In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.
Meanings make definitions
We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.
So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.
Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).
Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.
What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.
Wanted: Real Christians
This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?”
None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.
I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.
Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.
Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.
I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.
Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY: Denver Broncos starting quarterback Tim Tebow offers up a prayer to God before a recent game versus the San Diego Chargers. His gesture of Christian devotion has become known as "Tebowing." (Photo: Michael Zito/Newscom)
In 2009, the Word of the Year was tweet; In 2010, it was app (both are better than 1999’s winner — you guessed it — Y2K). Words like “gleek” and “drone” will no doubt occupy (my personal favorite) the 2011 shortlist, but the wordologists better make room for a late surge by two serious candidates: Tebowing and Tebowmania.
Call it a fourth-quarter comeback.
The question about Denver Broncos star Tim Tebow is not (for once) whether he is a good QB. He wins games, and that’s good enough for me. He wins ugly, but with six fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2011 alone, Tim Tebow has become a phenomenon. His jersey sales are through the roof; ESPN spends at least four hours of daily programming dedicated to his name; and, for better or worse, Tim Tebow is the most polarizing name in sports (I just heard LeBron James sigh in relief).
Let’s be honest: Most of the love/hate relationship that fans and critics express regarding Tebow has nothing to do with sports. This is about a man’s faith — which for some is inspiring, and for others sickening. This is about a man who does more than wear Jesus on his sleeve; he draws Scripture verses under his eyes. Some people say it’s too much.
There’s nothing odd about Tim Tebow’s public displays of faith (PDF). He is “on fire” in just about every way that evangelicals use the term: unapologetic, loud, and inspiring. He begins most every statement in true Grammy-fashion: “First of all, I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ …” We knew who Tebow was back in high school — he is devout and virginal and has superior character to match his athleticism.
If you are a Christian, there’s a lot to LOVE about Tim Tebow. I know pastors who applaud Tebow for his abandon of spiritual censorship: he loves Jesus and he doesn’t care what you think (shouldn’t we all be so faithful?). Lately though, I’ve been wondering if his abandon is reckless abandon, and if his public displays of faith are doing more harm than good.
It began after one of his signature fourth-quarter wins where — while still on the field — a reporter approached him, breathless and in amazement, asking a very simple question, “How are you able to continue doing this?” Tebow replied with stone eyes, “My God is Big.” Whoa. He made that exact phrase a few more times, mixing in some thoughts about defense, finally closing with, “I serve a big God.” (Cringe.) Then last week, one teammate of his reported that Tebow said God speaks to him during the games. That’s when I decided that I would side with the critics — Would you just shut up already?!? — and for altogether different reasons.
My basic concern about PDF is that it is an ironic conquest. Openly giving God the credit for “miracles” seems to be exactly the opposite of what Jesus himself wished. There’s Mark 7:36 (and 8:30), and Luke 5:14 — “go and tell no one what has happened.” But then there’s Mark 5:14 — “go home and tell your friends” — so the “Messianic Secret” is far from answered, even in the Gospels. It seems to me, though, that the overwhelming portrait is of a quiet and humble Jesus who doesn’t want to be thanked at award shows or after athletic contests. Not because God isn’t worth recognizing, but something more dangerous happens when we too readily open our mouths in the Winner’s Circle. God becomes a “God for Winners.”
The most famous story of this is with Michael Chang, a tennis prodigy who at 17 was the youngest player to ever win the French Open. At the press conference, when asked how he was able to defeat Stefan Edberg, Chang replied, “I won because of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Well, he’s giving God glory, right? No, (according to John Feinstein, who reported deeply on this in 1989) Chang believed that his victory was the result of his having a closer personal relationship with Jesus than Edberg did. He honestly believed that.
Tebow and Chang are of the same evangelical cloth; we have to wonder if Tim Tebow believes his wins are the direct result of his personal relationship with God. His PDF is beginning to convince me he does. So what’s wrong with that?
God — if we may so feebly name the divine — is not a “Winner’s God.” More than half of the Bible is written for an audience that is losing, whether it be in culture, politics, or economics. In fact, by all societal standards (and messianic expectations), Jesus fails. And despite the adrenaline rush of victory, there’s nothing wrong with NOT winning. Hearing Tim Tebow only after victory may send an uncritical message about our “big” God: He creates and loves winners.
What about the losers of our society, the poor and the politically oppressed? Does God only love the 1%? Is this “God” only on one sideline, rooting against those with lesser faith? Is God BIG for Tebow and small for Marion Barber?
I don’t want to believe that God cares that much about sports: that would break my heart considering how much real pain and suffering yet remains in this world. And I certainly don’t want to believe that God loves only the winners, as the poisonous Prosperity Gospel proclaims (that would explain the Cubs’ “curse,” though. Hmm …). But that’s the impression we get from these snapshots of Tebow’s faith. Admittedly, he probably needs to break it down further, and a press conference is not the time.
So rather than a half-baked faith, I say to Tim Tebow: SHUT UP ALREADY! Not for me, but for the teenager who idolizes you and prays and fasts before games, just like you do, believing that God will “show up” for him on the field. When that young man loses, it won’t be because of the size of his God, it will be because the other team was better on that day (and even in defeat, To God Be the Glory).
We didn’t hear much about Chang’s God when he started losing. I wonder if the same will be true for Tim Tebow, though we may not find out this season. When the defenses do finally catch up to Tebow, will it be bad for Faith as well? That’s my only concern.
I’m looking to be converted on this one.