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Tebowing ™ – Harmless, Faithful or Whore of Babylon Stuff?

So, just this morning, I was explaining to my husband that I feel pretty strongly that my blog is not the place for me to engage in criticism or debate. Rarely, if ever, will you hear me weighing in directly on the latest debate or controversy. And I engage in direct criticism of others next to never. I’d rather make a positive case for what I think and allow it to stand or fall on its own rather than use other view points as a foil. Yup. That’s what I was saying just this morning. Now watch as I throw all that out the window for a moment in order to discuss a news story that embodies a serious error in the way many of us practice our Christian faith.

So, in case the title of this post didn’t clue you in, the news story I’m referring to is that American football player Tim Tebow has filed a trademark on the word “Tebowing”. ‘ (For those of you who don’t keep up with such things, Mr. Tebow is an outspoken Evangelical Christian football player. He is known for dropping to one knee on the field after successful plays/touchdowns for a quick “prayer”. The gesture has been called “Tebowing”. He’s seeking a trademark on the word, not the gesture.)

Now, I should stop right here and make a few things clear. First is that I have no idea what the quality of Mr. Tebow’s faith life is. I cannot possibly say whether he has a genuine faith, an actual relationship with God or what his heart is. By all accounts he is a good man. Secondly, I am picking on Mr. Tebow here, but his actions don’t exist in a vaccumn. Rather, they are an entirely consistent playing out of the values, beliefs and practices of a large segment of the American church. His actions just provide an unusually high profile case study. So, that being said, allow me to explain my issue here.

Let’s start with something Jesus said, “if you love me, you will obey what I command.” So Jesus taught certain things and tells us to obey them. For example:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” – Matthew 6:5-6

So, this seems pretty straight-forward. Praying in public where everyone will see you engaging in prayer is something Jesus says not to do. Praying in front of a stadium full of people and millions more watching at home would seem to be a pretty clear violation of this instruction, non? But, but, but . . . other people are dancing around, spiking balls, making obscene gestures and more on the field! Isn’t it a good thing to push back with a demonstration of faith? Why is it OK to dance and gesture and thrust your hips around but not to pray? Good question. We’ll come back to that.

The reason often given for this rather blatant violation of Matthew 6:5-6 is something else which Jesus said:

“Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.”

However, there are two problems with this. First, the proper function of prayer isn’t to “acknowledge Jesus before men”. Prayer is between God and man. Not God and man and audience. There are many other ways to acknowledge God before man that don’t involve violating Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 6:5-6. Secondly, the absence of an act which announces one’s faith in Jesus is not the same thing as disowning or denying Jesus. There are many men who play sports and are open about their faith who do not stop to strike a prayer pose from time to time while in public. I hardly think their lack of “Tebowing” could be construed as some sort of denial of Jesus! So, I don’t find this argument at all persuasive.

Now, the act of “Tebowing” is one thing, but it’s this trademarking thing that’s really set me off. To start with, Tebow clearly doesn’t own and didn’t create the word. Other people, observing his on-field genuflecting did. But Tebow’s concern (or the concern of his marketing arm which filed the trademark request) has to do with control, power and presumably money. Because people have been making money off of “Tebowing”. There are websites and t-shirts and Lord knows what else. Now, I know that this is akin to blaspheming here in America, but really, should a Christian have a “marketing arm”? Not that I have anything against people making money, but seeing as this whole thing is taking place within the context of the NFL – a multi-billion dollar enterprise – it’s hard not to see the mixing of God and sport as more than a little bit questionable. But these are complex questions and I have a more specific point to make about the way we understand faithfulness to Christ.

Getting back to the trademark issue, Mr. Tebow says, this was done “more to control how it’s used as well. Make sure it’s used in the right way.” Now, let’s just say that someone is using it the “wrong way”. Maybe even using an image of “Tebowing” or the word in the context of blasphemy. Is working to gain control in order to prevent such nastiness a proper response for a practicing Christian? I would quite seriously argue not. When it comes to our enemies, Jesus had some rather specific instructions such as:

“Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” ~ Luke 6:35

So, it would actually be faithful for Mr. Tebow to allow others, including his enemies to profit off of him. Elsewhere we are told:

“Do not resist an evil man.” ~ Matthew 5:39

and

“If anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” ~ Luke 6:30

I think it’s quite safe to say that if Mr. Tebow wanted to err on the side of caution in following Jesus’ commands, he would let the whole thing go rather than working to gain control over it. Seeking control and trademark rights is certainly the American way. But I don’t think you can argue that it’s in alignment with the Christian Way. The two are different, after all.

Now all of this might seem a bit nitpicky. Except, as I said earlier, it is a great case study for how much of the American church thinks and operates. Which is to say by rejecting clear instructions from Jesus in favor of what makes sense to us. Remember that question I said to get back to earlier - “other people are dancing around, spiking balls, making obscene gestures and more on the field! Isn’t it a good thing to push back with a demonstration of faith? Why is it OK to dance and gesture and thrust your hips around but not to pray?” And there’s the rub. We have reasons that we don’t actually do the things which Jesus tells us to do. Good, practical reasons. Reasons that make sense – to witness, to stand up for rights, to push back against a depraved culture. Which is to say that we don’t think that Jesus’ instructions are going to address those issues. We think we know what will work better than he did. So we choose to do things our own way and call it faithfulness. But it’s not.

