Golden boy…or golden calf?

When the people saw that Elway was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Reebok and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.  As for this fellow Elway who brought us up out of San Diego…then, the next year, out of Miami…we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Reebok answered them, “Go thee to NFL.com and click on ‘Shop Now.’  There shalt thou see the Denver Broncos link.  Link, therefore, and makest thou a customizable jersey inscribed with the name of thy god and his most sacred number: 15.   And, lo, if thusly thou shalt act, even now shalt thou be blest with 15% off…and free shipping.”  (Exodus 32:1-2, ESPN Paraphrase Edition)

I’m not much of a pro sports fan, but I’ve been intrigued by Tebow Mania.  For you non-sports fans, allow me to bring you up to speed:

  • Tim Tebow is a second-year NFL quarterback who played for Florida State and was the first sophomore – and first home-schooled athlete – to win the Heisman trophy
  • He’s the son of Baptist missionaries and was the subject of a pro-life Focus on the Family commercial broadcast during Super Bowl XLIV
  • In 2011, the NCAA instituted a rule banning written messages in players’ eye black because  a few players, including Tebow, had been writing Bible verses on their cheeks

At first, devotion (and vilification) of this QB seemed like your normal, run-of-the-mill hero worship (and hero stomping.)  Kind of a hazing ritual, Denver’s way of welcoming you to the team.  Then, more and more people started tuning in to Broncos’ post game shows – because you can always count on Tebow to give a brief witness whenever the Broncos win.  His official website features a verse of the day (although, Tebow fans, if you’re reading this, please drop The Tebe a line and ask him to hyperlink the verses to www.biblegateway.com so I don’t have to look them up myself.)  Then, of course, the Tebowing started.  (You know you’re popular when they turn your name into a verb.) 

Still, I thought all of this was just an interesting sociological study until this morning when I learned that Tebow fans all over the country are spending $96 on official NFL fan jerseys featuring Tebow’s number…and the name of Jesus.*

After getting the initial “WTF??” reaction out of my system, I got to thinking about what the Tebow phenomenon says about Christians.  And I came up with three things.

First, it’s hard to be in relationship with a jealous deity who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  The human brain can’t get around all that; consequently, God can seem a little, well, abstract.  The Israelites experienced this disconnect from God as something intolerable.  I think that’s why they begged Aaron to make them something – anything – that they could see and touch and experience as divine.  I can’t speak to the psychology of ancient people, but did they really think the calf WAS God or did they just need a tangible reminder OF God?

Today, our discomfort with God’s abstraction more popularly expresses itself as atheism, agnosticism, or frostily intellectual forms of Christianity that don’t allow passion to stir discontent.  But some Christians experience that discontent as the Israelites did – hence the Tim Tebows of the world.  He’s here, he’s now, he’s in our living rooms every Sunday, for heaven’s sake.  And he speaks a language that resonates with the converted – he reminds us that God is still out there.

The problem is that our idols keep God “out there.”  That’s why the prophets and apostles spent so much time pulling their hair and pointing their fingers and shrieking at the top of their lungs about the things we use as understudies for God.  Let’s be serious, here.  God doesn’t care if you have a statue of Pele on your mantle any more than God cares if you have a miniature replica of the Lombardi trophy in your china hutch.  What God cares about is whether or not your interest in that item keeps you from fully experiencing a relationship with God in a daily and direct way.

Secondly, it’s hard to wait for the kingdom.  Now, Christians aren’t exactly in agreement about what “kingdom of God” means.  Some of us believe it’s a heavenly reward for a life well-lived, whereas some of us believe it’s our God-given charge to work toward peace, justice, and stewardship in this life.  Either way, we’ve all got a long wait before we reach it.  And as any child counting the days off until Christmas will tell you with grave authority, waiting sucks.

The Tebows of the world don’t make us wait.  The outcome of this week’s ball game is, at most, seven days away…except during the off-season.  I think that’s why some of us keep subordinate idols in reserve until our actual idols get back to training camp.  (For example, Colorado Rockies boy-of-summer Troy Tulowitzki can stand in for Tim Tebow!)

Thirdly, I think a lot of us, not just Christians, are sick to death of the excesses and perversions of celebrity (even as we greedily scan the tabloids for the latest scoops on Jennifer Aniston and Newt Gingrich**).  We’re tired of watching millionaires and billionaires in sports and Hollywood duke it out over huge pieces of the collective pie.  We’re tired of the temper tantrums, the sex scandals, the domestic violence, the drug abuse, and society’s apparent disinterest in holding anyone with wealth and fame accountable.  (Forgetting, that we ourselves are the society that should be doing that very thing.)  We’re tired and we’re jaded.  Then here comes this fresh-faced, likeable, morally upright football player.  He’s such a breath of fresh air in a suffocating landscape of greed, violence, and decadence, we can’t help but sit up and take notice.

I have to admit to being a bit wearied by Tebow’s evangelizing during every locker room interview and his frequent, public descents to one knee.  But in the interest of science, I did check out a website listing all the verses he’d so infamously scrawled on his cheeks for college football games.  Here’s a sampling:

  •  “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  •  “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” (Colossians 3:23)

Nothing threatening or damning here, but some of the finest examples of the universality of the Christian message and, in its purest form, our hope for the world.  Maybe the kid’s on to something.

I don’t know anything about Tebow and will take his cue when he recently said that it’s beyond us to know the inner workings of someone else’s heart.  But I will say that fame and spectacular wealth are corrosive – they cushion people from the raw realities of life and numb us to each other and to God.  So, a word of caution to those who act like they’re worshiping at Tebow’s altar – you’re feeding the flame that topples saints.  Don’t make a golden calf of this quarterback.

I mean, it’s not like he’s Elway.  He doesn’t even have a golden arm.

* I can’t make this stuff up.  Check it out:  http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/blog/shutdown_corner/post/Tim-Tebow-may-be-OK-with-8216-Jesus-8217-jer?urn=nfl-wp12021

** Not to imply that they’re a couple…although I confess that if a tabloid ever breaks that story, I’ll be the first in line to read it.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011

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