Monday, January 9, 2012

My Best Guess: Tim Tebow

James Martin, Jesuit priest, editor of America magazine and Stephen Colbert's chaplain, recently wrote a wonderful piece about whether or not God answers Tim Tebow's prayers. In it, he brings into the theological conversation about Tebow's rather inexplicable success (especially against the Steelers in the wildcard game) the issue of theodicy, or the problem of evil in the world. Martin's reflections are a breath of fresh theological air in an otherwise stuffy conversation about God granting the Broncos touchdowns because of the prayers of their incidentally handsome quarterback.

Since Martin tackled that question better than I could have anyway, I want to focus instead on why Tim Tebow is interesting, regardless of his seemingly miraculous success on the gridiron. Tebow seems to be a major topic of conversation these days, dividing coworkers and classmates across the country. All of this Tebow-mania is an important factor in the colossal cultural symbol that is Tim Tebow.

For starters, it should come as absolutely no surprise that Tim Tebow plays professional football in Colorado. While the southern states bear most of the brunt of more secular-minded commentary on American Christianity, the state of Colorado is a major hub of Evangelicalism. Colorado Springs in particular boasts the church of the (scandalous) evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, as well as the headquarters for Focus on the Family.

It is more than just Colorado, however. Evangelicals have had major sway in the religious character of America in general since the 1970s. My own experience with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes leaves me rather unsurprised that a Christian of Tebow's stripe has riden to the level of public notoriety that he has. Tim Tebow encapsulates our cultural moment by blending Evangelical rhetoric and piety with professional sports. He submits himself, his body, to an American public with a voracious appetite for stories of personal triumph. The sliding economy, a circus of an election season, and the "end" of war that came in like a lion and out like a slaughtered lamb only exacerbate this appetite and the already idolatrous posture towards sports in this country. At the center is the handsome face of Tim Tebow, serving up the delicious mix of generic God-talk, aw-shucks-American-boyness and now, against-all-odds victories.

I will not say Tim Tebow is what Americans need but he is certainly what they want. He is less of an exception to the culture of NFL players and more of a giant mirror of NFL fans. Tim Tebow is the living, breathing mascot of 21st century American religion: intensely individual, theologically beholden to John 3:16 but willfully ignorant of Matthew 25: 31-46, and an invaluable tool in the construction of self-made man narratives that undergird the capitalist assumptions of this country.