The new spirituality collapses the space between football and faith, according to Ray Waddle, the former religion editor at the Tennessean, who still contributes two columns each month to the paper.
Ray and I arrived in Nashville about the same time – only a few months apart in the mid-1980s.
Ray is as insightful now as he was when his beat included the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and its agencies, one of which employed me.
Waddle said recently that football star Tim Tebow has changed the old American creed that separated church and football.
“With Tebow, they cannot be kept apart,” he wrote. “Under the old dispensation, religion and athletics were different public spheres.”
Fans “knew sports and religion didn’t exactly go hand in hand. Religion meant obeying God and being neighborly. Sports meant the ruthless quest for victory.”
Waddle wrote, “We now endure end-zone prayers and praise-be-to-God gestures to the sky. No one did this on TV decades ago. No one looked to ball players as public keepers of the faith.”
He rightly noted about touchdown prayers that we don’t know if they are “the real deal or an entrepreneurial feature of post-industrial individualism.”
Indeed, we don’t know. And we shouldn’t place upon the shoulders of athletes the burden of exemplifying Christian faith.
They are imperfect and often immature. They are as flawed as their fans. Celebrity status is no celestial guarantee of Christian perfectionism.
Their fans shouldn’t be crestfallen and the anti-faith crowd shouldn’t be gleeful when faithful athletes stumble. After all, “To err is human.”
While we often don’t know about the integrity of an athlete’s faith – best disclosed over a significant period of time and measured with a backward look – I find myself increasingly grateful for athletes who acknowledge God, who give God the credit.
It is certainly not as an evangelistic tool.
It is surely not as evidence of spiritual superiority.
It is rather as a counterweight to our culture of radical autonomy, of hyper-individualism, of exaggerated independence, of arrogant self-centeredness, of the pride of self-sufficiency.
When an athlete gives God the glory, then for just a blink the culture of autonomy is challenged by the acknowledgment of dependency – and dependency connects us to community.
Our culture is plagued by a militant autonomy, rooted in the American myth of individualism and rooted more deeply in the sinfulness that claims autonomy from God and autonomy from our fellow human beings.
The culture of militant autonomy sees accomplishment as resulting from one’s own efforts devoid of community. We see it on the athletic field. We hear it from celebrities. We witness it in the public square that echoes the atheist philosophy of Ayn Rand.
That’s why I’m pleased to see athletes who give thanks to God.
Gratitude keeps the spirit of sufficiency, the myth of autonomy, the sin of pride, in check.
The ancient Celtic Christians had a saying that acknowledged their dependence of those who came before them: “We drink from wells we didn’t dig. We warm ourselves on fires we didn’t build.”
As the football season unfolds, consider the touchdown prayers, the finger pointed skyward and the word of thanks to God as a countercultural witness in the culture of autonomy.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.