Thoughts on the intersection of religion and sports
Further to my interview with Tom Krattenmaker (to appear in Cultural Encounters Volume 6, Number 1), we were both interviewed for this article. My expanded thoughts on the intersection of religion and sports – and particularly with regard the current interest in the Tim Tebow/Focus on the Family Super Bowl ad – appear below.
I want to affirm the sanctity of human life, and so I appreciate Tim Tebow’s concerns and his desire to do something with his faith. Not having seen the commercial, I cannot speak directly to it. However, while I affirm Tim Tebow’s zeal to speak out on this issue, and while finding the personal story of his birth significant, I do wonder about the approach. In other words, affirming the sanctity of human life is a great message, but is the Super Bowl a good venue? Will the commercial help move the discussion of the sanctity of human life forward, or will it simply serve to raise the volume on the culture war rhetoric from various sectors?
We should also ask about what is to be made of the use of celebrities in this discussion? Is this how we make our views as conservative Christians credible, as we seek to exist and thrive in a secular world that does not affirm our values? Are we saying that Jesus needs celebrities? The Apostle Paul talks of how God often uses the weak and foolish things to present the power and wisdom of the Gospel. We are attracted to high profile impact, but is it also long-term and deep-seated impact? Christian Scripture promotes saints, not celebrities. While there are many wonderful collegiate and professional Christian athletes, they must make sure that they serve as witnesses to Jesus, pointing beyond themselves to him (like John the Baptist, who said that Jesus must become greater and he himself must become less) rather than drawing people to themselves.
Evangelical Christianity is close to popular culture, and often makes use of popular culture (such as sports) to share about the faith. While Christian Scripture does talk of sports and athletics, and while sports is very prominent in American culture and so provides a very visible forum for engagement, we still need to ask about the effectiveness of using professional sports for conveying our faith. For example, what are we to make of all the violence and materialism associated with professional sports? Sports as a vehicle of communication is not neutral, and it is not always pure. At the very least, I would hope that professional (and collegiate) Christian athletes would address these subjects, too. It would also be wise for them to acknowledge Jesus when their teams lose. Otherwise, are we saying that Jesus is only with the winners, and not the losers? Wouldn’t that be a form of prosperity gospel thinking?
As an evangelical Christian, I affirm sharing the good news of Jesus Christ publically. Yet public witness must be done thoughtfully and sensitively. We want to engage people from other sectors, not disengage them in our public witness. As part of our public witness, it is wise that we enter into discussion with other groups, since it is not simply what we say but also what we communicate that matters. Other groups can help us to perceive what we are actually communicating. Sound-bite, bumper sticker Christianity and Decal Jesus can appear shallow and simplistic—quickly uttered and quickly stripped away (being only decal deep), failing to communicate the richness, depth, and wisdom of the Christian faith.
Lastly, we’ve seen the conservative Christian movement make use of Christian celebrities previously. It does not always turn out so well. Will the conservative Christian public be there to pick Tim Tebow up if and when he falters and falls (and hopefully he won’t), or will we leave our celebrity in the dirt to be soiled by the late night talk show hosts of this world?