informal essays

Why Tim Tebow is Different From Kurt Warner

I haven’t really been keeping up with the NFL recently – when your hometown team hits the low point of the cycle it’s easy to wax philosophic about professional sports being nothing more than arbitrary, revolving collections of overpaid athletes that go through high and low cycles (every good/bad team gets bad/good after a few years, prompting loads of vacuous commentary about how things turned around, right?). Besides, I’ve been busy lately with things like graduating college and getting married and those kinds of important, personal things. So I haven’t really been following The Terrific Tales of Tim Tebow.

Oh sure, I knew who he was. There was that subtle anti-abortion commercial in the last Super Bowl. And I’ve seen the occasional news headlines about the quarterback being super-Christiany and about the reaction to that by various figures. I even knew that he had led the Broncos on a 6-1 run the last few weeks. But as someone who tries to provide self-aware commentary about the Christian community, I didn’t really have anything to say. I knew that evangelical football fans were getting gushy about this guy for giving glory to God on the gridiron, and I knew that non-evangelical football fans were getting a little annoyed by it. But, hey, maybe God’s using him to touch people’s lives, right? I’ve lived in St. Louis since 2000; I felt like I’d seen this all before. Tim Tebow was Kurt Warner 2.0.

But yesterday while I was at my parents’ house, I read an interesting article about the man while waiting for the Packers game to start. I liked the charming details about Tebow’s witness – the Bible verses on the eyeblack, for instance. And the wanna-be-online-entrepenuer part of me was fascinated by the casual creation of the Tebowing meme and its runaway success. But what I found most interesting were the details about Tebow as a football player. His stats don’t seem very good, and he talks about football being just a game and less important than the kinds of things that really matter in life (it sound like he’s gotten into some laudable off-field endeavors already). And yet with Tim at the helm, his team keeps winning.

This strikes me as a little different from the Warner legacy of a decade ago. Kurt Warner was fantastic – at least at the beginning. He broke and still holds some stunning records for things like passing yards in a Super Bowl and whatnot. The Warner legacy was all about Kurt Warner being awesome at football because God had made him awesome and he was giving glory to God for making him awesome. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” (James 1:17) There’s the parable of the talents (hello – talents) where the servant multiples the talents given him and the Master gives him more. Use the talents God gives you to bring him glory and he will bless you. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Tebow legacy seems to be a little different. Tim Tebow and the Broncos have come from behind to win close games, and it doesn’t look like Tebow is the greatest football player to ever walk the earth – but the team has been winning. Sometimes you can give glory to God by being awesome at something; sometimes you can give him glory by not being awesome at something yet still succeeding… because then God had to be helping you, right? This is more like “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27) “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) This is golden preaching material. Just do a quick google for “strength through weakness sermon” to find the rich history of that topic. (All of you intentional, relevant preachers needs to add Tebow into one of those sermons, stat.)

So while I watched the Packers make the Raiders look like the Rams, I occasionally glanced at the bottom of the screen for a Broncos game update. Tebow’s line displayed an astonishingly painful 3 for 13 with an interception – but the game was still tied, scoreless. Anything could happen. We left around halftime and returned to the regular errands of life, but later I logged on to see what had happened.

“Miracle At Mile High!” Tebow and the Broncos scrambled to rally from a 10-0 deficit with 2:08 left to go in regulation and won with a field goal in overtime! Critics will say it had nothing to do with Tebow and that the Bears gave the game away. But Tebow fans will say it doesn’t matter; the Broncos won again. Did God lead the Broncos to victory? Does God even care about football? (“What would God do if two super-Christiany quarterbacks played each other” is the new “how many angels can dance on a pin”.) Or does God just like to confound our arrogant expectations? Or are we all just weaving convenient narratives into the randomosity of sports? (There’s an XKCD comic for everything.)

I don’t know whether or not these narratives should exist, but since they do exist, I can at least talk about whether or not they line up with truth. I’m still thinking about it, but I think there’s room in Christianity for both narratives. The Kurt Warner legacy appeals to us when we feel like David the Mighty Warrior slaying two hundred Philistines, when we’re fulfilling our destiny by using the gifts God has given us to accomplish great things. The Tim Tebow legacy appeals to us when we feel like David the little armorless slingshot-wielding shepherd boy, totally inadequate for the task God has called us to do but confident that because he has called us he will give us the strength to complete it while allowing him to take all the glory. Each has its nuances and potential pitfalls of extremism, but I think they can both exist. It would be an interesting and worthy discussion, at any rate.

But whether all of that really has anything to do with Tebow or not, it seems like the “strength through weakness” narrative will live on for at least another week. And if the Broncos ever stop winning and the narrative finally falls apart, well, then it just means that Tebow was right all along. It’s just a game.