First, the “full disclosure”: I am not a Florida
fan, nor am I a member of the “Gator Nation.” More to the point, I
refuse to accept the cosmology I saw on a bumper sticker last weekend,
while driving home from Florida, one suggesting that “If you’re not a
Gator, you’re gator bait.
So I bring some baggage, if not actually a prejudice, to this topic.
On Saturday, one of those rare sporting convergences took place,
almost on the order of a solar eclipse for sport. The two top-ranked
college football teams met in their SEC Conference Championship game,
and barring some sort of overtime scrim, the loser would drop out of
contention for the National Title this year. There was no such scrim
this year; Alabama won in convincing fashion, beating Florida by a
final score of 32-13 (while they led throughout the game and led at
halftime, Alabama scored 13 points in the second half while their
impressive defense held Florida scoreless).
Still, the media story all year long has been Florida, and in
particular Florida’s remarkably gifted quarterback, Tim Tebow. It is
very difficult to watch Tebow play without being impressed by his
uncanny combination of athletic skills—among them, speed and agility,
raw physical power, boldness, and creative intelligence—and his evident
skills as a team leader.
But another story has been brewing for the past year and a half; it
became a far more prominent and visible news story in the immediate
lead-up to yesterday’s game. That story concerns Tim Tebow’s eyes.
To be more precise, it concerns Tebow’s decision, roughly in the
middle of last year’s football season, to punctuate the dark stripes
under his eyes with biblical verses. Throughout the remainder of the
2008 season, it was Philippians 4:13 (“I can do everything through Him
who gives me strength”). But for the 2008 title game, he selected a
more predictable gospel verse, John 3:16 (‘Jn’ under his right eye,
3:16’ under his left), and thus created the precedent of picking a new
verse each week.
“…Strengthen Your Weak Knees.”
Throughout the 2009 season, it has become something of a parlor game
in the media to determine what verse Tebow has selected for each week’s
game, and why, then try to decode how the verse in question did or did
not fit into the dynamics of that week’s game.
Last week was “rivalry week” and that meant that Florida played
Florida State, still coached by a game octogenarian, Bobby Bowden. That
game was a drubbing, not a grudge match, with the 37-10 final score
scarcely indicative of how one-sided a performance it was.
Tebow selected Hebrews 12:1-2 for last week’s game.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of
witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, sin which clings so closely,
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the
joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and
is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
In a comical touch, some television announcers at last week’s game
misread Tebow’s eye-paint, and read from Hebrews 12:12 (“therefore lift
your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees”), correcting
themselves just before one of Tebow’s rare missteps: a long run from
scrimmage in which he tried to do too much against too many, and in the
course of attempting to manhandle three defenders, had the ball knocked
from his hands. That fumble led to Florida State’s first score.
This week, Tebow’s choice was John 16:33.
I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In
the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome
The word that John uses in this verse, a verbal form of Nike, is the
Greek word for victory, or conquest. “I have conquered the world” is
another perfectly plausible way to translate what John was saying.
In that sense, the verse was a strange selection. The first half
speaks of tribulation in the world; the second half speaks of
overcoming the world. No doubt many will speculate that Tebow sensed
the tribulation that was to come in the Georgia Dome on Saturday and
chose the verse accordingly: On the gridiron, tribulation; but peace in
Still, that seems more like reading omens than Christian Bible study.
I have struggled in the past several weeks to come to terms with my
own apparent prejudices. Something about these painted Bible verses
offends me, and I have not yet been able to articulate a way for that
reaction to be consistent. To be sure, as a scholar of religion, I am
frustrated, when I am not dumbfounded, by the happy-go-lucky and
freewheeling scriptural exegeses that Tebow’s weekly verse selection
now prompts on national televison.
But that hardly seems fair. Tim Tebow is an evangelical Christian of
impeccable pedigree, and he has used his raw athletic talent to get me,
and tens of thousands like me each week, to pick up the Bible and read
it. That is no mean accomplishment.
More substantively perhaps, this kind of bumper-sticker
spirituality—quote a Bible verse, just one or two, and completely out
of context—makes me very nervous. It invites the false assumption that
one can cherry-pick from the Bible, finding the verse one needs for any
occasion. If you are at a sporting match, then look for someplace where
Mark describes a contest, Paul invokes athletics or a great cloud of
witnesses, or some other evangelist invokes victory. There does seem to
be something down-dumbing in such a biblical practice.
But that does not seem fair to Tim Tebow, somehow, a remarkable and
remarkably serious young man who won a Heisman Trophy as a sophomore,
and returned to Florida to play out his senior year precisely in order
to play yesterday’s game and return to compete for the university’s
second national championship in a row.
There is no way to know what this verse meant to him when he selected it.
One week ago, after the trouncing of in-state rival, Florida State, the local newspapers opined,
Tim Tebow’s eye black is waterproof.
His perfect season is starting to look shatterproof.
That’s one way to read Hebrews 12:1-2. And maybe even John 16:33.
But the season does not “belong” to Tim Tebow, nor to any other player;
nor to his eye-paint, nor to the Bible. Perhaps here was the beginning
of the hubris. Perhaps.
Learning How to Lose
But the image that struck me at game’s end, when I wanted to feel
more celebratory, was the brief photographic image of Tebow’s tears
streaming down across that Bible verse. The waterproofing may have kept
the ink from running, but the spirit behind the selection was running
Or else it was coming into focus. It is easy to slip into the
temptation of the false security any theology can provide, if it stops
being careful and stops paying attention. God on your side would seem
to imply perfect seasons, flawless execution, just causes, and even
more just results.
But that is not football. And that is not “the world,” as John the
evangelist warns in the very verse Tebow selected. Every champion is
always but one week away from meeting the player, or the team, that is
bigger and faster and stronger. Learning how to lose is one key aspect
of such an encounter. The trick is to do so peace, with good cheer.
According to the canons of the New Testament so regularly deployed
by Tebow—there have been 4 selections from the Hebrew Bible this year,
2 from the Christian gospels, and 6 or 7 from Paul’s letters (depending
on who you think wrote the Letter to the Hebrews)—“God on your side”
meant a shameful and excruciating death on a cross and the abandonment
by every friend and even God Godself. How one contends with that dark
night of soul says a great deal about the content of one’s character,
whether one is Christian or not.
Tim Tebow is a Christian, and he seems to apply himself to that
practice with seriousness and elegance. The real interest lies not in
celebrating a Florida defeat, nor in digging for the unwitting irony of
Tebow’s scripture selection. No, the question is how Tim Tebow will
play the next time he suits up and takes the field in the Sugar Bowl.
If his character, Christian and otherwise, is anything like what he
has demonstrated it to be, then he will lead his teammates to return to
the field with renewed purpose and commitment, and will tenaciously
apply himself to achieving victory, even if it is not in the contest of
his choosing. He will look for the virtue in the moment he has been
given, and he will be grateful for it.
The question has less to do with what Bible verse will speak best to
that occasion, his next and final collegiate performance, and more to
do with the way he will play and how that play will attest to a
biblically and theistically informed life.