Take the issue of witnessing. This is probably the most common defense of Tebow’s brand of Christianity – he’s prostelitizing. People look up those bible verses he used to put on his face. Which is fine if the goal is to motivate people in their bible study. But it’s not witnessing. According to Jesus, they way we are supposed to be witnessing is very simple:

“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” ~ John 13:55

“Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” ~ Matthew 5:16

Talking about Jesus, crossing yourself, genuflecting, quoting scripture and other displays of religiosity aren’t the way to show that we are disciples of Jesus. Loving each other is. And I hate to be the one to say it, but religious displays aren’t the same thing as good deeds. If they were, God would have been thrilled with all the religious displays the Jews were putting on back in Jesus’ day. Rather, it the way that you treat people. It’s the way that you serve people. And the way that you love people. Those are things which will lead people to praise our Father in heaven. Of course, God can use anything to draw people to himself. I’ve known people who were brought to faith through street preachers telling them God hates them and crimes committed against them. But that doesn’t make those things into actual forms of witnessing. Again, it’s not OK for us to decide that we know a way of accomplishing the work we’ve been given that is more realistic or effective than the ways that Jesus told us to use.

When I started writing this post, I was pretty hot under the collar. I ended up stopping and re-writing it because what I originally wrote was kind of harsh. Condemning even. But part way through I remembered that there’s a reason that I don’t use my blog to do criticism. If you only know me from reading my blog, you may not realize this, but one of my worst faults by far is my sharp tongue. And not only do I have a sharp tongue, I’m really, really good at it. I can rip you a new one like no one’s business. I’ll take just about any argument you make, shred it up and hand it back to you in such a way that you’ll regret having made it. In fact, this is a skill I honed while making arguments for my faith. Which is to say that I regularly engaged in behavior which is condemned by scripture in service to my faith.

Winning was more important to me than loving, serving and obeying. Because winning is good, right? Only God doesn’t need my help winning. Never did. I was being faithless in service to my own ideas about how things ought to be done. And while I’m pretty darn good about not doing it here, it’s something I still struggle with in my personal relationships on nearly a daily basis. But, over time I’m learning to prioritize Jesus’ instructions over my own ideas about how to get things done.

So, I understand the urge to substitute my own ways for the ways that I’ve been told as a Christian to do things. And as much as I sometimes want to justify that because I’m right or it seems like a reasonable, effective way of doing things, I do try my best not to engage in criticism, arguments and controversy here. Because my faith tells me that so far as it is up to me, not to be in conflict with people. Scriptures list arguing, hostility and strife as sin alongside murder and promiscuity. I’m instructed to have a gentle spirit. And although conflict and controversy is the currency of the internet and I could probably be much more popular if I displayed my own prowess at these things, I am trusting that Jesus’ way will lead to something better. Something that maybe even lasts in some way.

And it’s for this reason that I broke my own rule against criticism and controversy. Because I do believe that many American Christians are doing just what Tebow’s been doing and what I’ve often done as well – ignoring Jesus’ teachings and calling it faith. But really following Jesus means giving up everything – even our fighting and pseudo-witnessing – in order to follow him. If we love him, it’s what we’ll do. At least that’s what the bible says. Which should be good enough for us. After all, whatever happened to “the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”? ;)

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4 thoughts on “Tebowing ™ – Harmless, Faithful or Whore of Babylon Stuff?

  1. There is no doubt in my mind that belief in the neoliberal economic theory (that if the individual strives for maximum economic prosperity the result will be maximum prosperity for all*) conflicts with the Gospel ethic.

    Ayn Rand was wrong, “selfishness” is not only not a virtue; but, although it increases the chances of survival in solitary animals, it lessens the chances of survival in social animals. Reciprocal altruism and, in cases of extreme common threat, self-sacrificial altruism increase the chances of group survival, the ultimate common good.

    Economics drives social interactions. Contemporary First World capitialism, also known as “turbo capitalism” or “capitalism on steroids”, has resulted in the commodification of all things including the practice of our religious faith.

    *The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. –John Kenneth Galbraith

    Hell hath no fury like an interest masquerading as a principle.
    –Anonymous

    No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Matthew 6:24

    I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time. –Mahatma Gandhi

    We are the first civilisation to treat monetary accumulation as an absolute goal, and it has obscured the whole of our discourse about shared well-being, or the “common good.” ~Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury

    “The crisis which the Western society is undergoing has primarily spiritual roots.” ~ Metropolitan Hilarion, Russian Orthodox archbishop

    Like

  2. What a great, thoughtful post! I’ve always been told to witness through example, but this has still made me rethink some of the reasons behind my actions. It’s about the audience of One: what glory does God receive from my action, as opposed to what glory do I receive?

    Thank you. :)

    Like

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