Now that Tim Tebow’s Broncos are out of the running, let’s take a deep breath and take stock in Tebow-mania. The noise surrounding Tebow has been deafening. The idea of Tim Tebow, the noise generated around the name, has even become much larger than Tebow himself.
Depending on whom you ask, he is either a guy whose throwing motion has sealed his fate as a flash-in-the-pan, mediocre-at-best football player, or he is a shining example of how Christian faith gives determination and redemption on the field of play. He is either an annoying Christian conservative who broadcasts his religion at inappropriate venues like post-game press conferences, or he is a living embodiment of why pro-lifers are right, a guy whose Christian missionary mother chose to go through with her pregnancy despite receiving medical advice to have an abortion, someone who has every right to describe how being a Christian helps his on-field performance.
Whether you love him or hate him, we must acknowledge that many among us either love to love him, or love to hate him. But still more of you have gone beyond simple love or hate for him; the kneeling Tebow meme alone – google “Tebowing” – has a limitless capacity for ambiguity, the ability to express respect or love for him, mockery of him, and even ironic detachment in the simple play of perpetuating the meme (there is a website dedicated to the phenomenon):
How are we to navigate this rangy maelstrom of rhetoric – pictorial and verbal – in order to arrive at something approaching truth about the Tebow phenomenon?
More than any other picture, one most effectively encapsulates the rich cultural neurosis driving Tebow-mania. I cannot stop thinking about the picture below:
Posing a rhetorical question, the image suggests several meanings, some intended, some accidental, the latter perhaps resulting from a cultural blind spot in its maker and those who re-post it. First, there is the apparent intended meaning, which we find in the desired response to the questions posed: given the right to freedom of religion, among the oldest and dearest of the United States’s founding principles, what the man at right is doing is okay. He should be allowed to bow and pray, to express his religious beliefs, whenever and wherever he sees fit. In these moments, Tebow is, nobody can deny, exercising his constitutional right to freedom of religious expression. Non-Christian Americans should not demur, nor can they. Further, if Tebow wants to cite his Christianity as the reason for why he has so much fortitude and determination when the going gets tough, then so be it. That is no worse than a player who claims that Gatorade gave him the edge late in a game. Inspiration and stick-to-it-iveness come from all corners of the cosmos. While we may be left to wonder whether the pronoun “this” refers to the act of bowing, or the person himself, since both have received criticism, the combination of images and text reminds us of religious tolerance.
In a continued search for an enriched view of the image in question, we turn to a related phenomenon, symptomatic of the same viewpoint we find behind the image above. Namely, I mean to point out the less recent highlighting of Tebow’s status as a near abortion. During the 2010 Super Bowl, a controversial commercial ran with a voiceover containing the text quoted below, which many posted on Facebook over the weekend, in light of Tebow’s big playoff tilt with the New England Patriots (which turned out to be a lopsided loss for his Broncos):
“More than 24 years ago, Pam & her husband Bob were serving as missionaries to the Philippines and praying for a fifth child. Pam contracted amoebic dysentery, an infection of the intestine caused by a parasite found in contaminated food or drink. She went into a coma and was treated with strong antibiotics before they discovered she was pregnant. Doctors urged her to abort the baby for her own safety and told her that the medicines had caused irreversible damage to her baby. She refused the abortion and cited her Christian faith as the reason for her hope that her son would be born without the devastating disabilities physicians predicted. Pam said the doctors didn’t think of it as a life, they thought of it as a mass of fetal tissue. While pregnant, Pam nearly lost their baby four times but refused to consider abortion. She recalled making a pledge to God with her husband: If you will give us a son, we’ll name him Timothy and we’ll make him a preacher. Pam ultimately spent the last two months of her pregnancy in bed and eventually gave birth to a healthy baby boy August 14, 1987. Pam’s youngest son is indeed a preacher. He preaches in prisons, makes hospital visits, and serves with his father’s ministry in the Philippines. He also plays football. Pam’s son is Tim Tebow.”
