Front Page Reviews & AIR
Grantland's Tim Tebow
I must admit, I was a bit out of the loop as Tim Tebow rocketed his way to “America’s Most Popular Athlete” status. My wife and I cancelled our cable TV last year, and as a result my recurring connections to the world of professional sports have become fewer and fewer. I’m basically down to the sports-related status updates that show up in my Facebook news feed and the articles I read on the sports and pop culture website Grantland. All this to say, I wasn’t paying attention on that fateful Sunday afternoon in October when the Denver Broncos benched starting quarterback Kyle Orton in favor of backup Tim Tebow. And I wasn’t watching the next game either, when Tebow got his first start of the season and led the 1-4 Broncos back from 15 points down with five minutes to go to beat the Miami Dolphins in overtime. In fact, I didn’t watch a single NFL regular season game last year. Instead, I watched the Tebow story unfold online, outside the influence of the hyperbole of TV commentators and unswayed by any emotional investment in the games themselves. And my relative distance from the media storm surrounding the Tebow story seemed to highlight the way it was being covered at Grantland.
I started reading Grantland because I can relate to it more than most sports sites. The articles aren’t generally written by ex-jocks; they’re shooting for a more intellectual audience, and the site is run by young, hip literary types, the kind of writers I tend to read anyway. Best-selling author Chuck Klosterman is an editor and contributor. So is Dave Eggers. Malcolm Gladwell is a contributor. But as the “Tebow Phenomenon” started taking off, I found myself increasingly put off by the way they were covering the story, particularly the way they approached Tim Tebow’s Christianity (I, too, am a Christian). Here was a group of writers who come from a demographic that mirrors my own in terms of age, interests, education and geography, and yet, hearing their thoughts on Christianity made me feel at turns alienated, annoyed, and offended. And I guess it surprised me that the divide was so great between their perception of my religion and my own. It wasn’t so much that I thought there was a general animosity towards Tebow or Christianity at Grantland—only rarely did I find their coverage mean-spirited—it had more to do with the underlying assumptions about who Christians are and how religion should be talked about in the public square.
My introduction to the “Tebow Phenomenon” was a Grantland article titled “Tim Tebow, Converter of Passes,” which appeared just two days after Tebow’s aforementioned victory over the Dolphins. Unaware as I was of the details of the game—let alone the popular reaction to it—I was a bit caught off guard by author Brian Phillips’ premise:
“Here's how I think it works, this Tebow madness. Somewhere within all our reptilian hearts lurks an instinct for trial-by-combat. This instinct tells us that when a person is strongly associated with an idea, we can use that person’s success or failure within the sphere of competitive athletics as a legitimate indication of the quality of the idea…We all know that this is ludicrous, but we all kind of feel it anyway. As a result, it’s basically impossible not to see Tebow’s ability or inability to complete a 15-yard out pattern to Matt Willis as a referendum on the Book of Deuteronomy… Whenever I catch one of Tebow’s games, I tend to lose sight of the scoreboard and just focus on the metacompetition, the weird Joan of Arc drama that seems to go along with everything he does. I imagine a bar under a train station somewhere where the relevant ideas men gather to learn their fates. Did a receiver drop a pass? James Dobson just choked on a nacho. Did Tim throw an interception? Daniel Dennett just chest-bumped Richard Dawkins… I find myself half-consciously rooting for Tebow to fail, even though I have nothing against him, have lots of religious friends, am not especially tribal by nature, and wouldn't want to be responsible for the nacho-related deaths of any prominent evangelical leaders, even if I detest their politics. Doesn't matter. The part of me that wants to eat pork and not stone people just switches on and cheers for the blitzing linebacker.”
Obviously, the “meta-competition” premise Phillips lays out is, as he himself admits, “ludicrous.” No one actually believes an athlete’s performance has any bearing on the quality of an idea (and if they do, God bless them). But in spite of his (at least) half-joking tone, he really does seem to be trying to figure out why so many people are “half-consciously rooting for Tebow to fail.” And I agree with Phillips that it has everything to do with Tebow’s religion. I don’t think it’s any secret that a lot of people are put off by Tebow’s overt displays of Christianity and root against him simply because of that. But my question is, are we OK with a large segment of the population rooting against an athlete simply because of his religion? As a Christian, I certainly found the phenomenon alienating. And I know that when people turned on Muhammad Ali because of his outspokenness about his Muslim faith, it was widely cited as an example of prejudice. Same with the people who rooted against Hank Greenberg just because he was Jewish, or the people who voted against Kennedy just because he was Catholic. As a society, we tend to view rooting against someone just because of their religion as an example of prejudice. So what makes rooting against Tim Tebow because he’s a Christian any different?
