Tim Tebow is the source of much commentary in the sports world, for a number of reasons. Most often the commentary is praise and adoration. But this was not the case in USA Today a few weeks back.
Tom Krattenmaker, author of a new book, Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers, leveled some pretty heavy critique at the very evangelical Tebow and others in his theological camp:
Anyone who watches pro and college football or follows the drama of the baseball playoffs can’t help but notice something else that often competes for our attention amid the passes, pitches and home runs: religion.
Players point skyward to the Almighty after reaching the end zone or home plate, star athletes voice thanks and praise to their savior after a big win, and sports heroes use their media spotlight to promote the Christian message. (See University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and his eye-black, touting Scripture.) These are the outward signs of a faith surge that has made big-time sports one of the most outwardly religious sectors of American culture.
So far so good. If he were merely commenting on the fact that many of these displays are hypocritical (Barry Bonds, anyone?), or superficial, he’d have my sympathy. I’d agree entirely if his commentary was focused on how many players, when they pray, merely ask for the win, erroneously citing Phil 4:13 for support.
But he focuses on something other than that: the exclusivity of the Gospel message touted by many Christian athletes. He acknowledges that these athletes have a right to express their faith, but, somewhat paradoxically, thinks it is time we remove the exclusive claims of what he calls a “far right theology”:
But Jesus’ representatives in sports aren’t just practicing faith. They are also leveraging sports’ popularity to promote a message and doctrine that are out of sync with the diverse communities that support franchises, and with the unifying civic role that we expect of our teams. Typifying the exclusive creed taught by many sports-world Christians is the belief statement published by Baseball Chapel, which provides chaplains for all major- and minor-league baseball teams. Non-believers in Jesus, the ministry declares, can look forward to “everlasting punishment separated from God.”
Urban Meyer, Tebow’s coach at Florida, has praised his quarterback’s faith-promoting ways as “good for college football … good for young people … good for everything.” Such is the rhetoric usually heard from those who defend sports-world Christianity as wholesome and harmless.
But should we be pleased that the civic resource known as “our team” — a resource supported by the diverse whole through our ticket-buying, game-watching and tax-paying — is being leveraged by a one-truth evangelical campaign that has little appreciation for the beliefs of the rest of us?
…If their take on God and truth and life is the only right one — which their creed boldly states — everyone else is wrong.
…It’s not just non-Christians who might have a thing or two to say about this exclusive theology. According to a December 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, 65% of American Christians believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. Our pluralism is a defining and positive reality of American life — but not one that is much valued by those who define the faith coursing through the veins of sports culture.
After noting that Tim Tebow does missionary work for his father’s ministry, which adheres to a “far right theology” (Should I point out that such beliefs are hardly far right? For the whole of Christian history, they have been smack dab in the center, hardly considered controversial in the Church. Perhaps Krattenmaker’s loaded language is misplaced, then?) that Christ is the only doorway to salvation, Krattenmaker concludes:
Certainly, Tim Tebow must be applauded for the good he does working on his father’s missions, but he should be seen, too, as one who promotes a form of belief that makes unwelcome judgments about everyone else’s religion. Let’s not forget the twinge that is felt by sports-loving Jewish kids and parents, for example, or by champions for interfaith cooperation, when adored sports figures like Tebow use their fame to push a Jesus-or-else message.
The irony is lost on Krattenmaker. In taking Tebow and his fellow evangelical believers to task about saying “everyone else is wrong,” Krattenmaker foists himself on the same petard. That is, he’s a pluralist–all roads lead to God, and every (or most) religion(s) is (are) right for each individual. The Jew’s path is right for him. The Muslim’s path is right for him, and so on.
Sounds nice, but what him and many others don’t realize is that by taking exception with conservative evangelicals, he is saying that “if someone disagrees with my belief (in pluralism), they are wrong.” While Moral Therapeutic Deists (more on Moral Therapeutic Deism in youth) in America might hold to pluralism in like manner, he unwittingly pits himself against the majority of the world. According to Islam, there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. Jesus is not the King. Jews are in error, etc, etc. According to Judaism, Jesus is not the Messiah. They think Christians are wrong. Same for much of the Hindu and Buddhist world–they’ll balk big time at many of Jesus’ statements. Even if you listen to a follower of B’hai, you’ll hear exclusivistic statements left and right–they think they’ve got it right (that all the leaders of the big religions are prophets) and evangelical Christians/Muslims/orthodox Jews are wrong! That’s a big chunk of the world right there.
