Sure, Christmas music is on the radio, decorations are up around town and culture warriors are blathering on about the supposed “War on Christmas.” You may be under the impression that religion in December is all about Christmas. Or if you are more pluralistic in your thinking, you may allow for Hanukah, Kwanza and perhaps even neo-Pagans and Wiccans celebrating the winter solstice. The more cynical among us might offer that the annual orgy of materialism is the real religion of this time of year. Yet, I declare to you that the real religion of December is football!
Yes, if we measure religion according to the amount of energy and devotion given communally by a society to a given thing, complete with rituals, financial expenditures and demonization of one’s enemies, then good old American football is the real religion of December. Weekly, adherents of particular denominations (teams) don their religious garb (assorted team clothing, t-shirts, jerseys, etc.) and encamp themselves in front of their altars (TV sets) and communally feast (hot wings anyone?) while they lose themselves in ecstatic displays of passion often couched in language of good vs. evil. Whether it’s college games on Saturday or pro games on Sunday, this same ritual is enacted throughout the land—and attendance is far better than at churches and synagogues. The more devout among us go on pilgrimages to their local shrines (sports bars) or the temples (stadia) themselves, where they dress themselves in costume and engage in ritual meals with one another (tailgating).
I must confess some devotion to this religion as well. I only listen to sports radio between the beginning of NFL training camp and the Super Bowl, but you should hear the amount of time, passion and energy devoted to the game. This is especially true when the college bowls announce their picks as they did this past weekend. Occupy Wall Street has nothing on the outrage expressed at the BCS rankings. College football fans across the nation rail against the greedy, monopolistic cabal of coaches, universities and conference executives who reap millions off of college football and care nothing for the ordinary people (much less about the athletes they exploit). When multinational corporations and Wall Street banks operate this way it is only free market capitalism, but when the BCS does so, it is blasphemy!
Perhaps no player this year has embodied this religion more so than Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Denver Broncos. His on-field and on-camera moments spent bowing in prayer after a win have even sponsored an on-line phenomena called “Tebow-ing,” defined by the official website as “(vb) to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.” I can’t tell if the people “tebowing” in the pictures on the web while fighting fires, visiting the Grand Canyon, etc. are really into it or merely being sarcastic (both probably).
Tebow has been outspoken about his faith and declared in a USAToday article making its rounds on Facebook that just as you would want to tell your wife you loved her on national television given the chance, how much more so would you want to tell Jesus Christ you love HIM in as public a place as possible? Those who have followed Tebow’s impressive career should not be surprised by these public displays of faith, after all this was the same guy who wrote “John 3:16” in eye-black on his cheeks during his college games. Of course, football players kneeling in the end-zone isn’t new, but Tebow has managed to mix the religion of football with that other December religion (Christianity) in a manner that has grabbed the spotlight.
First of all, let me say that I am predisposed to dislike Tim Tebow because he plays for the Broncos. As a life-long Chiefs fan, in my book there’s not much good anybody can do who wears a Denver uniform. As the parent of two boys, I admit, however, that I guess I would rather them see an NFL player kneel in prayer than get caught in a scandal like Brett Favre or Ben Roethlisberger, a point many of Tebow’s defenders have made. Yet, as a Christian parent (who is also devoted to the religion of football) I am uncomfortable with the mixing of these two religions. I guess I would have my sons learn that rather than bowing in prayer in front of millions of on-lookers, loving Jesus means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting people in prison as in Matthew 25.
Although I don’t think Jesus would begrudge folks having fun at a game, I feel pretty sure that God has more important things to worry about than who wins a football game. Then, of course, there are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about praying in public: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” I don’t know if Tebow is a hypocrite—from what I can see, he seems like a pretty darn good guy and his faith is genuine—but his public prayers seem to have brought more attention to him rather than to the God he desires to praise.
Although I will be participating in the sacred rituals of football just like millions of others this December, I sure hope I give at least as much attention and love to the God of that other December religion as I do to Tim Tebow and his fellow football players.
Grace and Peace,