Thursday, January 12, 2012

Some Reflections on the Tim Tebow Phenomenon, Part 2

In Tuesday's post, I introduced the subject of the burgeoning popularity of Denver Broncos' quarterback Tim Tebow among evangelical Christians and their defensive reaction to the skeptical—indeed, critical—response to him by the overwhelming majority of football pundits.

I have nothing personally against Tebow. Indeed, he is a brother in Christ who has, by all accounts, followed St. Paul's injunction to live a life "worthy" of the gospel (Phil 1:27) and has not intentionally drawn attention to himself away from his Lord Jesus Christ. So far, so good. Nevertheless, I have some, albeit minor, concerns about the propriety and effectiveness of how he testifies to his faith publicly, and more substantial problems with how his Christian defenders have responded to perceived and actual slights against him. In this post, I will address the former of these concerns, leaving the latter to a subsequent installment.

The matter of athletes using their fame as a "platform" for Christian witness has been taken up admirably by Tim Gombis over at Faith Improvised (see his posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Without duplicating what Professor Gombis has said, I would like to focus on three matters relevant to the discussion.

First, the type of Christian "witness" exemplified by Tebow's public post game "thanks" to God and John 3:16-highlighted eyeblack trivializes the nature of authentic Christian witness. The most salient factor in understanding Tebow is knowledge of his evangelical background, whose ethos he epitomizes. Evangelical Christianity, by any definition, takes seriously the parting commission Jesus gave his disciples to witness about him and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19; Acts 1:8), rightly discerning that this responsibility to "evangelize" falls upon all of Jesus' followers.

However, evangelicalism in its American incarnation, perhaps due to the pervasive cultural influence of advertising, has always fallen victim to, and even promoted, a sloganeering and visible token approach to witness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the "WWJD" craze of the 1990s or in the ubiquitous ichthys (fish) decals found on cars ostensibly operated by Christians—though the effectiveness of such may be questioned when, as happened to me once, the driver of said vehicle flashes a Bronx salute! Or consider a prayer I heard back in my high school days that we Christian students would carry our Bibles to school to witness to the gospel. I would likewise place Tebow's John 3:16 eyeblack in the same category. In all these examples the Christian message is reduced to a slogan and/or is portrayed by a visible token symbolically designed to represent and promote the truth. One might respond that such examples are harmless, and to a certain extent I would agree. Nevertheless, the fundamental question begs asking: Is this what the New Testament writers had in mind when they spoke of Christian witness in the world?

The irony is that this approach to witness bears striking similarity to the behavior of the "scribes and Pharisees" whom Jesus excoriated for "mak[ing] their phylacteries broad and their fringes long" (Matt 23:5, in literal observance of the Mosaic prescript of Deut 6:8), and for "lov[ing] to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners" (Matt 6:5). In contrast to such visible displays of piety, Jesus commands: "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret" (Matt 6:6). Reflecting on this verse not long ago, I was reminded of N. T. Wright's dedication of his work The Climax of the Covenant (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991) to his parents for their example of, inter alia, "undemonstrative Christian witness" (xiii). I thought then, as I do now, that this wholly admirable perspective is less intelligible on this side of the pond than it is in England.

Yes, the New Testament enjoins Jesus' followers to evangelize—indeed, always to be ready to provide an answer to the inquirer (1 Pet 3:15). Moreover, I would argue that everything a Christian does must be done as a Christian. This means that the Christian is ultimately building for the kingdom in everything he or she does, and that one's identity and priorities as a Christian must influence how one proceeds in every endeavor, whether as a minister, professor, politician, printer, or athlete. There are truly no closet Christians, and Tebow is to be commended for joining scores of other Christians in the boldness of their faith. What I question is the necessity, or even the propriety, of thus trivializing such witness in visible, contextually-inappropriate ways that, whether designed to or not, serve ultimately to draw attention to oneself.

