Tebow’s Tears: Is God Really a Gator Fan?

First, the “full disclosure”: I am not a Florida fan, nor am I a member of the “Gator Nation.” More to the point, I refuse to accept the cosmology I saw on a bumper sticker last weekend, while driving home from Florida, one suggesting that “If you’re not a Gator, you’re gator bait.”

So I bring some baggage, if not actually a prejudice, to this topic.

On Saturday, one of those rare sporting convergences took place, almost on the order of a solar eclipse for sport. The two top-ranked college football teams met in their SEC Conference Championship game, and barring some sort of overtime scrim, the loser would drop out of contention for the National Title this year. There was no such scrim this year; Alabama won in convincing fashion, beating Florida by a final score of 32-13 (while they led throughout the game and led at halftime, Alabama scored 13 points in the second half while their impressive defense held Florida scoreless).

Still, the media story all year long has been Florida, and in particular Florida’s remarkably gifted quarterback, Tim Tebow. It is very difficult to watch Tebow play without being impressed by his uncanny combination of athletic skills—among them, speed and agility, raw physical power, boldness, and creative intelligence—and his evident skills as a team leader.

But another story has been brewing for the past year and a half; it became a far more prominent and visible news story in the immediate lead-up to yesterday’s game. That story concerns Tim Tebow’s eyes.

To be more precise, it concerns Tebow’s decision, roughly in the middle of last year’s football season, to punctuate the dark stripes under his eyes with biblical verses. Throughout the remainder of the 2008 season, it was Philippians 4:13 (“I can do everything through Him who gives me strength”). But for the 2008 title game, he selected a more predictable gospel verse, John 3:16 (‘Jn’ under his right eye, 3:16’ under his left), and thus created the precedent of picking a new verse each week.

…Strengthen Your Weak Knees.”

Throughout the 2009 season, it has become something of a parlor game in the media to determine what verse Tebow has selected for each week’s game, and why, then try to decode how the verse in question did or did not fit into the dynamics of that week’s game.

Last week was “rivalry week” and that meant that Florida played Florida State, still coached by a game octogenarian, Bobby Bowden. That game was a drubbing, not a grudge match, with the 37-10 final score scarcely indicative of how one-sided a performance it was.

Tebow selected Hebrews 12:1-2 for last week’s game.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

In a comical touch, some television announcers at last week’s game misread Tebow’s eye-paint, and read from Hebrews 12:12 (“therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees”), correcting themselves just before one of Tebow’s rare missteps: a long run from scrimmage in which he tried to do too much against too many, and in the course of attempting to manhandle three defenders, had the ball knocked from his hands. That fumble led to Florida State’s first score.

This week, Tebow’s choice was John 16:33.

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.

The word that John uses in this verse, a verbal form of Nike, is the Greek word for victory, or conquest. “I have conquered the world” is another perfectly plausible way to translate what John was saying.

In that sense, the verse was a strange selection. The first half speaks of tribulation in the world; the second half speaks of overcoming the world. No doubt many will speculate that Tebow sensed the tribulation that was to come in the Georgia Dome on Saturday and chose the verse accordingly: On the gridiron, tribulation; but peace in Christ Jesus.

Still, that seems more like reading omens than Christian Bible study.

Bumper-Sticker Spirituality

I have struggled in the past several weeks to come to terms with my own apparent prejudices. Something about these painted Bible verses offends me, and I have not yet been able to articulate a way for that reaction to be consistent. To be sure, as a scholar of religion, I am frustrated, when I am not dumbfounded, by the happy-go-lucky and freewheeling scriptural exegeses that Tebow’s weekly verse selection now prompts on national televison.

But that hardly seems fair. Tim Tebow is an evangelical Christian of impeccable pedigree, and he has used his raw athletic talent to get me, and tens of thousands like me each week, to pick up the Bible and read it. That is no mean accomplishment.

More substantively perhaps, this kind of bumper-sticker spirituality—quote a Bible verse, just one or two, and completely out of context—makes me very nervous. It invites the false assumption that one can cherry-pick from the Bible, finding the verse one needs for any occasion. If you are at a sporting match, then look for someplace where Mark describes a contest, Paul invokes athletics or a great cloud of witnesses, or some other evangelist invokes victory. There does seem to be something down-dumbing in such a biblical practice.

But that does not seem fair to Tim Tebow, somehow, a remarkable and remarkably serious young man who won a Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, and returned to Florida to play out his senior year precisely in order to play yesterday’s game and return to compete for the university’s second national championship in a row.

There is no way to know what this verse meant to him when he selected it.

One week ago, after the trouncing of in-state rival, Florida State, the local newspapers opined,

Tim Tebow’s eye black is waterproof.
His perfect season is starting to look shatterproof.

That’s one way to read Hebrews 12:1-2. And maybe even John 16:33. But the season does not “belong” to Tim Tebow, nor to any other player; nor to his eye-paint, nor to the Bible. Perhaps here was the beginning of the hubris. Perhaps.

Learning How to Lose

But the image that struck me at game’s end, when I wanted to feel more celebratory, was the brief photographic image of Tebow’s tears streaming down across that Bible verse. The waterproofing may have kept the ink from running, but the spirit behind the selection was running fast.

Or else it was coming into focus. It is easy to slip into the temptation of the false security any theology can provide, if it stops being careful and stops paying attention. God on your side would seem to imply perfect seasons, flawless execution, just causes, and even more just results.

But that is not football. And that is not “the world,” as John the evangelist warns in the very verse Tebow selected. Every champion is always but one week away from meeting the player, or the team, that is bigger and faster and stronger. Learning how to lose is one key aspect of such an encounter. The trick is to do so peace, with good cheer.

According to the canons of the New Testament so regularly deployed by Tebow—there have been 4 selections from the Hebrew Bible this year, 2 from the Christian gospels, and 6 or 7 from Paul’s letters (depending on who you think wrote the Letter to the Hebrews)—“God on your side” meant a shameful and excruciating death on a cross and the abandonment by every friend and even God Godself. How one contends with that dark night of soul says a great deal about the content of one’s character, whether one is Christian or not.

Tim Tebow is a Christian, and he seems to apply himself to that practice with seriousness and elegance. The real interest lies not in celebrating a Florida defeat, nor in digging for the unwitting irony of Tebow’s scripture selection. No, the question is how Tim Tebow will play the next time he suits up and takes the field in the Sugar Bowl.

If his character, Christian and otherwise, is anything like what he has demonstrated it to be, then he will lead his teammates to return to the field with renewed purpose and commitment, and will tenaciously apply himself to achieving victory, even if it is not in the contest of his choosing. He will look for the virtue in the moment he has been given, and he will be grateful for it.

The question has less to do with what Bible verse will speak best to that occasion, his next and final collegiate performance, and more to do with the way he will play and how that play will attest to a biblically and theistically informed life.