(This is a really long post, even by my usual bloaty standards. I’d like to blame that on the fact that I’m writing it on a bus, but I’m not sure how that would work)
There’s a long lineage of football players whose Christianity is so florid and all-encompassing that they’re basically impossible to interview. What was Matt Stover thinking when he lined up that overtime field goal? About how good God is, funny you should ask. Where was Mark Brunell’s oft-concussed brain during that decisive drive? Walking with Jesus, man, the fuck you think? (Note: those examples/rhetorical questions should be backdated to like 2003) There’s nothing wrong with this, per se — with being devout, or with choosing to substitute religious cant for the regular sports-dude cliches in the interest of the time-honored athletic pursuit of Not Saying Anything Controversial. But there’s nothing especially valorous about it, either.
Whether it’s authentic or not, these monsters of gospel basically make themselves ciphers, and their robotic ministering makes them appear both surpassingly mild (it’s WJWD) and weirdly personality-free. Anyone who has watched a post-game interview with just about any athlete knows that it’s also possible to do this without citing scripture or bigging-up a deity. David Wright, bless him, just does it naturally. Tim Tebow — if only by dint of the fact that he’s a relevant football player circa now, while the two guys I mentioned were last owned in fantasy leagues when Enron was still a going concern — is the latest and shiniest iteration of the touchdowns-remind-me-of-Jesus archetype. Although, if his recent interview with ESPN’s Kenny Mayne is any indication, he’s not exactly changing the game when it comes to rote recitation of faith-pap.
Most of the interview (it’s here, although it’s behind ESPN’s Insider pay-wall) is just kind of dull — Tebow giving virtuously bland, super-studied answers to a batch of largely (and surprisingly) earnest questions from Mayne. If ESPN’s dispatching of Mayne — who, for better or worse, is the network’s designated laugh-inducer — was designed to highlight the lighter side of Tebow, it failed, if only because Tebow (again, like many athletes, devout or not) just doesn’t seem to have a personality to draw out. If the sit-down was designed to showcase Mayne’s surprisingly tight Pontius Pilate imitation, though, it was a surprising success:
KM: When Sam Jackson made a “What Would Jesus Twitter” joke about you at the ESPYs, there were groans in the crowd. But when they cut to you, you thought it was funny. Right?
TT: I can see why people could get offended, but I didn’t. My faith’s out there.
KM: I wonder what Jesus actually would tweet?
TT: “Believe in me.”
KM: He’d have a lot of characters to burn still, but at least the content is powerful.
TT: Absolutely. But He already tweeted enough. We just have to look at it.
KM: Do you believe God controls every detail? Or did He set things up perfectly and give the world a spin, and now we’re on our own?
TT: The way I figure is if nothing bad ever happened, there wouldn’t be a need for faith. The Bible says we’re tested and made stronger through trials and tribulations. But He’s here, helping us out.
KM: What I mean is that there could be a person in the hospital who is going to die of cancer, and down the hall, someone who is going to beat it. I find it hard to believe that God would say, “All right, you, you get to die. And you, you get to live.” Do you think that’s true?
TT: God has a plan for everything. Some people might say, “Well my plan’s not as good as this person’s plan.” But in God’s eyes, it is. Not everybody’s called upon to do the same thing or to be here on Earth the same amount of time. It’s like the Body of Christ. Not everybody’s going to be the eye or the mouth. Somebody has to be the foot. I’m not saying that’s anything less. In fact, in God’s eyes it’s the same. You just have to look at what He called on you to do and do it to the best of your ability. You can’t question why, because then you won’t have the faith you should.
Okay. Tebow was home-schooled by missionaries; he’s majoring in something called “Family, Youth and Community Sciences,” and thus isn’t exactly trying to become some learned, long-bearded theologian; and he’s under no greater obligation to offer an inspiring (or lucid) explication of his faith than anyone else. (The “foot” thing, incidentally, does seem to have some sort of Biblical grounding, although it’s kind of hard to tell what Tebow — or the apostle Paul — was talking about in this quotation; the consensus seems to be something about the role of various churches and denominations) And while I’ve read the New Testament (just as a book, admittedly), I’m not sure that I could give you a snappy answer to Mayne’s last question beyond, “it’s hard, but the idea is you have to trust God to work it all out at the end of time.” But the fact that Tebow’s entire religious worldview is 1) so individuated as to be more or less inapplicable to anyone but Tim Tebow and 2) is capable of being reduced to incoherence by Kenny (freaking) Mayne — the sort of Grand Inquisitor who has his own shitty web series on ESPN.com — idoes dent his Philospher King/Holy Warrior rep.
Of course, that rep was never exactly un-silly in the first place. GC quoted Jeff Pearlman on this front back in July, praising Pearlman’s (kind of strident, kind of correct) response to Austin Murphy’s fulsome profile of Tebow in Sports Illustrated. “I’m sure he’s a friendly kid,” Pearlman wrote of Tebow. “But he™s a sheltered 21-year old.” (More pointedly, Pearlman points out that profiles of mega-devout athletes follow a strict and restricting script: “The pieces almost always come out the same: Not only is he a great player, but he™s just as amazing off the field!”)
But if it isn’t stunning that Tebow’s rambly, murky certainty seems to land him more on the muscleheaded side of Muscular Christianity, the really surprising thing here is Mayne’s performance. While his alleged charms as a deadpan sports comic are only intermittently even comprehensible to me, Mayne asked Tebow tougher questions than anyone (including ESPN’s editors or Tebow’s handlers) likely expected. And he might’ve buried a critique of Tebow-style Xtian certitude in a seemingly innocuous question.
Later in the interview, after the “what is truth” exchange quoted above, Mayne asks Tebow what would’ve happened if one of his old “John 3:16” emblazoned eye-black strips had been smudged to read “John 8:15.” Tebow is unable to quote the passage — which Mayne very well may have chosen at random, admittedly — and says he’d just have to have someone make him up a new strip. But thanks to the magic of the internets, I can quote John 8:15. It reads, in the American King James version, “You judge after the flesh; I judge no man.”