Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Tebow Time -or- Choose Restraint

Got an eMail from two separate sources this past weekend that caused me to raise my arms defensively, then to think a bit.

Some topics are just unabashedly “third-rail” topics. This one probably is. Didn’t I just bemoan the ability of True Believers to hyper-overreact to any critical commentary made on their True-Believing interest area? So what am I doing writing this particular piece? Heading for the train tracks, of course…

 

I’ve occasionally joked that as it’s in my church musician contract that I have to believe something. As a church musician who does his sacred-music thing in the church of his childhood, who still rubs elbows with some of the folks who taught him Sunday School, I should like to demonstrate that I was paying attention.

Like many people – including some who might not let on – I struggle with Faith sometimes. Recently I read the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles document, and happily, I breathed a sigh of relief: okay, so I’m probably in the right denomination after all. Lots of emphasis on social justice, and on good works: don’t just yap about it, live it; help people; stand up for the downtrodden; all those good things that Jesus seemed to have been recommending. Love your neighbor as yourself (or occasionally more than). In fact, lots of emphasis on doing good works as evidence of your Faith. Are you Christian? Fine to say so, but as they say, actions speak louder than words.

Since music is the arena wherein I feel most comfortable expressing myself anyway, it makes sense that the church choir is where I most comfortably express my Faith. When you sing, you pray twice, the saying goes – so, bonus! I’m not your most skilled Bible study guy. And as a kid, my scientist dad got me interested in science – I was particularly an astronomy nerd, a 9-year-old lying on the living room floor with the National Geographic map of the Solar System spread out before him like a treasure map – so I’ve spent lots of fun time trying to line up science and scripture. Not to mention trying to line up the answers to questions like, if God is a benevolent God AND has a plan for me and everyone else, AND watches over us all the time, AND loves all the little children of the world, then why did THIS and THIS and THIS happen?. Why does He let terrorists bomb things? Why did He let me hit “Publish” before I proofread that blog post in June, when He knew it was going to land me in hot water? And (as is sometimes claimed in rhythmic chants and on t-shirts) if God really is on Holy Cross’ side during athletic events, then how are we to truly believe that Bucknell beat us that day?

Sorry if it sounds like I’m making light of this. I’m not, I promise. There are plenty of days when, if you ask me what I believe, I have to sit down and think hard. But I’m told that I’m not alone in this, so at least I have a legion of head-scratchers to be part of.

(By the way, I haven’t forgotten about that eMail that caused me to think about all this. I’ll get there!)

 

One of the things about my church – not just about my particular congregation or my denomination – is that we’re called to spread the Word. Plenty of times that gets (I think) misinterpreted as, “get in people’s faces about joining!!!” As I once said to my high school band students, “we love new freshmen members! Because if we don’t, we get fewer and fewer of them, and eventually the band dies.” If you don’t bring people into the fold, eventually the fold … folds. How many Shakers do you know?

The hard part about this seems to be tactics and scope.

The Methodist Church website says that “the mission of our congregation is to make disciples. … We reach out to people and welcome them into the church[:] We have a direct responsibility for people of the ‘world’ around our church, the community in which we and others study, work, shop, play, and so forth. In this world are people with many hurts, doubts, and questions. There are some who are new in the community and feel a little lost, some who are proudly self-sufficient, and others who are in desperate circumstances. Our mission is to reach out to them, listen to them, accept them, share the Gospel in word and deed, invite them into the family of faith, and joyfully receive all who will respond.”

This sounds to me like a call to gently reach out to people and suggest that my Methodist congregation is kind of a neat place to be, if those people feel like it would help them. And, given that my personality tends more toward gentle hints than clubbing people over the head, I can work with this. To the extremely fervent it might seem wimpy, but I like the phrase “receive all who will respond.” As if it were their choice, or something.  How ’bout that.

