Monday, 9 July 2012

View from America: can an evangelical athlete conquer the Godless Big Apple?

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his second dispatch he asks how the arrival of the American footballer Tim Tebow, America's most famous evangelical athlete, will go down in the country's most secular city.
The Secular Centre, Episode 2: Making Secular Sense of an Evangelical Sports Icon

Tim Tebow, perhaps the most high-profile Evangelical athlete in American history, is going to be playing in New York City – which is not, I hasten to add, a region of the country known for its commitment to biblical worldview.

For those in the audience who know little about that other football, the American variety, let me try to equip you with a few salient facts. Mr. Tebow was a college football star at the University of Florida where he wore his faith not only on his sleeve but in his eye black as well (If you are a non-American person who has no idea what eye black is or does, don’t fret. I don’t know what it does either; for an image, however, see the video above).

According to one account, 92 million people googled the scriptural verse John 3:16, after Mr. Tebow had it inscribed in his aforementioned eye black during a college championship game. When the young man was drafted to the professional National Football League by the Denver Broncos in 2010, the critics pointed out that, in terms of throwing mechanics, passing accuracy, natural gifts and so forth, he was a middling to terrible quarterback.

Supporters, however, riposted that he did have this odd tendency to win football games, often with unbelievable, last-second heroics (The clip you see above of him scampering through the New York Jets’ secondary with time running out, incidentally, precipitated my own nervous breakdown at a morose airport bar in San Francisco). The man may not have the usual talents, but he abounds in what Yanks like to call “intangibles”.

Tebow, and the religious “Tebowing” he is known for, certainly have a receptive audience in the American Mountain West. New York is a different story and most Gothamites were shocked when he was traded to the city’s long-suffering, theodicy-inducing, second-sister franchise, the Jets. (The Broncos could part ways with Tebow because they had just acquired Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game).
Tim Tebow is famous for his on-field displays of devotion

What Tebow is doing in New York is not only a cultural mystery, but a football mystery as well. The team already has a perfectly good quarterback, Marc Sanchez. The laid-back California dude – who was once caught on camera supping on a hot dog during a blowout – led the Jets to two conference championship games in his first two seasons. Pessimists are quick to predict that the charismatic, prayerful Tebow will quickly divide the locker room and send the moody Sanchez (whose third season last year was a bit of a disappointment) into a brooding tailspin.

On the cultural side of things, many are wondering how Tebow will integrate into his new environs. New York is one of the (last) citadels of true American secularism and perhaps the most un-Evangelical friendly city in the nation. It is a coincidence, for sure, but I have been calling attention to efforts by conservative Christian groups to “take back” New York City (as I note in my forthcoming book with a nod to Sinatra “If they could make it un-secular there, they could make it un-secular anywhere”). This Reconquista, if you will, has mostly failed, but were Tebow to bring a Super Bowl victory to this godforesaken team, his missionizing influence in the Big Apple could conceivably be immense.

In trying to think through the Tebow problematic secularly, I find myself unable to Red Card the lad for anything in particular. Yes, he trumpets his faith on the playing field. Yes, I’d prefer that he would not do that. But he is certainly violating no laws in doing so.

Too, there is a charitable dimension to his advocacy, which cannot be gainsaid. The Tim Tebow Foundation, for example, works with orphanages and disadvantaged youth and is in the process of building a children’s hospital in the Philippines (where Tebow, the son of missionaries, was born).

Up until now, then, no complaints. That could change and if the past indiscretions by other Evangelical icons are a guide, it just might. But at present, secular Jets fans can sit back and enjoy both the action and the drama.
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