Professor Gets to the Heart of Tebow Mania

Is Tim Tebow's left arm guided by the right hand of God?

It depends on who you ask, says Carter Turner, a professor of philosophy and religion at Radford University.

The believers and the want-to believers say a heavenly intervention is possible, while those at the other end of the spectrum say it's just a coincidence that the Denver Broncos' quarterback, who some experts say is mediocre at best in his position, continues to guide his team to miraculous victories.

Either way, millions upon millions are watching and paying attention to the polarizing quarterback, an evangelical Christian whose flare for late-game drama and open demonstrations of faith on the field have propelled Tebow Mania to astronomical proportions.

Last Sunday, more than 42 million people tuned in their TV sets to watch the second-year NFL star lead the Broncos to a thrilling overtime victory in the wild card round of the NFL playoffs. The game was the second most watched TV show since the 2011 Super Bowl last February.

According to CBS, the game's peak rating was 31.6, while the QB, who sported the Bible verse "John 3:16" on his eye black during his University of Florida playing days, was torching the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense for, you guessed it, 316 yards.

Why are so many caught up in watching Tebow's every pass, run and end zone genuflection? Are they watching to confirm the existence of God?

"For a lot of people, the intrigue of Tebow is less about appropriate on-field manners and more about theology," Turner said. "People are watching because the games are partly about whether or not a God exists who intervenes in human history—even in the mundane like football."

Many athletes through the decades have openly demonstrated their faith at sporting venues, but attention given to them by fans and the news media has never approached the phenomenal focus on Tebow.

Turner points to former NFL star Kurt Warner as an example. A Super Bowl winning quarterback and potential Hall of Famer, Warner was open about his evangelical Christianity during his playing days, but his games didn't break records for TV viewers, Turner noted.

"People are watching the Tebow show because he's a second-rate quarterback, and he's winning games, often against great odds while playing his best at the most opportune times," Turner said. "For a large segment of the population, Tebow's success is proof that God intervenes in our lives. Doesn't God reward faith? Lord knows Tebow has faith." 

For evangelical Christians, Turner said, it's completely reasonable that God would intervene on Tebow's behalf. "People of faith would say of course God intervenes in order to demonstrate that faith matters."

So, with each miracle touchdown pass Tebow throws, his left arm is giving more and more people a reason to believe their lives can be better if they, too, have faith in God, Turner said.

"People want to believe, too," Turner noted. "This world is struggling right now. There's a lot of apprehension about the next few years. We have environmental concerns. We have issues of peace and stability. The economy is in the tank. People really want to believe that, if you have enough faith, you can win the Super Bowl even if you're a mediocre quarterback. Because, for many people, that also means they can find a job. That means their child, who is sick, can survive. We want to believe."

Not everyone wants to believe in Tebow, Turner conceded, and many want to see him fail.

"On the other end of the spectrum are those who don't believe God exists or don't believe God gives a hoot about football, with so much suffering going on in the world," Turner said. "These people watch because they want to see Tebow fail and, with it, the belief that an active God routinely intercedes in human endeavors. These people aren't just rooting against Tebow, they're rooting against what they perceive is ignorance and superstition."

The real struggle, Turner said, is not about Tebow's open demonstrations of faith but whether people believe miracles can happen on the football field, in hospitals and in homes around the world.

"We are a society that is uncomfortable with the tension between secularism and religion," Turner said. "And the tension is playing out in front of us every weekend of the football season."

Jan 13, 2012
Chad Osborne