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?

Comments

  1. Derrick Peterson

    I think this is a very important point regarding the ambivalence of the medium and implicit sanctioning of certain presuppositions of modern culture in Tebow’s commercial. Just as you said, I too support Tebow’s message and have obviously not yet seen the commercial so cannot comment specifically on the material it displays. Yet I have read several articles on the commercial and it appears that Tebow is telling his story about how there were medical complications during his mothers pregnancy, and yet they chose not to abort him and look how great he turned out. This is of course on its own a wonderful miracle. But to add to your critique wondering if we can we affirm Jesus even when our team loses, is the justification for the non-abortion of Tebow his consequently exceptional life? Even if the heart and implicit nature of their message is that the intrinsic nature of abortion is wrong I cant help but wonder if like you said the relationship of his celeb status is going to serve as a type of teleological-moral justification for showing why abortion is wrong (a similar strategy was used last year with Obama, who was likewise spared from abortion despite early medical complications). What happens, though, if a life is spared from abortion but is consequently (from the worlds perspective) a failure? Or is one steeped in hardship? In illness? Does this negate the moral efficacy of what I take to be Tebow’s fundamental position? I would argue absolutely no! Yet the warrant for his particular position is his Christian wordview, which must always be linked to the concrete life of the Church. That is to say the ultimate Christian justification for anti-abortion stances is not some logically neutral reason, consequent greatness of life, etc…but is grounded in the self-giving love of Christ and the particular community of redemption he fostered.

    Yet I cant help but wonder if the medium of the message (superbowl commercial) and its content (Tebow’s consequent success as QB for the Gators etc..) provides a level of abstraction from the original, concrete warrant of the message itself (i.e., again, the ecclesial narrative and communion of the Church as a discipleship to the irreducible particularity of Christ) and hence is in fact a material alteration of the message itself via the medium. Yoder calls this the “politics of technique” or what Hauerwas an Milbank each in their own way critique as the evacuation of the Christian message by assuming Christian truth is “true” in the sense that it can be abstracted from discipleship to the Lordship of Christ. In abstracting the prescriptive moral content of Christianity from the Church Christianity appears to become a simple ideology. And as an ideology it is assumed it can be communicated via the supposedly neutral medium of a commercial. Yet like you said, and so Yoder, Hauerwas, Milbank, and many others–there is no neutral medium. Abstracted from the concrete practices of the church an anti-abortion message given through the medium of a 2.5 million dollar commercial from the voice of a celebrity can only display the verity of its message via the implicit American fetish of effectiveness and success. So too goes the original Christian intuition against abortion: namely dedication and service to others despite differences, handicaps, and blatant failure–for a message of abortion which finds warrant in the American dream.

  2. Luke

    I agree wholeheartedly with all the criticisms, and I understand Dr. Metzger and Derrick are both using Tebow as an example to make a larger point. But Derrick’s point made me wonder if the general controversy and the hundreds of Christian blog posts and comments aren’t a negative expression of the same fetish of celebrity and success.

    Again, not necessarily the above posts, but it seems just as much as the medium is the message, the frequency or the focus is the message as well. It seems there’s a danger that we are unintentionally implying that Tebow’s witness is more important to the kingdom than the witness of the old lady down the street who is barely able to leave the house, but makes it to church every sunday. And I at least want to believe that that isn’t true, that faithfulness of witness is more important than prominence.

    Some love celebrities because they are a symbol of success, some love them because they are an easy target. Christians are no different with our own celebrities. So I wonder if the problem becomes simply treating the “Christian athlete” as “our” celebrity in the first place, leading them to want to use their celebrity in misled but well-intentioned ways.

  3. CT article photo small - generic coffee cupPaul Louis Metzger

    Derrick and Luke,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful and powerful points. As the church, we must guard against focusing on success, greatness, and celebrity status as marks of the victorious Christian life. I certainly hope and pray that Tim Tebow’s message will be very redemptive and make a profound impact. I also hope and pray that we Christians will move toward increasingly faitfhful witness in our public discourse. We must come to realize that often the most powerful and profound witnesses for Christ are found among the weak and foolish. As 1st Corinthians 1 indicates, God’s power and wisdom are revealed in and through Jesus and his cross. May we celebrate Jesus and his cross and resurrection rather than celebrity status, boasting only in him and his love. May our boast in the crucified and risen Messiah and his holy love become increasingly the focus of our message. May this good news be reflected in our concrete practices, including our public discourse in word and deed, as exemplified in our care for the marginalized, the sick, the imprisoned, the weak, and oppressed, as Christ’s community.