As a church choir director, my job is to develop our music program. Yes, I need to try new musical anthems, to explore new means of musical expression as spiritual offerings, but also – of course – to maintain and develop our choir and other ensembles, in both size and competence. No ensemble director wants to see his group’s size decrease – or, if we must remain the same size, let us improve! So any time a church visitor expresses musical interest, or even mere musical awareness!, I jump up (without spooking them, of course) and suggest that our music program is a neat place to be. It’s a great community within a great community, which I’ve chronicled before.

Enthusiasm and respect for personal space, in equal measures, is my approach. Also, some emphasis on what advertisers might term a “narrowly targeted message”. I won’t run out onto the sidewalks and accost everyone I see: “Join the Methodists!!!!” (Those who know me are getting a kick out of imagining me trying that.) Tactics: friendly and non-confrontational. Scope: more toward the individual than the masses.

So even when they’re executed by my own denomination, I struggle with hugely public displays of Faith (Christian or any other), be they television ads or “John 3:16” signs at sports events, or what. Which is not to say that that Bible verse is anything but wonderful, or that you shouldn’t let people know that there’s a church building (mosque, temple) in town. But there are messages I don’t want rammed down my throat, as it were. There are topics that are personal enough that making public demonstrations about them, in my view, is too much.

 

Which brings me to Tim Tebow.

Or, more properly, to the eMail(s) that I received. I’m sure that the forwarders of these forwarded eMails were genuine in their wish to bring its content to people’s attention. The eMails each contained an article which caused me to think about two large issues. First: public displays regarding private things.

Oh, by the way, the article’s title is “Hating Tim Tebow”.

Which tends to squelch a lot of rational debate from the get-go; but that can be set aside for the moment.

The author, an attorney named Matt Barber (an adjunct assistant professor at Liberty University’s School of Law), starts out by admitting his lifelong love of the Denver Broncos, and the franchise’s John-Elway-initiated tradition of playing well, then poorly, then well, then poorly, then executing amazing last-second comeback victories in the space of a single football game, which did make me chuckle. (“We don’t do steady,” he wrote.) And he mentions the Broncos’ second-string quarterback, Mr. Tebow, who briefly has made a habit of seeming like the second coming of the aforementioned John Elway.

In his sports career, Mr. Tebow has also made a habit of expressing his Faith in noticeable ways. Which, predictably, has drawn both rave reviews and raving protest. Mr. Barber supposes that Tebow is “more than just a sports phenomenon. He’s a cultural phenomenon.” And I suppose that if Saturday Night Live has done a sketch about you, then yes, you are that.

In accordance with the tried-and-true phrase, “it’s a free country”, any pro athlete is free (give or take a few pro-sports-league uniform rules) to express his or her Faith. And they do. Ostentatiously, sometimes. A baseball slugger points toward the sky while crossing home plate after hitting a 3-and-2 pitch into the upper deck; groups of NFL players (often from separate competing sides) hold a postgame prayer meeting at the 30-yardline; athletes write the names of Bible verses in white across the eye-black on their faces, as Mr. Tebow used to do while at the University of Florida, before the NCAA made a rule against such.

And, certainly, the stereotypical postgame interview very often starts with a religious thought. In a Washington Post interview, NFL quarterback Kurt Warner (who has experience with public pronouncements of Faith) said, “There’s almost a faith cliche, where [athletes] come out and say, ‘I want to thank my Lord and savior.’ As soon as you say that, the guard goes up, the walls go up, and I came to realize you have to be more strategic.”

This, also, from NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, also reportedly a devout Christian: “I feel like my stance and my desire has always been to follow a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, who said, ‘Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.’ So basically, I’m not an over-the-top, or an in-your-face kind of guy with my faith. I would rather people have questions about why I act the way I act, whether they view it as positive or not, and ask questions, and then given an opportunity at some point, then you can talk about your faith a little bit. I firmly believe, just personally, what works for me, and what I enjoy doing is letting my actions speak about the kind of character that I want to have, and following that quote from St. Francis.”

