Tebow, Bono, & Jesus

January 10, 2012

After skidding to an 8-8 regular season record and enduring mass media scrutiny from Saturday Night Live comedians to sports statisticians, Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos were expected to fall hard at home in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs. Everyone predicted them to be bloody Bronco meat, losing at the feet of defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead, Tebow, the Denver Broncos, and their legion of fans are praising God after reaching the mountaintop of a another mile high miracle in a 29-23 overtime triumph.

Some seven months ago, the rock band U2 inhabited the same Invesco Field, resisted leaving earth at the predicted rapture, and shared time backstage with the up-and-coming quarterback Tebow. The likes of Tebow and Bono hang out—and we get to speculate about the connection between religion, football, and rock n roll.

Tebow and Bono have their celebrity in common, but more importantly and perhaps most controversially, they utilize the “platforms” (to use Tebow’s phrase) of football and rock n roll respectively to profess their faith in a higher power, in particular confessing allegiance to the God-incarnate carpenter-prophet of western religion known to many as their messiah-savior, Jesus Christ.

While U2 have never been ashamed of their devout Christian faith and their lyrics boast biblical imagery on every record, the bandmates were once shy about the kind of high-profile fundamentalist praise-riffing that a player like Tebow employs before, during, and after every football game. Fans surely remember Bono mocking television preachers back-in-the-day, lambasting fans to remember that God isn’t short of cash. Coming from a Catholic-Protestant “mixed marriage” in Ireland, the formerly-known-as Paul Hewson is all-too-familiar with the darker, violent side of religiosity.

But when his anti-poverty work with DATA then ONE then RED intensified around the turn-of-the-century, Bono made friends with many in the US evangelical Christian community, worked closely with CCM artists, and could be seen in high-profile meetings with people like the Pope and Billy Graham. In interviews, he became increasingly outspoken about how his faith in Christ charged him to identify with the poor even as his own wealth increased.

On the DVD filmed in Boston and released after the 2001 Elevation tour, at the top of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” a chorus from “40” precedes the track, with Bono’s head tilted toward heaven, and then, as the familiar epic opening of Streets sends chills through arena, Bono takes a knee. Yes, Bono takes a knee and recites a few lines from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 116 (the version of the Good Book promoted by Bono and known as The Message): “What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation as a toast to our Father.”

I don’t know how many times—or in how many shows—U2’s beloved and hated singer has taken a knee, but I bet he does it often, and from watching that Boston clip a few times over and again, it’s self-evident that Bono was “tebowing” a decade before Tebowmania, around the time Tim Tebow hit adolescence. Of course, most people just call it praying, but the quarterback’s dramatic and prostrate piety has captured the imagination of our nation.

Both Tebow and Bono love Jesus, use celebrity to promote an unlikely blend of popular culture and Christology, frequently reminding folks that there are topics more important in our world than football or rock n roll. But the secular backlash has been acute, often from a left or liberal perspective, such as seen in the work of Edge of Sports writer Dave Zirin. (The objections that writers like Dave Zirin raise about Tebowmania do have legitimate gripes, and I encourage folks to read and understand them. A spiritual path that’s a source of comfort and compassion for many is sometimes aligned with a social perspective that’s a source of alienation and anger for others.)

To be bothered by conservative politicians like Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman claiming Tebow as their own inadvertently cedes Christ to the Republicans (even if Tebow himself leans to the right). Painting Jesus as the property of the right or left is a problem that people of a deep and genuine sense of unity and ecumenism and inclusivity have been combatting long before Tebow or the Tea Party came along, but perhaps we just want to say once and for all that Christianity is about a Vision that transcends your (or my) version of it.

Another problem that’s prickled critics of the Tebow-as-miracle-working-chosen-one fantasy is the idea that God could take sides in a football contest, anointing this quarterback or condemning that cornerback, based somehow on the piety or impropriety of either.  The God of the universe is not some kind of back-pocket genie, some rabbit’s-foot-talisman that you can back into your gear bag on the way to the stadium, and if you do the proper hocus-pocus, then poof, your team wins. But as silly and dangerous as that kind of thinking might be, it’s equally sketchy in my estimation to claim that God couldn’t possibly care about football (or rock n roll) or to suggest that a lifestyle rooted in prayer and meditation, in clean living and a positive moral-mental attitude might not contribute to solid, successful play on the field (or excellent singing at a U2 show).

When I visited Michigan for Christmas, my Dad and I (both U2 fans, football fans, and Christians who lean to the left on most social/political issues) confessed our shared respect for Tebow and his expressions of faith. It was a strangely reassuring moment. But does God care about football?

When I ran track and cross-country in high school, I was obsessed with the runners’ movie Chariots of Fire. In the flick, the devout Christian sprinter Eric Liddell remarks, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” In our times, sport and music are such sources of communal human joy, it’s hard to imagine God not taking pleasure in a good U2 concert or in a particular Denver Broncos underdog upset victory where a passionately religious quarterback throws an epic winning pass at the top of the overtime period.

It’s probably not fair to imply that God cares about football or rock n roll the same way that God cares about peace and love and grace or about the poor, the hungry, or those in prison. But I am grateful to Tebow and Bono for telling us as much and more whenever we wave an interviewer’s microphone their way, and they have the chance to remind us that it’s not all about Tebow and Bono or about football or rock n roll but about love and peace and grace and the poor and the hungry and those in prison; that is, to these celebrities, it’s actually all about Jesus, and if it is, it’s really about the things that Jesus cares about.

Even yet, I experience a profound if passing joy hearing Bono sing and watching Tebow win. And I am not ashamed to say I imagine that God does too.  –Andrew William Smith, Editor