OK, the ‘Tebowing’ thing has been on the edge of my consciousness for a while now, mentioned on Twitter feeds and the like every so often. I could see various American friends getting exercised about it, concerned that it promoted ‘slot machine prayer’ theology, in which public intercession by a quarterback could be expected to ensure divine aid for his side in winning the game. Of course this isn’t good theology, but a not-dissimilar belief in the efficacy of prayer in promoting selfish wants is almost universal in Christian piety in my pastoral experience, and this example seemed less awful than some others (unless you happen to be a Steelers fan, I guess…)
I confess that I didn’t get why everyone is so excited about it: I follow American football very vaguely, and so wasn’t aware just how much hype and expectation there was around this particular athlete. (I think the last time I watched a Broncos game on TV, some guy named Elway was calling the plays…) Beyond that, sporting competitors kneeling to pray after a success is not new, and was even being recommended as a form of witness twenty years back by the UK organisation Christians in Sport, if my memory serves. Whether we like it or not, sportspeople (and musicians, and TV/film personalities) are hugely interesting to children, and indeed to many others, and a visible indication of Christian faith is possibly of some significance. So I was leaving the Tebowing on the edge of my consciousness quite happily; I was aware that (several of) my American friends were heartily wishing the whole thing would just go away; beyond that, I was rather uninterested.
Then John Franke posted this story by Rick Reilly on Facebook.
There’s no mention here of Christian faith; instead some uncomfortable echoes of a native American Pelagian gospel of self-reliance (‘I am the captain of my fate…’); I am sure the money involved is almost insignificant in the context of Tebow’s salary, and I suppose most of the practical arrangements are done by his ‘people’. But it’s a story of someone, known for his Christianity, doing good things in a spirit of self-forgetfulness and humility. (The line ‘he’d just played the game of his life, and the first thing he did was find Bailey and ask if she’d got some food…’ speaks very well of the man’s character in this respect.) I know it is just one story – albeit by a writer who commands some respect – and I realise that there might be a lot more to be said, and also that much of it might be less wholesome.
As I read Reilly’s piece, however, I thought of the stories I’ve recently read of our own, British, sports stars. Lots, of course, about commitment and dedication to training – Lendl’s comments on Andy Murray; tales of Olympic hopefuls. But beyond that, outside of tales of professionalism – well, recently it’s been alleged assaults on ex-girlfriends, racial abuse, a cricketer taking money to make a spot bet come good (& being such a rubbish cricketer that he failed!), and plenty of the usual diet of greed and petulance. Not much about people who care more about looking after a sick child than celebrating their own performance, even when the rest of the world is praising them to the skies.
Now maybe it’s happening, unreported by our press. Maybe Wayne Rooney is doing this every week; it’s not impossible. Assuming, however, that there is no strange press silence, I’d rather our playgrounds and pubs were buzzing about someone like Tebow than, well, any premiership footballer I can presently name. And if the price of that is some slightly mawkish and very public displays of devotion, and some dubious narratives of divine interest in the outcome of sports games then, you know what, I’d live with it.
Really, if you don’t want him, send him over here. We could do with a decent role model, someone living his faith in public in genuine and powerful ways, just now.
(Of course, it could never happen. He’d have to learn to play a proper sport, one not involving body armour and breaks to catch breath every few seconds…)