Even though I bristled at Phillips’ implication that Christianity includes abstaining from pork and stoning people because those kinds of implications play to the lazy stereotype of Christians as hateful people who follow a bunch of silly rules (and because they aren’t actually part of Christian doctrine), I don’t think it would be fair to single Phillips out from amongst his fellow writers; his article just happened to be my personal introduction to a the larger phenomenon of people rooting against Tebow because of his religion. But Phillips’ half-joking approach was indicative of the way Grantland would continue to cover Tim Tebow and his Christianity. As the weeks went by and Tebow led the Broncos from last to first place with seven victories in his first eight starts, on his way to an unlikely playoff berth, Grantland kept pumping out the Tebow stories, most of them employing not-so-subtle jokes referencing his Christianity: “Five Tim Tebow Stories You Meet in Heaven,” “What Would Tebow Do?,” “Tim Tebow and the Miracles,” “And a Tebow Shall Lead Them,” “Tim Tebow’s Personal Rapture,” and “And On the Third Day, Tim Tebow…” Eventually, the running joke became the possibility that Tebow actually was God/Jesus; I started seeing quips like, “Should we change the name of ‘God Bless America’ to ‘Tebow Bless America’?” I understand Grantland’s desire to be funny; their calling card is a half-joking, ironic tone coupled with occasional stabs at seriousness. But after a while, all the Christian jokes started to become tiresome. Were jokes about Tim Tebow’s religion really the only way Grantland could approach the story of his success? Again, as a Christian, I found it somewhat alienating. But it’s hard to say you have a problem with anything said in a half-joking, ironic tone without sounding like a crotchety old fun-stopper. As David Foster Wallace once put it, “The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down… Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig.” And so I realize that my objections to the relentless joking about Tebow’s Christianity are bound to make me seem like the inevitable wet blanket in the room who can’t take a joke. I understand that, but I don’t think it invalidates the alienation that the constant joking about a particular religion can make people feel.
However, not all of Grantland’s articles about Tim Tebow were purely comedic. After another Broncos come-from-behind victory against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 4, Chuck Klosterman decided to step in and make a more serious attempt to get to the bottom of this whole “Tebow Thing” in a Grantland article titled, “The People Who Hate Tim Tebow.” Like Phillips, Klosterman also ties the widespread antipathy towards Tim Tebow to his Christian faith. He theorizes that the hatred of Tebow stems from “the natural human discomfort with faith—and not just faith in Christ, but faith in anything that might (eventually) make us look ridiculous.” But unlike Phillips—who targets Tebow’s specific in-your-face brand of Evangelical Christianity—Klosterman addresses “Christianity” and “faith” in their broadest senses. He categorizes all faith—including Christian faith—as “blind faith,” before eventually concluding, “The crux here, the issue driving this whole ‘Tebow Thing,’ is the matter of faith. It's the ongoing choice between embracing a warm feeling that makes no sense or a cold pragmatism that's probably true.”
To my mind, there are two principal problems with this characterization of faith, particularly as it applies to Christian faith. First, it doesn’t sound anything like the Christianity I know. One of the pillars of the whole Christian intellectual tradition—from Augustine to Aquinas to Dostoyevsky to Maritain to the Catechism of the Catholic Church—is the idea that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive; they are both paths that lead to the knowledge of God. And in this context, Klosterman’s assertion that faith contradicts reason and logic rings hollow. Second, a depiction of all faith (including Christian faith) as “blind faith,” as “a warm feeling that makes no sense,” plays to the prevalent coastal stereotype of Christians as those “crazy people” from the red states. Klosterman’s depiction stops short of Bill Maher’s infamous assertion that religion is a “neurological disorder” that “stops people from thinking” (in fact, Klosterman’s article points out the unique attraction of faith, even as he defines it), but the two depictions share an assumption that reason and logic are antithetical to Christian faith. And as a Christian, it’s not a particularly flattering way to be depicted.
It was this assumption that Christianity is inherently anti-intellectual that I took issue with in Klosterman’s piece, mostly because it’s an assumption that I seem to be encountering on a regular basis. While I think it’s pretty safe to say that Christians themselves don’t always do themselves a whole lot of favors on this front, even a cursory look at church history—or a quick reading of a basic Christian primer like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity—could dispel the notion that Christian faith is, by definition, antithetical to reason or logic. In order to paint Christianity as anti-intellectual, you’ve got to be pretty selective about what sources you consult. For instance, in his 2008 film Religulous, Bill Maher fails to engage a single Christian intellectual, instead seeking out people like the guy who plays Jesus at “The Holy Land Experience” theme park to make the case for Christianity (with predictable results). What’s scary to me about this kind of selective treatment of religion—Maher isn’t solely attacking Christianity; his film attacks all religions—is that it is used to make the ignorant and bigoted case that religious belief is a “neurological disorder;” that all religious people are essentially crazy. There have been lots of other recent examples of this kind of selective treatment of Christianity, from Grantland and NPR contributor Charlie Pierce’s Idiot America (the title of which fairly accurately reflects the level of self-satisfaction within) to Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Why I’m an Atheist.” And where Chuck Klosterman’s Grantland article seemed good natured enough in its intent, it was only a matter of time before the ascendancy of Tim Tebow gave one of these more venomous critics another opportunity to hold forth on the preposterousness of Christian belief. On Dec. 19, just a couple of weeks after Klosterman’s article, Charlie Pierce published a piece for Grantland called, “Tebow’s Religion: Fair Game.” Pierce doesn’t pull any punches:
“Before [Tebow] ever took a snap in the NFL, he appeared in an anti-choice television ad with his mother that was sponsored by Focus on the Family, an influential anti-choice, anti-gay-rights organization founded by the Rev. James Dobson. He knew what he was doing… It has been argued paradoxically that his faith is both vital to his success and off-limits to criticism. This is, of course, nonsense. He put his business in the street that way, and he did so by allying himself with the softer side of a movement that contains other organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which knows about this stuff, recently designated as hate groups.”