    PLM

  4. claird

    Hey guys,

    This is a really tough issue, this whole “Christian Celebrity” thing. Is it an oxymoron? I think of Bono’s statement “Celebrity is currency, so I wanted to use mine effectively.” I’m baffled by this statement. On the one hand, I respect Bono’s work and his art and I understand the principle of stewardship, but on the other hand, I completely resonate with Derrick’s concern that by “formating” our message for TV and converting our message for mass consumption, we may actually doing violence to our message.

    The Gospel, as Paul M. points out via the other Paul, is antithetical to the “wisdom” of men and the “greatness” of men. The cult of “celebrity” is something that Luke rightly points out is something that Christians are as guilty of as anyone (maybe more guilty of). Mass media is in many ways a modern day Tower of Babel – how easily it becomes the clearinghouse for reality as it creates an endless series of images and abstractions, “the wisdom of men.” I am in no way saying “the secular media is evil”, but rather as I hear the rest of you saying, that there is too little reflection given to the relationship between our message and the mediums we choose to carry our message message.

    Great insights guys,

    C

  5. Matthew Cunningham

    Dr. Metzger and Derrick,

    Your words are much appreciated. I was particularly challenged by Derrick’s point that we value life because God does, we are not merely thankful for the spared lives of the successful members of society. And unfortunately, this type of utilitarian ethic has been, at least somewhat, portrayed in the high-profile pro-life T.V. commercials featuring Barrack Obama and Tim Tebow. I also appreciate Dr. Metzger’s point of the dangers of “celebritizing” the gospel message in light of Paul’s words in 1Corinthians 1. I do have a couple of questions though…

    1. Tim Tebow has been given a position potential great influence in his sports career. He is a light on a hill (and his hill may be higher than the rest of ours) and he can’t hide it under a basket (Matt. 5:13-16). How would you suggest he use his position of influence as a witness of Jesus Christ? So far I can remember that he has been involved in a high-profile pro-life T.V. commercial, an intrusive feature Sport Illustrated article, and he writes Scripture references on his face during football games.

    2. I appreciate the point of the inappropriateness of the medium. However, as missional thinkers and engagers, shouldn’t we communicate to the culture using the means they are most familiar with (Superbowl ads)? Shouldn’t we seek to redeem aspects of culture (Superbowl ads) rather than forsaking them?

    Thanks for your time Dr. Metzger. I appreciate your timely critiques of the often “unturned stones” of evangelical culture.

  6. Joe Enlet

    Thank you all for such interesting comments. Allow me to add my two cents. This discussion has gotten me thinking alot about theology especially the “how” we do theology. It seems that we so often focus on the “content” of our message but neglect the “context” of our message. I agree that as Christians we must make use of the opportunities/means that are given us in order to be more missional. However, I also think that we need to be thoughtful in evaluating which “means” are most appropriate in light of our bearing witness to the redemptive Christ. I think that we need to be critically evaluate those “means” because despite the pro-utilitarian framework those means are not value-neutral if I can use such a term. The “means” or context of our messages in and of themselves communicate… and often times are the only part of our message that is heard by others. Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians as pointed out by Dr. Metzger (the other Paul), is absolutely key. God’s choosing of the lowly and the foolish things is not accidental or peripheral to the message. It seems from the context that it was rather intentional and purposive. He chose them in order to show ultimately “…so that no one may boast” (v.29) but that “it is because of Him that we are in Christ Jesus” (v.30). Over and over through the ministry of Jesus who is the “Son of Man” we see that it is not the “red carpet” that He walks but the “alleys” and the “ghettos” where he lived out his redemptive love.

