostly because I think it communicates bad theology that assumes that God takes sides in sporting events or is responsible for a players’ victory or success. If we play out those post game statements are we to assume that if God was with Auburn, God was smiting Oregon? Is Cam Newton an instrument of God? Did God help Cam Newton win the Heisman last year? As a ministry college of mine wrote, “Giving God credit for victories in athletics is nothing but a combination of bad theology, hubris, and inflated egos.” Auburn played a great game. I give them credit for that. It is good to thank God for our gifts and for the opportunity to use them. It is also good to ask God to bless our endeavors. But God is not responsible for football victories. God does not care about football or other sports victories. God has better things to do.
This brings me to Tim Tebow.
Lately, former Florida Gators star, and now current Denver Bronco’s quarterback, Tim Tebow, has been getting a considerable amount of press not only for his unorthodox playing style but also for his public faith as a Christian. At the end of football games, Tebow always points to the sky and takes a knee (a move that has become its own phenomenon called “Tebowing”) and typically ends his post game interviews with “God Bless.”
Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “God’s Quarterback, The Tim Tebow Phenomenon.” The article argued that while Tebow presents all the usual signs of token sky-pointing often associated with religion and sports, Tebow’s faith is not only not related to whether or not he wins or looses a game, but it is also something that he lives out genuinely in his life. Patten Dodd writes in the WSJ article:
“...What makes Tebow so maddening to those who hate him: He refuses to say anything that would validate the suspicion that he's fake (or naïve or self-righteous or dumb).”
So what to make of this? Well, I have to admit that despite his genuine faith, Tebow’s public displays of Christian faith on the football field bring to mind all the usual anxieties that come with the emergence of faith and athletics. I can do without the sky-pointing and the Bible verses. What is more interesting to me is the idea of a football player whose faith has nothing to do with the game he plays or the Bible verses that he puts in his eye black. But a faith that shapes his character and values off the field. When Tebow was at UF, his example of helping others led volunteering to become trendy. A rare phenomenon on most college campuses. As a pro player, Tebow continues to have a reputation for helping and loving others in his off the field activities.
Do I wish Tim Tebow would leave out the taking a knee on the field? Yes. Do I salute him for the kind of faith that shapes his life, character and values off the field? Absolutely.
If your interested, you can read the full article from the Wall Street Journal here.