Friday, October 16, 2009

Tebow's Religious Critics Miss The Mark

Tim Tebow's public religious expression has hit the radar this week.

USA Today religion columnist Tom Krattenmaker put up a column on Monday questioning the very visible way Tebow expresses his religion. Fort Myers News-Press columnist Sam Cook took that column and ran with it -- fairly far off the deep end.

Let's start with this: Both columnists are entitled to their opinion. And, as someone Jewish and with a predominantly secular view of the world, I think I have an appropriately skeptical filter by which to evaluate Tebow.

And what I would say is this: I have scrutinized and analyzed Tebow's expression of his faith about as intensely as anyone, and both critics are plagued by a shallow understanding of how Tebow expresses his faith -- at least as it happens on the football field.

Maybe this is just great expectations management -- and that would be in line with Tebow's interest in harnessing the power of influence -- but, if anything, Tebow is remarkable for the selectivity he displays in showcasing his values on the field.

Start with this: Faith is core to who Tebow is. Whatever one's core belief system or priority might be, it will be next-to-impossible to remove it entirely from the rest of your life. Let's not make judgments about what that priority might be.

When you watch Tebow play football, you get one expression of that faith: The eye-black. And, frankly, if you were interested in expressing yourself and whatever you did to express yourself instantly became the No. 1 most-searched term on Google, you'd do it, too.

And I do see it as expression: I think that Tebow wears the eye-black as an expression of his faith -- if folks want to see what that expression means, that's their choice. It's not like he's forcing you to go Google "Phil 4:13."

After the eye-black? Well... that's about it.

Want to know what Tim Tebow does first when he throws a touchdown? He jumps into the arms of his linemen. Then he might do the Gator Chomp. What you don't see him doing -- at least regularly -- is the "clasped-hands" thing that Danny Wuerffel used to do.

Have you ever listened to Tim Tebow give a post-game interview on the field? He doesn't start with "First, I'd like to thank my lord and savior, Jesus Christ." Actually, he starts with something far more banal: "That was a great win." And "My teammates played great." And "I feel so good for all of Gator Nation."

Does he end the interview with "God bless?" Yes. I'd hardly call that in-your-face proselytizing.

There is a very important reason -- I'd even go so far as to call it a self-serving reason -- that Tebow, in fact, does NOT put his religion in the face of fans, as his critics have misleadingly characterized:

As a student of influence, Tebow knows that if he was heavy-handed about it, he would be marginalized by the masses, including the mass media. If he was in-your-face about it, his efforts would have the opposite effect -- you'd be turned off to him... and his message.

Compare the way Tim Tebow talks to the media with the way Bob Tebow talks to the media. Bob is much more vocal in his proselytizing -- that may be a reason why you don't see him being interviewed on TV all that often. But Bob isn't a public figure -- he is a very dedicated missionary.

Tim is obviously dedicated, too, but is a public figure. As such, Tim has a much keener and intuitive understanding of influence and message management.

Tebow may have core beliefs about the salvation of the soul, but he often talks of far more earthly goals: Getting people to live in more socially mindful ways -- effectively, it's nothing more dogmatic than the Golden Rule.

Tebow knows that there are plenty of people out there -- the vast majority of people -- who have no interest in being saved. So his goal with them is to simply inspire them to be better people, better contributors to society. That's why he helped raise money for a pediatric unit of Florida's Shands hospital. That's entirely non-secular, and something everyone can rally around.

In that way, Tebow is actually quite the humanist. Is he a secular humanist? No. But there should be room for both kinds, right?

I have no idea how Tim Tebow feels about me and my soul. I can suspect that he thinks that because I don't believe in Jesus Christ, I'm damned. He probably has genuine concern for me about that, even if I myself am not concerned.

But I can also suspect that if he and I sat down to chat, his mission would not be to convert me. He knows that's not what I'm interested in -- and that, if pressed, I would tune him out. Instead, I would imagine he would ask me how I could use my media platform to help raise money for the hospital -- or the charity of my choice, frankly.

In fact, if I ever get the chance to talk with Tebow -- for this blog, or otherwise -- it is precisely this topic of how he thinks about the public consumption of his values that I'd find most fascinating to talk about.

It is really easy -- too easy, actually -- for critics to focus on the very publicized display (even distraction) of the eye-black and leap to the conclusion that Tim Tebow is somehow inflicting his religious values on the rest of us in a way that reinforces that religion has no place in sports.

I think it's more interesting -- and accurate -- to see the bigger picture: What Tebow ISN'T doing, as much as what he is doing.

For more on this, please see my post from August 31st about Tebow's Christianity...and his Humanism.


  1. Well put. My take (and frame of reference, in terms of both ethics and ethos, by the way) on TT as a public figure and as a young man is the same. Despite our disparate backgrounds and lives, as a Gator and a human being I'm PROUD of him. Somehow, as a passionate partisan and team leader, a warrior at that, all but the most twisted haters (they're always out there--do they blog while we sleep?) respect him. Amongst all that fan emotion, somehow he builds bridges, brings people closer. As usual, the so-called experts and pundits miss the point, overlook the real story. I've always had a problem with athletes talking and acting as if some all-powerful LORD took a personal interest in a particular team or individual's success. That is not Tebow's way. He's a good-natured, high-spirited competitor, and a Gator through and through. He also has beliefs, ethics, priorities and some idea of a "big picture", a set of dreams, values and life-goals above and beyond the here and now. Whether we share them or not, we know he is sincere; he is a complete person, and I think that is what makes him such a compelling public figure.

  2. I agree 100% Dru. There is something so different about Tebow as a person that impacts people. I really can't put my finger on it. His mom said he had a gift for speaking to people. I think that ability to speak to people is a by product of this unusual quality Tebow possesses. It's like a purity of heart.

  3. Dan, you should blog about this video. Lane may be a little turkey sometimes.. but he nailed my sentiments about Tebow going pro. I have seen Tebow doubted at every level and proving the doubters wrong. I truly believe that Tebow will be an even better player in the pros than in college. He will be just as dominant if not more so.