It is unfortunate that Pierce has adopted a “Why-am-I-the-only- person-in-the-world-being-logical-about-this?” approach as his “persona” at Grantland. It probably makes him seem more condescending than he actually is. However, what bothered me most about his article were the assumptions about Christianity that he incorporated into it. Yes, Tim Tebow appeared in a television ad with his mother that was paid for by Focus on the Family. And in doing so, he most certainly made questions from the media about his religion and politics fair game (though it should be noted that Tebow himself has been conspicuous in his willingness—some might say over eagerness—to answer such questions). But the rest of what Pierce says here contains so many unexplained assumptions that simply decoding them and sorting them out from each other was a task in and of itself. Pierce attempts to draw a line from Tebow’s Super Bowl advertisement to Focus on the Family to some unspecified “movement” (Christianity? Evangelicalism? The Religious Right?) to some further unspecified “organizations” in order to associate Tebow with “hate groups.” While I assume Pierce’s beef is with Tebow’s specific brand of Evangelical Christianity, the fact that he doesn’t name the specific “movements/organizations” leaves all kinds of room for people to apply his attacks to all of Christianity (which is exactly what happened in the comments on this article on Grantland’s Facebook page). But Pierce was far from finished:
“There was considerable thumb-sucking about the propriety of criticizing—or, gloriosky, perhaps even mocking—Tebow's conspicuous religiosity. Of course, you can mock public religiosity. You can treat it with scorn and disdain. You can put a rubber nose and clown shoes on it. That's a proud American tradition.”
Again, I should point out that my own limited exposure to media coverage of Tebow affected the way I read this. Grantland, my primary source for sports news—and the very same publication that was running Pierce’s article—had been relentlessly making jokes about Tim Tebow’s “conspicuous religiosity” for weeks on end, even soliciting pictures of people making fun of Tebow praying. Given my experience reading Grantland, Pierce’s indignation seemed superfluous. And while I take issue with his idea that “mocking public religiosity” is a “proud American tradition”—I certainly doubt those who witnessed the treatment of Muhammad Ali would see it that way—the fact is that Pierce isn’t as interested in attacking Tebow’s “conspicuous religiosity” as he is in attacking Tebow’s religion itself (thus, the title of the article: “Tebow’s Religion: Fair Game”):
“Let us be quite clear—Tim Tebow adheres to a particular form of American Protestantism. He belongs to—and proselytizes for—a splinter of a splinter, no more or less than Mitt Romney once did. This particular splinter has a long record in America of fostering anti-Enlightenment thought, retrograde social policies, and, more discreetly, religious bigotry.”
Again, Pierce is anything but clear. He doesn’t name the form of American Protestantism Tebow adheres to, or the “particular splinter” that he belongs to either. This is a problem, considering that very few people actually know what Christian denomination Tebow belongs to (including me). Pierce’s lack of specificity invites those who are so inclined to apply his accusations of “anti-Enlightenment thought,” “retrograde social policies,” and “religious bigotry” to whatever part of Christianity they feel is deserving of those tags. And the fact that he doesn’t give any examples of these thoughts and policies (or make any effort at all to substantiate his accusations) means that he is relying entirely on his readers’ assumptions to connect the dots and draw the appropriate conclusions about what those terms mean and who they are supposed to be applied to. Given the fractured religious discourse in this country, for Pierce to make accusations as disparaging as these in a public forum without being more specific struck me as irresponsible, and his remarks certainly do nothing to further the ongoing religious discourse. Finally, Pierce concludes:
“If we're going to have a real discussion about the place of public religion in our public spectacles, then let's have one instead of some mushy, Wonder Bread platitudes about how great it is that Tim Tebow talks about Jesus and doesn't get caught doing strippers two at a time in the hot tub. If religion comes into the public square, it is as vulnerable as any other human institution to be pelted with produce. Ignorance does not become wisdom just because you gussy it up with the Gospels.”
As I said at the outset, what was most saddening about the Tim Tebow discourse on Grantland was realizing how large the rift between their collective perception of Christianity and my own perception was. The thing is, I’d certainly be up for a discussion of religion in the public square. Perhaps a more open discussion of religion would help us all be more understanding of our differences. But does the invitation to that public square have to be accompanied by threats of produce-pelting? Does every mention of Christianity have to be accompanied by a joke or an assumption of ignorance? I’m not naïve enough to think that we’re all going to agree on matters of religion. I’m not asking for much. But if we’re going to have a conversation in the public square about something as personal to people as religion, a little respect and humility in the way the subject is approached would go a long way.