    To bring in a point of illustration: People from third world countries exposed to the “celebritizing” of the gospel through the mass media would tend to alienate Christianity as a religion of the “wealthy” and the “somebody” in society. Dr. Metzger rightly hints at the danger of moving towards prosperity gospel thinking. So rather than being missional it inadvertently sets up barriers to the gospel. Now, I’m not saying that this is the case all the time, but what I’m saying is that there is a danger if we are not critically thoughtful and sensitive. While the “content” of our message must be redemptive, so the “context” must also be redemptive.

    I hope this helps the discussion. Please feel free to comment and correct me if I’m missing the point.

    Blessings,
    JE

  7. CT article photo small - generic coffee cupPaul Louis Metzger

    Hello, Chris, Matthew and Joe.

    I appreciate your thoughtful remarks, and will respond briefly. While I would not reject in principle the use of commercials for articulating Christian values in such venues as the Super Bowl, I still wonder about their effectiveness. I also think that the money that is used there for such issues as the sanctity of human life would be better invested elsewhere, including sex educational materials from an orthodox Christian perspective and ultrasound machines that reveal to parents the profoundly mysterious lives in mothers’ wombs. The Tim Tebow commercial aired during the first half of the Super Bowl was about the celebration of life, and so I appreciated it from that standpoint (its message was certainly better than the message(s) of the numerous beer commercials that aired during the game!). And yet, I would much rather see Christians–even high-profile ones–invest their energies and resources in concrete community development involving sacrificial co-existence and interaction with people of different persuasions in the context of sharing life together rather than investing millions in making sound bite statements–even good ones–over the air waves. Life on life interaction and prevention are the best ways to promote the sanctity of human life. We must create the space with our lives for our views to be heard. Well, I need to move forward with other important topics at this time. Thank you for your thoughtful input. Please check out the interview with Tom Krattenmaker that will appear in Cultural Encounters this spring on professional sports and public faith. Also, we will be discussing the importance of Christian community development with Dr. John M. Perkins and others at New Wine, New Wineskins’ spring conference on April 9th and 10th. The conference will discuss the importance of using our skills and talents and resources to build and sustain communities with the poor and dispossessed through entrepreneurship. The Christian community development work that Dr. Perkins and others like him have done over the last several decades serves as one of the best means of prevention of death and the affirmation of human life.

    PLM

  8. Maylannee Laird

    I am a mom of a wonderful boy–well, he’s now a young man of 23 years. When I was pregnant at 20 years old, I was pressured and tempted to abort him. I relate to Tebow’s mom and so when I saw that commercial, I cried. Was it effective? Depends… emotionally, yes; financially, yes–it made me want to pull out my checkbook–so I’d say it was effective. If it saves one abortion, then absolutely, yes again. But did it save my soul? No. However, was it really intended to? I don’t think so. The Jesus question, in this regard, is so irrelevant (to me). I don’t think that commercial, or other athletes’ gestures of faith (i.e., pointing to the sky after a touchdown, or the prayer huddle mid-field after a game, etc.) are done with the intention to save souls. Win or lose, fieldgoal or a miss, players from both sides give thanks in their own way. Its personal. If it affects the viewers for good, then good. If not, it still doesn’t take away who they are. I’m not saying they are not trying to influence. But maybe they are just trying to be salt.

    I guess I don’t understand the purpose of questioning the good or bad of it. Might as well question the good or bad of churches and their ways of evangelizing. (Oh yeah, we do that too.). I thought it was a great commercial. It certainly has people talking. Very effective.

  9. CT article photo small - generic coffee cupPaul Louis Metzger

    Thanks so much for your honest reflections, Maylannee. For one, you are offering a perspective in this blog discussion that has not yet been represented: a mother’s own experience. Moreover, your statements indicate that further clarification on my part at least is in order. I certainly affirm professional Christian athletes’ desire to share their faith publicly. I want them to influence the culture at large with respect to the faith–in word and in deed, and to do so in the most Christ-honoring manner. What we are all after in this discussion is learning how to communicate most truthfully and meaningfully the faith person-to-person and in larger public domains. As Christ-followers, it is important that we discuss these topics. It helps me when you analyze our communication on this blog, for I also need to think about how well I am communicating my faith. So, thank you. And while I have not yet met your son, I praise God that you and Tim Tebow’s mom and countless others brought your children into the world–no matter the outcome–celebrities or non-celebrities, with defects or no defects, entrusting your children to the Lord’s sovereign care and plans for their lives.