Tim Tebow, Luke Babbitt, and Expressions of Faith in Sports

The following question came into the e-mail inbox yesterday:

Dave,

We know what you do in your "other" job when you're not busy dropping Blazer knowledge on us. I've often wondered what you think of the demonstrations of Tim Tebow or more recently the waves about Luke Babbitt and his public profession of faith. I wanted to ask about Tebow a long time ago but he's in another sport. Babbitt is a Trail Blazer though. When these things come up in discussion, you don't seem to weigh in. Maybe there are good reasons for that. Just ignore this question if you want. But I can't be the only one curious how you feel about athletes who draw attention and controversy because of their religious beliefs. Do you approve or disapprove?

John Mark

First off, sweet name there, John Mark. Personally I wanted to name my kid Deuteronomy Jones but my wife wouldn't go for it. I suppose your parents did better than I.

And yes, I tend to stay out of those discussions for several reasons. The primary one: it doesn't take long for them to turn inflammatory. It's not just the heat that gets me. Anyone who deals with religion gets used to that quickly. It's that somehow those discussions tend to bring out the worst in all sides in this relatively anonymous internet forum. You get the worst examples of people protesting against religion and the worst examples of people defending it, doing no credit to any kernels of truth that lie with either position. Part of it is that faith can't be done well in the abstract. You need eyes, words, a relationship of respect and understanding and trust to make that kind of discussion work. Also faith doesn't take a back seat easily. Talking about basketball or football on a site designed to discuss matters of faith can probably be successful, as it's faith discussion first and sports second. Talking about faith on a site designed for sports, as if it were the unloved stepchild sitting on the hump of the back seat in the car, robs it of the proper frame of reference necessary to bring out its potential. You end up with all of the emotion and accusations without the real substance. You get all of the pitfalls and none of the rewards.

Nevertheless it's an interesting question so I'm going to put forth an answer here. But I need some understanding from you, dear readers, as I do so. Whenever I talk about these things I tend to get yelled at from two distinct directions. Rabid Christians and rabid non-Christians alike come with torches ablaze...few in number, thankfully, but it only takes a couple torches to make the experience unpleasant. The thing is, while they claim to be distant in philosophy and opposed in world-view, their methodology is exactly the same. They're far more duplicate than disparate...an irony which would be funny if the conversation didn't leave you so aghast.

In order to answer this question fairly I'm going to have to bring up some things about faith, including discussion of God in some form or another. This is not a conversion technique nor meant to be an insult to people who don't believe. Nor am I trying to bear a standard for those who do. I'm trying to give an honest, thoughtful response to a question occasioned by stimulus in our community just as I try to give honest, thoughtful responses to other questions about the Blazers. I am not trying to explain some kind of Holy Writ nor providing the last and only words on the subject. I'm letting you into my experience, thoughts, and in some ways heart and faith. Feel free to see this less as an abstract matter and more as an exploration of deep and personal issues involving athletics and religion, both of which affect our culture and lives.

For those who don't start from a common background with me, I invite you to consider this like a trip to another country, so to speak. Nobody is asking you to live here. In fact you don't even have to go. If you don't want to hear a word about this, just skip to the game preview below or a Fanpost or something. But if you're going to make this trip, be a decent tourist. It always amazes me that people on both sides of these matters who claim to be "enlightened" seem to have a policy of, "When in Rome, tell the Romans how stupid and ignorant they are, how much their culture and beliefs suck, and how much better than them you are." That doesn't make sense to me. Some could (rightfully) claim that this particular version of the Roman culture has hurt or offended them at some point. Noted, and I won't argue. My question in return: So playing the Ugly American and hurting back in return makes the offense better? Somehow I doubt it.

In any case, if you care to read and respond let's at least have a reasonable conversation instead of one where we all claim we're right and make fun of/insult everyone who is different.

My response comes after the jump.

For me the issue at hand is mostly the overt demonstrations of faith during a game. If a guy wants to sit down and discuss his faith life in depth with a reporter, so be it. At least there the conversation can be nuanced, more complete. Whatever people want to share with others in the papers or during speeches or what have you, presumably someone asked them the question and they're just responding. Gestures during games, those are a bit different. They're action without inquiry, springing from the person making the motion rather than the request of the audience.

