Note: This article first appeared in The Daily on January 8, 2012 under the headline “The Good (Play) Book.” It is no longer extant so I’ve republished it here.
This afternoon, Tim Tebow takes the field for his first, and possibly last, playoff game as an NFL quarterback. The Heisman Trophy and college national championship winner was only promoted mid-season to the starting role with the Denver Broncos. An unorthodox player, Tebow’s old-fashioned style of offensive play strikes most football pundits as doomed to failure. He’s also an evangelical Christian whose vivid public expressions of faith — most famously, putting Bible verses in eye black and kneeling in an attitude of prayer before games and after touchdowns, a gesture that’s been christened “Tebowing” — provoke polarized responses in fans.
The Tim Tebow moment has been gratifying both to those Christians who enjoy feeling picked on and to those secularists who enjoy feeling superior to the religious people who have rallied around this mediocre if entertaining player.
In November, shortly after putting their offense in the hands of the 2010 draft pick, the Broncos went on a six-game winning streak that left even hardened NFL observers scraping their jaws off the floor. Then Denver ended the season with a much more predictable three-game skid, making the playoffs thanks only to their unusually weak competition.
The six-game streak by Tebow’s Broncos, four of them dramatic late-game comebacks, was, if nothing else, highly improbable. ESPN.com’s Stats and Info put the probability of the streak at 1 in 137,000. And when a pious individual is at the very public heart of a very improbable event, the role of his or her faith is inevitably investigated. “The machinations of his success don’t matter,” Chuck Klosterman wrote in a long essay on Tebow in Grantland, “as long as they’re inexplicable.”
Media voices and fans alike found themselves asking whether God “intervenes” in sporting events — that is, whether an outcome that would otherwise be settled by the usual mix of factors like skill and effort is ever thwarted by the momentary application of God’s decisive hand.
One school of thought thinks not, with offense taken at the very notion. “God does not care who wins football games,” wrote Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN.com’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback columnist, noting the frequency with which players invoke the will of the Almighty. “A billion people worldwide live in poverty, but God is more concerned with making Brett Favre happy?”
Some Christians agree that it trivializes their faith to see it applied by athletes for short-term gain, while some skeptics see the combination of the Broncos’ stout defense and mistakes by opponents as the cause of these unlikely results.
But there are still a lot of other people who, when they consider the very low probability of something happening — multiple late-game comebacks, for instance — decide that God’s intervention is the most plausible explanation. Former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, quoted in the December issue of Sports Illustrated, said, “There is some divine intervention associated with what’s taking place [with Tebow]” — and to Angelo’s credit, shortly thereafter his own team suffered an embarrassing and highly improbable overtime loss to the Broncos.
In either case, “divine intervention” depends on something theologians sometimes call the “God of the gaps.” As our knowledge of the world increases in scope and predictive power, we end up arguing over God in those “gaps” left in our apparent mastery. Some things are not significant enough to trigger any kind of religious speculation — if our trash gets picked up an hour late, we tend not to tax heaven with our complaints — while other things are too routine or predictable to involve God — as when, say, the light switch works or our paycheck clears. So by this view the ultimately Godless event would be something like the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints dismantling the hapless Minnesota Vikings 42-20. It’s low in cosmic significance and high in probability.
Believers should think twice before looking for God only in circumstances that leave our powers of explanation flabbergasted or have unusually high stakes. Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, wrote, “I do not trouble God with my little troubles.” But for him faith was the cardinal virtue, and “faith is convinced that God is concerned with the smallest things.”
Football is no small thing in this country. However much we might talk about it as “just a game,” the truth is that professional and collegiate sports are massive businesses to which we devote a lot of time and energy. On some Sundays I manage to spend more hours watching football than I do in church — and I’m a pastor!
For that reason, I would encourage anyone in my congregation, including athletes and sports writers, to practice their vocation in light of their most important convictions, be they sacred or secular — something Tebow, who is reported to have donated most of his signing bonus to charity, exemplifies regardless of his success or failure on the field.
As for “divine intervention,” when we talk about it as a solution to a particular problem, whether it’s a gap in the fossil record or an unlikely string of football victories, we reduce God to a rather minor, if useful, role in the world. If the word “God” means anything, then God is just as fully — and mysteriously — present in the victories of a brutally efficient Tom Brady as in the fluctuating heroics of the eccentric Tebow. In a verse I imagine Tebow knows by heart, the Psalmist says, “I will bless the LORD at all times,” in both the improbable victories and the utterly predictable defeats.