Ultimate God

In a recent op-ed piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Ben Krull published a satirical piece entitled “Strategizing God’s election campaign.” While some, no doubt, took offense at the piece, it is less an indictment of God (Krull is a lawyer) than it is a broadside against those who use God to get elected. As portrayed in the Bible, God is not always a likeable character. As Krull points out in so many words, God is a guy with “issues.” Would he ever be elected on a family values platform? What is happening here is that God is being recast as those who most vociferously claim him an ally want him (always him) to be. Using Yahweh as a springboard, they vault over the compassionate Jesus and land firmly at the disapproving God of Jonathan Edwards, who, along with the God of John Rockefeller, wants them to be rich. It’s not as much an election as it is a catalogue where you can order just the deity you want. The God they claim America follows is a god of their own making.

Paul Tillich, a theologian, once famously declared that God is a person’s ultimate concern. While other theologians instantly and continuously disputed this, the idea still has some currency. The distorted versions of Christianity that we constantly see in the political and sports scenes today is a god that adores the free market and loves football, especially when the Broncos are playing. Somehow, incredibly, he couldn’t get tickets for the Super Bowl. If you listen closely you’ll see this god resembles nobody so much as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann—wait a minute… has god packed up and gone home? Since undisputed God sightings are as rare as undisputed UFO sightings (maybe even rarer) we are free to fill in the enormous lacunae with our ultimate concerns. Ourselves.

At least in the world of polytheism you had a choice of gods and a ready source on which to blame unpleasantness. If Baal’s not answering your prayer, maybe Anat is standing in the way. Ancient folk were not conscious of the fact that they were making gods in their own image, after their own ultimate concerns. But modern Christians, trapped with the God of the Bible, feel that they can at least give the big guy a makeover. This is God on-demand. The beauty of this deity is that he is a poseable action figure who is a picture-perfect image of one’s personal ultimate concerns. A God so malleable, so fluid, and so idiosyncratic should have no trouble getting elected. To find the God of popular politics, just look in the mirror.

Who does your God look like?

Tebow or Not Tebow?

It is time to bow to the inevitable. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a sports fan. Every web page I open, however, seems to feature Tim Tebow, as if the media had never seen an evangelical before. Where have people been? What is even more amazing is that this athletic kid has invented an entirely new human gesture, “the Tebow.” Incredible what young folks can accomplish these days. And as Saturday Night Live has showed us, Jesus really isn’t that much of a football fan after all.

Ashamed at my naiveté, I decided to research the history of tebowing. What I found shocked and amazed me. Like so many modern day marvels, Tebowing seems to have been invented by those prescient Sumerians. Even before humans perfected the Tebow, semi-divine characters showed them how. This cylinder-seal depicts the monster Humbaba illustrating the correct posture to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They do not, apparently, take kindly to his correction.

In the example below we see a rare double-kneed Tebow performed by an Asian football god while a hopelessly underchurched Joe Paterno looks on, hopelessly standing.

Fast forward a few centuries to a seasonal scene and we find shepherds tebowing to some baby. It is a fair guess that they suppose the baby to be a football incarnate.

Lest we think the Tebow has been coopted by the Christian crowd, we must remember that no religion has a copyright on humility. In this scene from Norse mythology, a clearly pagan Hermod tebows before the goddess Hela. She does not look amused.

Americans, who after all claim to have invented the Tebow, can trace the gesture back to our founding father himself. In this famous painting of George Washington at Valley Forge, just after the crucial touchdown, the great man can be seen tebowing in the snow.

The snow is a great segue to the Cold War. Here, in a government photo, we see Soviet naval infantry tebowing as they contemplate the big game. They are not now, nor have they ever been, Broncos.

Now, none of this resembles the education I received during my three degrees in religious studies. No matter. ‘Tis the child becomes the man, as they say. And since a little child shall lead them, we can all learn to tebow as if there were no tomorrow. If the actual Tebow is as bright as the sports-scholarship students I taught at Oshkosh, Rutgers, and Montclair, the education of the future will include a lot lower academic expectations and, I suspect, lots and lots of Levis with holes in the knees.

Sports Religion

I’ve never been a fan of organized sports. Call it sour grapes, but having been born with an inner ear affliction that makes sudden turns debilitating, I’ve never been effective at much beyond running. Maybe also the occasional flirtation with free weights. So when my wife showed me a story about Tim Tebow, I had no idea who he was. It turns out that he is the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He was in the news not because of his apparently lackluster performance, but because of his religion. The Miami Herald story by Dan Le Batard insightfully points out that football fans participate in what amounts to a religion in their devotion to the game. Add an evangelical Christianity to that “sports religion” (Le Batard’s term) and a “holy war” (again, Le Batard) breaks out. Religious fans praise Tebow because of his character, sports fans castigate his allegedly mediocre ability. The controversy over Tebow, however, goes deeper.

Hallowed be thy game (but not thy Photoshop)

Home schooled in Florida, his family took advantages of laws that allowed home schoolers to play on actual schools’ sports teams. Even going as far as to rent an apartment and move out of their home with her son, his mother placed her son in advantageous school districts while teaching him at home. The problems with home schooling are legion, but clearly among the most troubling are the frequent use of religious indoctrination and the lack of critical thinking skills. Those who are truly educated are aware of just how little they know. Those who presume they can teach their children everything they’ll need often seem impressed by their own knowledge. But I digress. While in college Tebow’s penchant for painting Bible verses in his eye black led to the “Tebow Rule” that forbade messages in the paint. Interestingly, the Bible verses he scrawled on his game face received high numbers of Google hits during the games.

No doubt for many sports are a form of religious release. Le Batard suggests that football religion and traditional religion rest uneasily together. In a world where I might mention a particularly important Bible passage for students to read and most won’t bother, the flash of Proverbs 3:5-6 on a starry-eyed quarterback’s face will send fans page-thumbing the good book. Perhaps religions have been focusing their energies in the wrong places. If the various religions of the world formed football franchises and joined the ranks of the NFL, the benches, or pews, would be filled every Sunday. And it might also solve another perplexing problem: which religion is the correct one? They could be determined once and for all on Super Sunday.