Personally I'm not offended by public celebrations of faith during a game. I don't think they add much but they don't ruin things for me either. I certainly support the right of players to do it, whether it's Tebowing or Babbitt's point skyward. But I'd support that right, and honestly feel no different about it, if the guy were making a Buddhist, Islamic, Taoist, or any kind of gesture. To me that's just his expression. At least it's a little different than the self-congratulatory chest whacking or the ostentatious touchdown dance. All of it is about at the same level to me: things guys do when something good happens. I let them do their thing, let it go, and get back to watching the game.

Naturally people claim deeper meaning to these gestures of faith, a greater purpose. This is where I think they go off the rail and where I start having problems with them...at least with the Christian ones. I can't speak from the perspective of other religions, of course, but having spent much of my adult life doing this God/pastor thing, I see several flaws in the process when you delve into it beyond the surface.

The first set of flaws is theological. I find three problems here.

1. You know the old question about whether a tree falling in the forest when nobody's around makes a sound? The distinction is whether sound is wave vibrations in the air alone or whether it has to be processed through the ear to be real. We run into a similar situation with scripture. If the book sits there and nobody reads it, is it doing any good? Most folks would say, "No." This implies that the abstract message is not the only consideration. The hearer's ear matters too...how that message strikes a person, how it's going to be read in a given time or place. There's a reason the Bible is thousands of pages long, comes from different times and authors, tells wildly different stories, sometimes contradicts itself even. It has to speak to generation upon generation, culture after culture, person upon person. As much as people want to pare it down to the two or three basic truths that best fit their culture and generation, it cannot be resolved so simply without breaking it. As soon as you do so, you've cut out the applicability to every ear but your own.

The story I may need to hear today is probably different than the story you need to hear today. The things God speaks to me in my situation may be radically different than the things God speaks to you in yours. All of them may be true, but their appropriateness in our personal context determines how we'll hear and process that truth. If Ecclesiastes famously says there's a time to be born and a time to die, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, then we must admit that all of us are in slightly different times and that the time we're in affects our relationship with God and the world.

The problem with these in-game gestures is the same as the problem with those billboards you read along the highway with at best one verse from scripture printed on them, perhaps only half a verse: without any kind of knowledge of the people receiving the message, how do you know it's the right and godly one for them in this moment of their lives? There's a certain arrogance in distilling down God's word and work to a certain phrase or gesture and then broadcasting it indiscriminately to the world. It implies that this IS the message for everyone today, that nothing about them or their context is of any use to know before speaking, that neither they nor their circumstances nor their time matter at all...your expression trumps everything. Though well-meaning, this quickly becomes demoralizing and dehumanizing, especially to people who aren't in a position to see that "well-meaning" part. "I don't know you, you don't matter, here's my gesture, now you see God!" isn't exactly an endearing statement. In some ways it's the opposite. "I know what is right for you! I know what God thinks! I know what he wants you to see. Here! Take it!" No wonder people squirm at the implications.

Granted, you can say, "Well this is just his personal thing...his expression. It's just about him." Indeed, I've said so above. But if it were just a personal thing then he'd probably be doing it in his head and heart instead of out in front of everyone. The implication is we're supposed to get something from this. He's showing us for a reason. The problem is that the message many people get ("You don't matter") is the opposite of what's intended, not because the person's heart or faith is in the wrong place but because the process is flawed.

2. In addition to driving away folks who aren't acquainted with faith by implying it's an impersonal, "Who cares about you?" endeavor, such gestures can send difficult messages even to people who identify themselves as faithful.

When I covered Babbitt's finger point in my game recap I joked that he might be causing crises of faith for kids in the city of the opposing team, making them wonder why God was helping the bad guys hit a three. It was only a half-joke, actually. The potential for that kind of misunderstanding is high. Every day I walk with people who are suffering and struggling to make sense of their lives and faith...trying to figure out what God is doing and whether he cares at all. Let's say you've just lost a spouse or sibling or, heaven forbid, a child. The first question you have--and it's a righteous one--is, "WHY?!?" The second--equally righteous--is, "Where were you God, and why didn't you fix this?" That's a long and complex line of inquiry. In some ways we never get a satisfactory answer any more than the loss ever gets completely resolved.

I'm totally fine with an athlete talking in an interview about how he feels God has helped him along in his life and his profession. I'm totally fine with an athlete speaking at a convention or conference where people might reasonably expect to hear his story of faith, volunteering to be that audience and ready to consider whatever he has to say. But when you throw the one-size-fits-all impersonal gesture out during a game on national TV there's no way you know who your claim about God is hitting or what it's doing to them. In this case, is it not possible that our grieving person turns on the TV to get lost for a while in their favorite team playing? When you throw in that gesture can they help but think, "Oh...that's what God was doing when my loved one died, helping this guy sink a three-pointer. That's more important to him?" I'm not saying that this is THE truth, but it's THEIR truth...the truth of their relationship with God at that moment.

