Monday, December 12, 2011
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Jewish Week Online Columnist
I’ve got a Tim Tebow problem.
I want to root for the guy, but I’m afraid of what will happen if the hulky Denver Bronco quarterback continues to pull off what is fast becoming the Greatest Gridiron Story Ever Told. Since taking over as starting quarterback earlier this season, the Heisman winning national champion from the University of Florida has been winning consistently and dramatically, in the final minutes of the game or overtime, relying on powerful legs rather than his infamously erratic arm and confounding skeptical fans along with the Bronco management, who, it is said, were hoping he would fail.
A poster boy of the Christian right, Tebow steadfastly thanks Jesus after every game and, while in college, often inscribed biblical messages on his eye paint. Homeschooled in Alabama, this child of missionaries turned down his selection as a Playboy All American because it was, well, Playboy. His trademark prayerful touchdown celebration (imagine Rodin’s “Thinker” on bended knee, or your grandfather davening Tachanun with a football) has become a verb. Google “tebowing” and you’ll find 84 million hits, including lots of YouTube parodies. Tebow’s mother, a Baptist missionary, became comatose during her pregnancy and was saved by drugs that nearly killed the fetus. Doctors anticipated a stillbirth and recommended termination to protect her life, but Tim’s mother refused to abort. Trumpeting that decision, mother and son appeared in commercials for “Focus on the Family” during this past season’s Super Bowl.
Now tiny Tim has grown and is on track to possibly appear in this season’s Super Bowl – on the field – and that is what scares me.
In this country, nothing, not even God, is more popular than football. Even in the wake of a summer long labor dispute, 23 of the 25 most watched TV programs this fall have been NFL games. When you combine the religion that is football with the religion that is religion, the mix can be dangerously flammable. The NFL ratings rise has been fueled in part by Tebow’s legions of faithful followers, as well as by those simply curious to see how this implausible morality tale plays out.
Next Sunday, the Broncos host the New England Patriots in a game coveted so much by the networks that NBC and CBS sparred in unprecedented fashion over who would get to broadcast it. And why not? While the Patriots are adored by their fans (myself included), to many nationwide they are regarded as the Sons of Darkness, with their perfectly coiffed Hollywood quarterback and their brilliant – one might say diabolical – hoodie-clad coach. And, oh yes, the most identifiably Jewish owner in sports. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft are all upstanding citizens, moral exemplars in their home communities, but in this Oberammergau of the Rockies, they are playing the role of Pilate.
People are always looking for signs of God’s beneficence, and a victory by the Orange Crush over the blue-clad Patriots, from the bluest of blue states, will give fodder to a Christian revivalism that has already turned the Republican presidential race into a pander-thon to social conservatives, rekindling memories of those cultural icons of the ‘80s, the Moral Majority and “Hee Haw.” The culture wars are alive and well, and, if the current climate in Washington is any indicator, the motors are being revved up for what will undoubtedly be the most cantankerous Presidential campaign ever. When supposedly well-educated candidates publicly question overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change and evolution and then gain electoral traction by fabricating conspiracies about a war on Christmas, these are not rational times.
Into the middle of it all rides Tebow. Absolutely confident that God is on his side, he comes across as a humbler version of the biblical Joseph, who, in this week’s Torah portion, audaciously lays claim to being the Chosen One, and then goes out and proves it. Tebow’s sanctimonious God-talk has led even pious peers like Kurt Warner to suggest that he cool it. Joseph could have used the same coaching.
If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants. While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell’s first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably.
Little of this insanity, mind you, has to do with Tebow himself. I admire much of what he stands for. His mom’s decision to risk her own life rather than abort her fetus flies against my own – and Judaism’s – values, but neither am I pro-choice in all cases. His story is so improbable that if he were to win it all, a part of me would be wondering whether there is a Purpose behind it, just as I saw a divine hand in the equally unbelievable Red Sox victory of 2004. And it makes me wonder whether other Jews, the ones who don’t happen to have advanced degrees in religion and a few decades of rabbinic experience, might be even more seduced by this unfolding drama. Will legions of Southern Baptist missionaries hit the college campuses the very next day, spreading this new gospel of Tim? Already there is a “Jews for Tebow” Facebook page.
Tebow used to wear eye black citing Ephesians 2:8-10, which states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith (in Jesus).” His avenue to salvation is not available to those Jews who wish to remain Jewish.
Unlike some other blue-staters, I do not fear people of faith. I fear people of certainty. The worldwide struggle going on right now is not between good and evil, but between certainty and doubt. It cuts across denominational lines: Progressive and Modern Orthodox Jews lie on one side of the divide, joining mainline Christians and moderate Muslims; and those on the other side are also Jews, Christians and Muslims; the people of certainty.
For me, only one thing is certain. On Sunday, I’ll be praying for the Patriots.