I find it something of a relief to read comments like this, especially from people like this. Too many elements of American society have degenerated into shouting matches or shameless self-promotion, as it is.

 

So, that was the first large issue that Barber’s article made me think about. The second large issue involved bandwagon-jumping (and, I suppose, conclusion-jumping as well).  But by this I don’t mean “oh, wow, Tim Tebow’s an exciting quarterback to watch, and I admire what he seems to be able to do on the field, and I now love to watch him play even though either I thought he’d never make it as an NFL quarterback, or I had no faint clue who he was before now.” Everybody gets that. … At various moments in my early childhood, I was a huge fan of impressionist Rich Little, the TV program “In Search Of…”, and the Minnesota Vikings. I got over those; but I stayed with other ones!

Instead, I mean, “here’s a suddenly-famous person whose attributes I can identify as supportive of the cause that I represent or the belief that I hold.” Identify them, or perhaps cling to them. Whether or not that famous person actually supports that same cause, or not.

Barber’s article makes a number of statements which are perhaps a shred presumptuous.

…As a Denver Bronco, Tim Tebow’s profile has grown exponentially. So too has the left’s hatred for him,” wrote Barber. [The italics throughout are mine.] “This is due in large part to his very open Christian faith. After each game, Tim begins by thanking God: ‘First and foremost, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.’ … Remarkably, during the [Broncos’ recent playoff victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers] Tebow passed for precisely 316 yards and averaged 31.6 yards per completed pass. The television viewing audience for the last 15 minutes of the game was 31.6 percent. This only added to the mystique.”

Barber’s analysis continues: “So big was the [playoff 3-1-6] story, in fact, that major news outlets like CNN ran the text of John 3:16 in its entirety: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ The attention that Tebow’s bold Christian faith has drawn to the Gospel message has secular ‘progressives’ and other God-deniers tied in knots. … Of course, Tim Tebow is merely doing what Jesus asks of his followers [in Matthew 10:32]: ‘Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.’ The problem is that secular ‘progressives’ don’t want Christ acknowledged before anyone, period; and they endeavor to shut down or mock anybody who tries.”

Then Barber briefly goes into bunker mentality mode: “[Jesus] reminds His followers: ‘If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.’ Those who belong to the world [possibly read: ‘those whom I believe are not nearly as devout as I am’] do indeed hate Tim Tebow. He stands for much of what our postmodern popular culture despises: sexual purity within the bonds of natural marriage, the sanctity of human life, selflessness, personal charity, humility and much, much more.”

(At the risk of tipping my hand: Trifecta!  Sexual mores, gay marriage, and abortion; three hot-button issues covered in the space of less than a subordinate clause. Bravo.)

Other writers have already chimed in on this one. William Saracino, a member of the California Political Review’s editorial board, recently has written an article further linking Tim Tebow’s virtues with some assertions about political views, and in doing so, has inadvertantly helped me figure out how to tie all this together.

It boils down to the Left’s hatred of all permanent things and values – and what has been more permanent than the Judeo-Christian ethic?” Saracino writes. “If there are permanent things then there is an objective right and wrong. And if there is an objective right and wrong the entire basis of modern liberalism – situational ethics – is revealed for the tangle of lies and the moral morass which it is. The fact that Tebow is a Christian – and by all appearances a conservative one – just further enrages the Left. You may be sure that if he were a Muslim thanking Mohammed instead of Christ after winning games he would be a hero in Manhattan and Berkeley, while criticizing him would be considered hate speech.”

And then, he takes a deep breath and leaps: “I suspect that also haunting the Left is the nagging fear – perhaps even the realization – that Tebow represents an America that is preparing to vote them out of power next November. … Tebow represents what used to pass for middle class normalcy in America, a concept the Left hates almost as much as it loathes permanent values.”

I think this is such a stretch that Saracino could have pulled a muscle writing it.