Second, the type of Christian "witness" exemplified by Tebow's public post game "thanks" to God and John 3:16-highlighted eyeblack trivializes the content of the Christian gospel. This claim opens a whole can of worms, which hopefully I will address in the coming weeks. Indeed, such a claim runs counter to a veritable tradition in evangelical circles that seeks to boil down the gospel mesage to its essence so as not to overly complicate matters. Some 46 years later, I still remember my 4th grade teacher at the local Lutheran grade school, John Kieschnick (who later went on to become a prominent Missouri-Synod Lutheran minister in Houston), say that John 3:16 is "the gospel in a nutshell." That it may be, but what it says must be fleshed out considerably to understand what exactly it is saying. The gospel, as I will argue, is far more than a message of the availability of "fire insurance" through believing in Jesus.

A far greater problem, however, is not limited to Tebow, but is shared by countless Christian athletes who thank God after victory, either explicitly or implicitly attributing the game's outcome to the providential hand of God (Tebow, it must be said, has also thanked God after losses, thus demonstrating keener logic than many others). This raises a question, articulated clearly by the most learned of American sports pundits, Bob Costas, as to whether or not God is in the business of caring, let alone actively deciding, the outcomes of sporting events. The simple answer to this complex question is, from a Calvinist perspective, both "Yes" and "No." Clearly, however, it would be precarious indeed to posit the outcomes of individual games to the workings of God's direct, causative providence, no matter how comprehensive one understands God's sovereign plan or "decree" to be. Thanking God for outcomes of individual games simply trivializes God's sovereignty and, ironically, does little to enhance Christian witness to people in the outside word who, like Costas, don't have to think too hard to dredge up countless counter-examples.

This last point leads to a third and final observation. The type of Christian "witness" exemplified by Tebow's public post game "thanks" to God and John 3:16-highlighted eyeblack is often counterproductive in today's cultural climate. Given the state of the cultural climate in the postmodern West, one common reaction could be characterized thus: "That's great. I'm glad that works for you, but I don't feel that need for myself." More commonly, however—and I say this as one with years of experience on a factory floor—the reaction is cynicism bordering on hostility. Gombis points to Sinclair Lewis's 1927 novel, Elmer Gantry, and I well remember the first time I saw Richard Brooks's 1960 film of the novel, starring Burt Lancaster in an Oscar-winning take on the title character. That is how vocal Christian evangelists are viewed by millions of non-Christians throughout the West, and trivial displays of piety, no matter how well-meaning, are not apt to convince them otherwise. It is very public displays of hypocrisy of this sort, not the theological message of the cross, that have contributed most to the immunity of many to the persuasive power of public displays of piety and would-be witness. We indeed live in a time that is less accepting of overt displays of Christian piety than in previous generations. No one disputes that. But if so, indulging in nostalgia or ignoring the indisputable are futile enterprises. Would it not be wisest to adjust our approach accordingly?

Our Lord, when instructing his disciples in preparation for their short-term missionary foray into Galilee (and, by implication, our post-Easter mission to the world), warned them thus of opposition: "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16). My concern is that wisdom is the missing element in much of evangelical witness today. How, then, should we proceed? How, that is, can Christians more effectively demonstrate the truth and power of the Gospel? Proclamation and reasoned argument have a necessary role, to be sure—but in the proper contexts. Just as important are the individual lives of Christ's followers as they "adorn" the message of the gospel with their good works (e.g., Tit 1:10). "Faith without works" is as deleterious to Christian mission as it is futile in the matter of one's individual justification.

Most important of all, however, is what Francis Schaeffer once called "The Mark of the Christian," namely, the love each of us is to show for other believers in the Lord (John 13:35). The question we need to ask ourselves is this: how zealous are we as Christians to manifest the love toward our brothers and sisters that Jesus said would be the mark of his followers? And if we are not thus zealous, why aren't we? And have we given due consideration to the unintended consequences of this failure on the progress of Christian mission?

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