Krattenmaker thinks he’s right–otherwise, why would he be writing the column chastising the likes of Tebow–and evangelical Christians are wrong. Period. Why is it that when he takes that stance, he’s just right, but when Tebow et al take the very same stance in regard to their beliefs, they are suddenly intolerant?
As one commenter noted:
Ah! So it’s just the conservative brand of Christianity that needs to receive condemnation for being divisive. Why? You don’t think that liberal Christian theologians think that they have a more accurate summation of Christianity? Islam? Hinduism?
Face it: truth by nature is exclusive. When you say something is right or true, that means its opposite is false…can’t get around that. Why is Krattenmaker so sensitive to that when those he disagrees with point that out, but he’s ok with his theologically like-minded friends standing upon that principle? His sensitivity to the nature of truth is popular, but odd. Imagine if I said, a la Krattenmaker above, “Let’s not forget the twinge that is felt by sports-loving evangelical kids and parents, for example, or by champions for Chuck Colson’s prison ministries, when adored sports writers like Krattenmaker use their fame to push a pluralism-or-else message.”
My message to Tom K: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
What’s more, I don’t know why he thinks its important that a majority of what he calls “Christian” Americans agree with him. Since when have numbers mattered in determining what is true?
You might think I’m making the same error when I talk about the majority of the world disagreeing with Krattenmaker, but my point is different: it is ironic that he takes to task those who are narrow in their theology when his own theology is narrow by his own definition.
Perhaps I’m not being wholly charitable to him. Maybe his problem isn’t with the exclusivity of evangelical claims (though much of his column does suggest that), but with the preaching on hell: those who don’t believe in Jesus go to hell.
I can see how this doesn’t make sense to a pluralist. Many well-meaning Christians, in an attempt to stand for their beliefs, awkwardly defend and explain this part of Christianity. Put the way it is–if you don’t believe in Jesus, you go to hell–doesn’t make much sense to the typical non-believer. It sounds as if a few sincere errors on a theology quiz can condemn a person to hell, regardless of behavior or the state of his heart.
But when one considers our natural state as rebels against God, and when one considers the depth of our rejection of God and the serious nature of our rebellion, the belief makes more sense. We aren’t good (you’ll need the following to view the link: ID–pugnacious PW–irishman): our problem isn’t a few errors on a quiz. Rather, we don’t bring a clean resume before God–we bring a lengthy rap sheet. Our moral crimes have earned us not God’s gifts, but His judgement. This goes for those in the West and the East. But God, in His love for us, graciously provided us amnesty. The thing is, since we’ve offended God, forgiveness is on His terms, not ours, and His terms are through Jesus. We should be grateful that He provides a pardon at all, not offended that He provides an infinite number of possible pardons that suit our tastes. It is us in the dock, not Him.
If Krattenmaker still has a problem with this, then I suggest he take it up with Jesus, not Tebow. It is Jesus who spoke of hell and God’s judgment more than anyone in the Bible, and Tebow is merely faithfully communicating the message of his Sovereign.
Lastly, I suggest conservative Christians take note. We have been accused of being intolerant for our beliefs for some time now. Actually, Jesus and His disciples got the same treatment. As Albert Mohler points out, things will only continue to go in this direction:
You can count on seeing these same arguments appear anywhere evangelical Christians express their faith in public or within ear-shot of those who may be offended. The belief that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation is now at the very center of secular outrage.
Consider this: Tom Krattenmaker ransacked the website of the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association in order to find the statement that caused him to criticize Tim Tebow as espousing “a far-right theology.” The outrage directed at Tim Tebow is not just about a Bible reference written in eye-black. The outrage is directed at the sincerely-held beliefs of a young man and an evangelistic association.
Tom Krattenmaker suggests that Tim Tebow should adopt a “more generous conception of salvation.” And now we all know the price of being seen as “more generous.” Just abandon the Gospel.
I am confident that Tim Tebow will withstand this pressure. He has shown enough theological maturity and strength of conviction to earn that confidence. But, we have to wonder, how many others will fold under the intimidation?
I echo Mohler’s encouragement: it is my hope that conservative Christians buck up and refuse to be intimidated by the passive-aggressive “secular outrage.”