Monday, December 12, 2011

Tebow, Faith and Fantasy

What a Game!!!!  I’ve noticed that much of the hoopla surrounding the Denver Broncos recent spate of last-minute nail biters has revolved around faith:  faith in the team, faith in Tim Tebow and, of course, Tebow’s faith in God.  If you were to go through all of the post-victory commentary surrounding his recent victories and count all the times the words:  “faith,” “believe” and “believer” were uttered I’m pretty confident it would be overwhelming.  Last week, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal about how Tebow is being perceived by the non-Christian Faith Community.  (Here’s the link:
The basic premise of the article was that Tebow’s unabashed expressions of faith have provoked as strong a reaction within the general populace as his remarkable ability to rally to victory in the last few minutes of every game.

What is it about Tim Tebow’s faith that is so compelling?  Why do so many people find it difficult to swallow the fact that he sees no disconnect between his actions on the field, in his house of worship and in his daily life?  There is no doubt in my mind that he is genuine.  He believes – deeply – in God and is convinced that God has placed him here to witness the power of what he believes God’s truth can do.

From a theological perspective, the idea that God favors one football team over another is ludicrous at best – taken to its logical extreme it is disturbing, even obscene at worst.  Yes – our stadium is located a Mile High – but that doesn’t mean that we are closer to God.  And, to his credit, Tebow has never stated that God is on the side of the Broncos.   At every opportunity he has praised his teammates and acknowledged his frailties.   And yet, it’s hard not to consider, even for a moment, the possibility that Tebow’s last-minute comebacks might have just a little bit of divine intervention in them.  And if you read some of the comments posted on the right-wing blogospere, you will see that there are many who have no doubt that God is a Bronco fan who wears an orange and blue jersey with the number 15 on the back.

The problem is that those who claim to have God on their side areusually dangerous.  Football is fairly benign.  There are other, far more sinister arenas where the concept of Divine Triumphalism has taken its toll.   Throughout history - from the Crusades to September 11th  - holy warriors have been responsible for great suffering.  Perhaps this is why so many people are upset with Tebow’s prayers and pronouncements.  If God favors one side then, by logical extension, the other side must not be in God’s favor.  What would happen if every team prayed for victory before every game?  Instead of looking at coaching, game plans, raw talent and luck we might instead have post game analysis linked to theological consistency and liturgical spirituality…..The possibilities boggle the mind.

Moving away from logic, there is one upside of the Tebow phenomenon.  It has people talking about faith, about God and about belief.  In my opinion, these are all good things.  If we are uncomfortable with Tebow’s faith, what kind of faith is comfortable for us?  And who said that faith needs to be something we are comfortable with?  From my experience, those moments when we confront our faith are the times when we are out of our comfort zones:  times of great joy and great sorrow; times of angst and times of absolute certainty.  Judaism teaches that we should search for God not only in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows – but every day.  God is found in the “still small voice” that calls to us when we are ready to hear.

So I want to take this opportunity to thank Tim Tebow for giving us the opportunity to have this discussion.  Go Broncos!!!


  1. Rabbi,

    You have expressed fondness for the prayer that says, "Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will."

    Can you elaborate on the theology behind that prayer?

  2. Great question Mike. To me, what this prayer (I believe it is from Heschel) teaches is that we shouldn't see prayer as efficacious only if it causes miraculous things to happen. The act of praying connects us to God, to our community and the deepest longings of our soul. This connection can be transformative and healing in and of itself. If the only purpose of prayer is to petition God to change things, then we have lost track of other, key componenents of true prayer - namely praising God for the wonders of the world we see, and giving thanks. By focusing on the blessings and the longings of our hearts we connect with God. This connection can be healing.

    Hope this helps.

    Hope that helps.

  3. Rav,
    The thing about Tebow is that he has clearly stated that God does not intervene in the NFL. What intrigues me is that Tebow simply lives his life consistent and open in the public eye. The lack of disconnect between his faith and his play is inspiring but he is hardly a singular figure in the NFL or sports in general. Last year a wide receiver for the Bills tweeted an angry message to God for making him drop a pass in the end zone. But Tebow is an American Rorschach test for our own comfort I think with how we live our own faith as you suggest. He will keep priests, rabbis and preachers well stocked for sermons I am sure. But what is interesting is Bob Costas did a bit on Tebow this week specifically about who's side God is on. For foils he used Mohammad Ali and Sandy Koufax as examples of winners who were non-believers. Again that says more about Costas than Tebow.

  4. Hi Rabbi Black,

    I am so happy that you wrote about this. It is amazing how much press and talk this is generating. There are so many athletes that are extremely religious like Tim, but none of them have gotten the press that he has. Yes, I admit, it does make me a bit uncomfortable when he begins every single interview with "I'd like to thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ". Many athletes do that, and stop it there. But Tim then goes on saying that he thanks his team and coaches. He is so humble, and so caring, and never puts himself first. He is a class act. I like what you say about if we are not comfortable with his faith, what faith can we be comfortable with. I have no problem with him saying "god bless". As Jews we have gods blessings. Tim is great for football, great for Denver, and great for religion and it's debate.

  5. Hi Rabbi Black,

    I've been wondering what your thinking is on the post game prayers of Tebow. I wonder how football fans would respond if Tebow practiced a different faith, if he were Muslim and said "Allahu-akbar". I would rather that Tebow make a nondenominational blessing, but then he wouldn't be true to himself. His determination and positive thinking have fired up the team and they are all playing beyond their abilities. Thanks for opening up the discussion.

  6. You are right, Judy. Any other form of prayer would not be tolerated. There's a big difference in praying privately and praying publicly. To make a spectacle of prayer sometimes rings a bit hollow to me.