Why idolizing Tim Tebow may not be good for American Christianity
USA Today (yep, as Jim Rome of television and radio fame exclaims, the “multi-colored fish wrap) ran a front-page article on the Tebow “phenomenon” today in the Sports section. It is as predictable in our culture as the sun arising, the government having serious polarization issues, or gasoline prices remaining high…the culture has latched on to another American idol. Unfortunately, it is a person of deep faith and commitment to following and loving Jesus. Why do you say? Am I just another religious cynic or someone who loves to feast on other Christ-followers in stealth? Permit me to lay out a few reasons why I feel like this might not be the greatest thing for American Christianity:
1 – It solidifies the “idol” mentality and celebrity culture in the USA. In an age that is drastically and dramatically void of real, personally substantial heroes in life, it is highly suspicious that the culture has hitched its fascination on ANOTHER celebrity. Frankly, the western world is too caught up with celebrity…instead of focusing on issues that make a difference in people’s real lives, like relationships, foundational and life-giving values, and a worldview that breathes vitality into a person’s heart, we so easily accept the carrot of vicariously living (and envying) another person’s fame. Real heroes are swept under the rug…people in our culture that live in the shadows sacrificially, who want to build community in communities shattered by violence or superficiality, military heroes, educators, people who wield real authority in a gentle, human-enhancing manner, and a plethora of others whose character merits attention by average people are diminished and ignored.
2 – It solidifies the perception that a person of faith has some sort of “fast track” to material and cultural success. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people believe, culturally speaking, that a Kingdom of God journey somehow insures you of materialistic and relational success. There is that perception alive and well in local faith communities that if you hitch your life up to God, it is God’s job to make sure you don’t have any pain, stress, or problems in life. Unfortunately, the idolization of another person of faith who appears (at least in the short term) to be enjoying success communicates the message to the rest of the culture of that many of us try to do combat with on a regular basis. I was just talking today with a person who sincerely believed that prayer was some sort of “vending machine” for getting what you want from God to make sure you have a comfortable life. When a public Christ-follower who is idolized for materialistic or, in this instance, cultural “success” (i.e. “winning”) it tends to make a mockery of that which many of us who follow Jesus know in our guts – that when you follow Jesus you not only have the opportunity to enjoy His grace and love and life in abundance but you also sign up for “the fellowship of suffering.” By idolizing another cultural icon, a successful football quarterback, we subtly negate the real God-honoring life of NOT enjoying cultural attention and fame but rather issues like “loss, self-denial, and picking up our own cross.”
3 – This idolization may do eventual damage to a dear brother in the Lord…yes, Tim is a brother in Jesus. I’m really enjoying watching his career unfold…he is a unique football talent who deserves a shot at winning in what has to be one of the most challenging professions in the land. But to put him on a pedestal will only lead to one thing…a falling off of the pedestal (which eventually will happen).
I would wish this on anybody, especially someone I care about…remember other “public” or cultural icons or idols that “fell” from the public’s graces? Remember when Christians put Bob Dylan on the pedestal because he made a profession of faith? Or Anne Rice, the author of many popular vampire novels? After a bit of time, both people got tired of what they perceived was the baggage that went along with a faith under public scrutiny. Can you imagine? Idols like Tim and their faith are going to be publically evaluated…he will fall, like we all do. He’ll have some bad games, eventually get cut by a team, or have some sort of glitch in his character…and the vultures will then mercilessly pounce. And what will be ridiculed? You got it – his relationship with God. Trust me, it will eventually sound exactly like that Jesus went through on the cross when He heard the words, “where is your God now?” I don’t want that to happen with Tim…
4 – It is shameless that honest Christ-followers are jumping on some cultural bandwagon. Again, I like this guy and I don’t know him…it is fun to think about watching his on field escapades. But to start “Tebowing” and emulating a cultural idol makes a bit of a mockery of all those followers of Jesus who are simply living their lives daily loving, serving, helping, sacrificing…all without cultural attention…all doing with their “right hand” what their left hand doesn’t know about…all secretly praying outside of the limelight. I know how I feel when one of the preschool kids in our faith community comes up to me and says, “Robin, I want to grow up to be just like you.” Now, I know what they mean…they like to watch me play guitar, sing songs, and play with my puppets…but to think that I would be idolized as some sort of “standard” of God-honoring living would be a blatant overstretching. I like what John the Baptist said one day when some people asked him about his increasing fame, “He (the Messiah) must increase, I must decrease.” I believe we as fellow followers of Jesus may need to be very careful about loving our brother in the Lord enough to encourage him and root for him without falling into the idolizing trap.
5 – By honoring an “easy” person to honor (Tim is white, successful, from a healthy family past, etc.) we do an injustice to other football players in the NFL who are just as faithful, just as passionate, just as committed to the Kingdom of God as Tim is…in fact, I’d like to believe that Tim feels that way. We all have to admit, he’s an easy person to honor…if he had been a former felon who had a dramatic life turn around, or a lineman who didn’t get the Sports press attention like a quarterback, or a special team’s coach who didn’t have a microphone stuck in his face at every waking moment, we might not be so enamored. But idolizing Tebow is too easy…what about giving attention to those more “unsung?” I remember a number of years ago meeting a NHL player…no, he wasn’t a leading scorer or a player who got a lot of press. But he loved God and loved the idea of, in some small way, bringing the Kingdom of God into play through his play…and, here’s another bit of info…this guy was a team “enforcer” at the time. Yep, he “picked fights” and protected the other high profile players for a living…nobody publically wanted to claim him as a model of faith. To me, he was one of my heroes…I had him sign a jersey for my boys at the time and share his love for the Lord with some of the children in our faith community NOT because he was a cultural idol but because he was doing his best to live a life of obedience and sacrifice in what has to be one of the toughest professions in sports.
So, as you can see, I’ve got some misgivings…American Christianity is going through a lot these days. The Spirit of God is working, yes. But post-Christendom and post-modernity (or whatever you want to call this philosophical/worldview shift that's going on) is taking its toll on people of faith…worship attendance is decreasing weekly, local churches are closing, budgets are in crisis…what used to be a reality where the "church" stood in the center of culture, now it stands on the outskirts. I don't know whether having somebody like Tim as a hero makes many church folk feel like we are reliving the "good old days" where faith was front and center in culture or whether this is simply a "feel good story." All I know is that there are some dynamics of this "fad" that cause me to ponder the implications of cultural iconography and idol-atry.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me please. As I’ve said, I like Tebow. I actually rushed home last week to take a peek at the end of the Bronco game where he led another 4th quarter miracle. That was fun…but I still worship my God. I don’t go out and try to “Tebow” my way through life. I’ve spent too much time on my knees…more than I am willing to admit…usually in a state of utter brokenness and dependence upon God. In those moments, the last thing on my mind was having a camera around. In the meantime, I thank God for his success and pray for his humility of spirit and for the wisdom of the Body of Christ as it “lifts up” the real reason we follow Jesus, Jesus Himself.