After Tim Tebow threw four interceptions against the Buffalo Bills on Christmas Eve, Bill Maher decided it was time to light up the Twitterverse: “Wow, Jesus just (a word not suitable for this paper) Tim Tebow bad! And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is Tebowing, saying to Hitler, ‘Hey, Buffalo’s killing them.’ ” It was a predictable tweet from Maher, the stridently atheist host of HBO’s “Real Time,” and it touched off an equally predictable response from at least one conservative Christian. “Bill Maher is disgusting vile trash,” Eric Bolling of Fox News tweeted. “I can’t even repeat what he just tweeted about Tebow ... on Christmas Eve. #straighttohellBill.”
But Maher’s tweet also led to a very intelligent column by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. In it, she said right off the bat that she is no Christian, but she also said she saw little reason why so many people objected to Tebow’s willingness to show his faith publicly by kneeling in prayer during a game.
She pointed out that it was a graceful gesture of humility that points to a higher power rather than the individual. Yet, it makes many nonbelievers uncomfortable because a public assertion of faith makes them think that maybe, just maybe, they are wrong. Maybe there is more to this world than random events bumping into each other like subway passengers getting on and off the train.
There is another side to this argument, though, that I think is important for Christians to consider: Why get upset at all about what Maher and his ilk say about Christianity? He’s bright but not what I would call a profound thinker, and his jokes sound like they come from the guy who thinks he’s the smartest student in 12th grade political science. He’s more smirk than smarts.
But that smirk sure can be intolerable, because it’s aimed right at a painful, poignant insecurity: the human longing for the comfort of certainty.
God doesn’t make things very easy for Christians. We are called in unequivocal, inescapable language to renounce our sense of self and live to do good for others. We are called upon not simply to do no harm to others but to forgive and pray for those who have done us injury. We are called upon to set aside our fears, forgo running roughshod over our fellows as we try to ally those fears and trust that God will see us through our hard times. We are called upon to live a life so counter to our natural impulses that it might seem like some cosmic punishment or joke.
And what do we get in return? The promise of heaven, of which we have no direct knowledge. But we do have plenty of direct knowledge of people such as Maher asking us if we would like a side of unicorns to go with that big helping of Jesus.
That’s enough sometimes to make one think the Inquisition wasn’t all bad.
It’s also enough to make us overreach. A school of thought rumbling through the Internet echo chamber holds that Tebow’s penchant for dramatic fourth-quarter and overtime victories is so unlikely, so against prevailing football reason that there must be a higher power at work. Tebow, with his questionable passing skills and shaky coverage reads, can look so awful for three and a half quarters, and then when all seems lost he becomes unstoppable as a passer and a runner. Surely, this is God using one of his earthly favorites to tell the rest of us that he exists and is acting always in this world to make sure good things happen to the faithful. Need more proof?
In a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the No. 1 defense in the NFL, Tebow threw for 316 yards. What was that number again? 316? As in John 3:16? Case closed.
Uh, not so fast. Suppose something like this happens: Suppose Tebow had a monster day in the Super Bowl, throwing for 444 yards and running for 222 yards. What’s that add up to? 666? Moreover, the starting defensive secondary for the opposing team knocked itself out of the game when all of the four players collided with each other going for an interception on the same play. It was such an odd thing to see. Suppose that the team Tebow and the Broncos vanquish was the Saints. What should we think then? Comedians would have a field day with that and say that “Tebowing” now means drawing a pentagram and chanting “come to me, my dark master.”
Besides, after the dramatic win against the Steelers, Tebow and the Broncos were routed by the New England Patriots. Badly routed. Somehow, I don’t think that means that God was throwing darts at his Tebow poster that day.
Tebow’s onfield heroics are impressive, inspiring yet ultimately distracting if we’re looking for a path to a deeper faith. What Tebow is showing us is that a tremendously talented athlete with a strong work ethic who is bolstered by his Christianity is capable of defying the critics and sages and doing what they said he could never do. It doesn’t necessarily follow that angels are perched on the laces of the footballs he is throwing in a two-minute offense with his team down by four points.
On a very deep level, Christianity is a risk, not a certainty, and therein lies its beauty. If it were to be irrefutably proven through empirical research that God does indeed exist and that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the resurrected Son of God, then my faith would no longer be faith. It would be something like the relationship I have with my employer: I perform in good conscience the duties assigned to me, and I am rewarded. It would have the predictablility and spiritual nourishment of a metronome: I do this ... I get that ... I do this ... I get that ...
But when I believe in a God I cannot prove empirically, when I base my life upon a mystery that borders on an absurdity, I take a leap out of this world and into something else, something that postwar Italian Premier Alcide De Gasperi called an “abyss of light.” I feel myself in the grip of something so powerful that I don’t need my faith confirmed by a quarterback’s unlikely success, a granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments in a courthouse or any other physical presence.
However, if I wish to see God truly at work in the life of Tebow, I can still find that -- in Tebow’s off-field acts of generosity and compassion. In a moving column, ESPN writer Rick Reilly describes the lengths Tebow has gone (plane tickets, car rentals, good tickets to the game, dinner, a visit with the phenom before and after the game, etc.) to give people who are ill, dying, crippled or otherwise having a rough go of it a special day at a Broncos game.
Here’s an e-mail that Reilly quoted in his column; it’s from a 16-year-old girl who has Wegener’s granulomatosis, an affliction that has cost her one lung and 73 surgeries. Here’s what she said about what Tim Tebow gave her: “It was the best day of my life. It was a bright star among very gloomy and difficult days. Tebow gave me the greatest gift I could ever imagine. He gave me the strength for the future. I know now that I can face any obstacle placed in front of me. Tim taught me to never give up because at the end of the day, today might seem bleak but it can’t rain forever and tomorrow is a new day, with new promises.”
Nothing that has been written about Tebow’s on-field heroics can hold a candle to that, and that’s the sort of third-party comments about the Denver quarterback that should be commanding our attention, and reminding us of our duties to our fellow humans. And if we listen to such voices, then the sounds emanating from the Twitterverse would hold no more of our attention than the chattering of a magpie.
John Parnell is a copy editor/designer for The Telegraph.