Friday, January 13, 2012

On Tebow, Divine Intervention and Subtlety

Yesterday, USA Today released a poll that said 43% of Americans believed Divine Inspiration was the primary reason behind the Denver Broncos victory over the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Steelers in their first-round playoff encounter last weekend.

Why would God favour the Broncs?  Because their quarterback is Tim Tebow.

Tebow was described last week by TIME Magazine as “perhaps the most significant evangelical Christian in the USA”.  He the most divisive athlete in the USA: Christians and romantics love his underdog status, while he’s disdained by those who think he, or his religion, or his God is a phony.

As a practicing Christian myself, I find Tebow a fascinating study.  His back story is incredible, starting with a long-shot birth that led him to appear in anti-abortion ads.  When he prays visibly before and after matches, presumably asking the Lord for help and guidance, he does so ostentatiously on one knee.  When at the University of Florida, he began writing bible verses on his eyeblack, the NCAA instituted a ruling prohibiting messages to be written on eyeblack.  He won a Heisman Trophy as College Football’s best player, and was drafted to the NFL late in the first round.

The thing is, Tim Tebow isn’t that good – at least, not fundamentally.  Although he throws a good long ball, his short passing is inaccurate: he completed only 46.5% of his passes this year, the lowest of all the NFL’s starting QBs.  This impacts his versatility, as his team’s offence must be built around his strengths.  No-one questions his leadership; but his game skills are far below most other QBs remaining in the playoffs.

Yet when the Broncos stood at 1-5 and named him their starter, he led them to seven wins in eight.  He played ugly quarterback football; but his team won, often overturning significant fourth-quarter deficits in the process.  A run of three straight losses to end the regular season dented fans’ hopes of a similar postseason run, but their upset overtime win has brought Tebow-mania to the forefront of this week’s sporting conscience.

Very few people, especially athletes, engender the same national polarisation.  Tim Tebow is liked – and disliked – because his story is steeped in Christianity.  It’s easy to divide the admirers and haters along religious lines.  However, to suggest that God cared about Tim Tebow winning or losing a football game, for whatever ends, is perhaps too simplistic.

Does it take Divine Intervention, rather than simply the Steelers’ injuries catching up with them, the Broncos’ home-field advantage or even Tebow – and receiver/favourite target Demaryius Thomas – playing out of their respective skins, for a relatively unskilled QB to lead his team to an upset?  Hardly.

Crucially, for his team and his narrative, Tim Tebow passed for exactly 316 yards on Sunday, the TV ratings peaked at 31.6 (in the most-watched first-round game in ages) further fanning the flames of fundamentalist fervour.  Not coincidentally, John 3:16 was Google’s most-searched term the day after the match.

Commenting on this issue becomes fraught with danger simply because it involves using black and white terms to describe a full-colour issue.  However, given an Evangelical Christian bent for literal interpretation of the bible, the notion of angel-with-a-flaming-sword-style Divine Intervention being behind Tim Tebow’s football victories can be seen most prominently (among many) either as God elevating his man for a role, or rewarding him for faithful service. 

Both arguments are flawed, but neither can be discounted entirely.  The first reason suggests familiarity with the methods and motives of an omniscient deity who’s really, really good at forward planning.  The second minimises the God-given talents of Denver players and coaching staff, making them all secondary to the Tebow story.  Many “haters” will suggest this is apt, a poignant reminder of the Cult of Tim – which benefits one man and his possibly-imagined deity.

That is not to say that God isn’t (potentially) behind the Broncos’ success.  As Tebow himself would attest, he has been blessed with size, talent and situation.  But to suggest the result of a football match, no matter how many Google hits it generates, is a high priority for an omniscient deity is to suggest that God has favourites – in opposition to biblical precedent and context.  This isn’t to say their victory wasn’t due to Divine Intervention; just that such a conclusion seems remarkably unsubtle, rather unlikely, and therefore shouldn’t be the first one leapt to.

No matter what the motive or result, taking individual matches as proof that God is helping a young Christian to win football games simplifies an entire religion so far that it can fit inside a full matchbook.  Religion, except perhaps Verdukianism, is almost never that simple; like an Aaron Rodgers QB sneak, it is almost always more subtle.