Intentionally or not, you're affecting that relationship. That was the point of the gesture in the first place. The problem is, you don't know whether you're helping or harming them.

3. The final theological point is a simple one. If you read much at all about the life of Christ you realize that he was the champion of losers, the lonely, the left-out and disadvantaged. I always find it ironic that people point to the sky and cross themselves (or whatever) when they score a touchdown. You already have your reward: six points. I'm willing to bet that God's arms are wrapped around that cornerback you just burned who feels awful, who's now getting chewed out by his coach, and whose mom is feeling bad at home watching on TV. In some ways I'd find it more faithful to have the gestures when you missed the shot or fumbled the ball. At least then it would be, "I know you're there anyway and I trust you, Big Guy" rather than, "Thanks for making me better than this poor schlep."

The counter-argument to all of this will be that such gestures can have a positive effect, right? They must be doing some good. I can't say for sure but I rather suspect not. Or at least I suspect not as much as the person thinks.

I have no doubt that these expressions bring a sense of goodness, well-being, and purpose to the guys who make them. I don't think guys like Tebow or Babbitt are hucksters in the least, being cavalier or playing this angle for their personal advantage. They are sincere, faithful, trying to live out their calling in a noble way. I believe moments when they can gesture are genuinely precious to them...a good thing. But that personal good needs to be counter-balanced by the potential for harm and the implications mentioned above. Is it worth the benefit to you if it could cause misunderstanding for many?

Some will claim, "At least it gets people talking about God!" Not that I've seen. When I turned on ESPN Radio during the NFL season this year I didn't hear people talking about God, I heard people talking about Tim Tebow. New York Jets fans didn't cheer or boo the acquisition of God, nor are people speculating about a position battle between Mark Sanchez and Jesus and asking who will get more popular support. HBO's Hard Knocks doesn't want to cover the Jets again because they think the Holy Spirit will be floating around in the locker room. Intentionally or not, the only word on people's lips from all of this is "Tebow". God plays a supporting role in his popularity rather than him playing a supporting role in God's, as he would no doubt prefer.

The problem with this, besides the backwards priorities, is that people inevitably fail in one way or another...a message which scripture echoes time and again. Once you've been set up in the public eye as the paragon with God functioning in a subservient role, what happens when you mess up? What judgments do people make, not just about you but about faith, God, religion, the whole thing? You end up taking God down with your shortcomings instead of him lifting you up despite yours. Once again you've inverted the message of scripture while trying to uphold it.

But, well, if even one person watching gets something positive out of this, a closer relationship with God, isn't it worth it? I don't know. I suspect few people will watch Luke Babbitt drain a three and say, "That makes me want to know about Jesus!" I'm not saying that Babbitt can't affect lives and faith, I'm just suggesting he probably doesn't affect them much in that way. The real work happens inter-personally, locally, and daily over time. I know folks will have anecdotal stories to the contrary, but I would suggest even if true, in my experience the number of people you affect negatively outweighs them by a ton.

And really, what kind of God are you connecting people to even if you succeed? The God that's good as long as you're winning? The God that helps you make shots? The God who picked you above your neighbor who doesn't play sports as well? Most of us are going to miss our shots. Most of us have neighbors who are in need of service and help way beyond a finger point or a Tebow. Reality makes the gesture look silly most of the time. Personally I found Luke Babbitt's narrative about God keeping him going in those moments when he was a joke to everybody else far more compelling than the current gesture. To the extent that people are searching for God, I suspect the world could use the kind of God who stands by us in the most trying of times more than the world could use the Lord of the Made Three.

No matter which way you look at it, at best this kind of display is ineffective, brushed off as a distraction. At worst this kind of display can be misinterpreted in ways that inhibit faith rather than grow it or provoke people's curiosity about it. The potential to misrepresent God is high enough that it's something I'd shy away from even though my calling will tell you that I'm solidly in favor of sharing one's faith in general.

Thanks for asking the question, John Mark! I hope I've treated it well. And after reading this far I hope everyone will remember the injunction at the beginning of the piece. If you're going to have conversation over these matters in the comments, please make them civil and respectful. The main thesis of this article is that one's beliefs (God-centered or not) don't operate in the abstract. The proof of their worth is the effect they have on your environment. Please make sure your comments and reflections are having a valuable effect on this environment and the people around you.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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