 

After reading that paragraph, and the one before it, I’d had enough. I am of the Christian faith. I possess political views which lean to the left a bit. I’m a member of that endangered species, the middle class, as well. Contrary to Saracino’s obvious belief, it is possible to be all of these things at once.

Oh wait! The final straw from Saracino. “I have no idea what Tebow’s politics are, or if he has ever had a political thought or opinion. I do know however that he has all the right enemies, and that is enough for me to celebrate him.” This, from a man who, mere sentences previously, asserted that Tebow is “by all appearances” a conservative Christian.

Fine. To Mr. Barber, and Mr. Saracino, and the authors of similar tracts about the proper way to “do Christianity”, I offer this: please.  Go on and celebrate The Phenomenon That Is Tim Tebow, preferably after you do find out what he really thinks or believes or stands for. It’s a free country. Because of the blessed First Amendment, you (and anyone, regardless of what Faith they espouse) are allowed to express whatever views you may have, arrived at by whatever logic you may utilize. You’re also free to root for Tebow as a football player, if you can find the time.

If you were to assess my level of public devoutness and find it insufficiently expressive, and therefore were to label me as insufficiently Faithful, I couldn’t do much about it, really. Nor could I, if you were to be disappointed in my wish: that some pro athletes would choose to express their Faith in such a way that I don’t have to hack my way through it with a figurative machete, just to get to the rest of his interview where he describes how nobody, not even God, could have seen that blitz coming.

But not all Christians feel comfortable “Tebowing”.

So, Authors, please try to expand your sphere of awareness, or your imagination, just enough so that you can understand that we’re not all cut from the same cloth here. Not all Christians wave their arms in the air when the mega-church leader cranks up the impassioned sermons and the rockin’ praise band. And not all Christians feel that they must acknowledge Christ by means of a billboard two and a half stories tall.

It’s too easy to proselytize via the mass-media. It’s almost lazy. And a lot of the time, those hoping to produce masses of converts employ some tactics that can turn off people who might otherwise have joined their group. These tactics include, but are not limited to, promises of easy salvation merely for the contribution of hard-earned bucks toward a television-based “ministry” that only ultimately benefits the ministers … portrayal of Christianity as some kind of endangered species, some victim of a “War On Christmas”, when in fact it is no such thing … too-easy reliance on name-calling, on the use of the word “hate” where it quite honestly does not apply, and on the vilification of those would question or appear to question Christianity in any way.

And — sadly — these tactics include the abuse of religious- or spiritual-sounding terminology, in order to disguise as discussions of faith-oriented issues a lot of efforts to achieve strictly-political gain.  (A modest amount of research has revealed that the two authors referenced here have no particular background in theology, but rather, are proselytizing in the service of a somewhat different organization.)

As we musicians say, here’s the big finish. Again, a suggestion to the various aforementioned Authors: I am quite certain that these tactics have caused who knows how many people to turn away from you – worse, they’ve made them think that your Faith (or denomination) wasn’t as worthy a thing as you think it is. Which, by unwanted association, means that it made them think my Faith (or denomination) wasn’t as worthy a thing as I think it is. Which means I’ll never get the chance to suggest to them that they might wish to express their Faith in a way or in a place where they’re comfortable.

Which – who knows? – could have been in my choir.

Thanks a heap.

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January 16, 2012 - Posted by | celebrity, choir, entertainment, Famous Persons, football, media, politics, religion, sports, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Hey, Rob. Thanks for putting into words the things I’ve been thinking as a lapsed (and likely to be forever lapsed) Protestant. Every time I see/hear one of these guys I think of the Pharisee in the temple; it was the quiet guy that got God’s attention, which is really the point, I think.

    Comment by Holly B. Anderson | February 1, 2012 | Reply

  2. […] about to make a point that I’ve made before, […]

    Pingback by Deeply-Held Beliefs « Editorial License | July 2, 2014 | Reply


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