It is not difficult to find the major omission in this story: abortion was illegal in the Philippines at the time, under all circumstances, including life-threatening illnesses in mother and fetus. As pro-choice critics of the ad have speculated, it is unlikely that doctors there would have “urged” Pam Tebow her to abort the baby, since doctors who performing abortions in the Philippines put themselves in serious danger if they are caught advocating such practices. Thus, the left has concluded, Pam Tebow is a “liar.”
However, in citing the illegality of abortions in the Philippines and leaving it at that, those on the left are guilty of their own omission, something that any pro-choice advocate knows well: historically, in any nation where abortion has been illegal, doctors have found ways to perform them. It is therefore at least possible that Pam’s story is true. A doctor who found the country’s abortion ban to be unrealistic and oppressive certainly could have confided in Pam his view that she would be better off aborting Tim. Those in the pro-choice camp are on firmer ground where they point out that Pam Tebow exercised *choice* in her decision to keep her baby.
But even if we leave aside questions of righteousness, moral rectitude, and who’s actually right, we are left with the fervor surrounding Tebow’s alleged status as an example of why women shouldn’t abort their fetuses. It means that the pronoun “this” beneath the image above of Tebow praying carries even more meanings than we may have initially suspected.
The key, however, is that the image is only loaded down with all of this discursive noise if we know all of the diverse socio-religious and political issues surrounding the man in the image. And if we do, the poster is actually asking, “Why isn’t this – a Christian football player who not only prays on the sideline and discusses his Christianity at every turn, but who is also a pro-Life icon – okay?”
A second, more sinister and no less intentional meaning emerges if we further contextualize the image while turning our attention to the question at left. As with the question at right, the question at left, “Why is this okay?” leaves viewers to wonder what the pronoun “this” really means. Does it only refer to the act portrayed, of bowing towards Mecca? Or is it a metonymy for the entire nation of Islam? Or does it mean both? As with the image at right, the ostensible, reflexive answer to the question again lies in this country’s founding principles of freedom of worship and religious tolerance: this is okay because here in America, we advocate religious freedom. In fact, one could argue, the wording of the question concedes that Islam is “okay.”
But we would be disingenuous if we did not also acknowledge that the mere asking of the question – “why is [Islamic worship and / or the nation of Islam] okay?” – invites a line of discourse that has grown among conservative Americans since the Reagan era and crescendoed in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy: in the view of many who advocate for the moral rectitude they see in the picture of Tebow kneeling in prayer and their belief in the spiritual superiority of the religion he practices, the picture at left portrays an activity by followers of a religion that is most decidedly not okay. In the post-9-11 consciousness, asking why the nation of Islam is “okay” can suggest what the conservative Christian right has been vocal about elsewhere: they believe that the soft Liberal left in America has been too tolerant of non-Judeo Christian religions, too soft on the nation of Islam, the religion of those who brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Whether the maker of this combination of images and text knows it or not, he or she wants to test your cultural memory: can you remember the principle of freedom of religion when viewing a picture of the religion practiced by the other who precipitated the U.S’s greatest national tragedy? A further implication along these lines: is freedom of religion a valid principle when we apply it to a religion that “the enemy” practices? Of course, such suggestions find their basis in the assumption that the entire nation of Islam is hostile to the U.S., which of course, is not actually true.
Continue to think over the arrangement of the image and text. The interplay between the two images opens onto a third more provocative level of meaning, one that the maker perhaps did intend, and perhaps did not.
Namely, what if we asked the same questions of reversed content, showing Christians praying in a church on the left with a Muslim athlete bowing towards Mecca in celebration of a touchdown on the right? On the left, the image would then ask, “Why is this [Christian worship in a church] okay?” On the right, it would ask why “this [a Muslim athlete bowing towards Mecca on the field of play] isn’t?” How would we answer the questions then? Given principles of religious freedom, we should answer them the same way, regardless of the religions appearing on either side of the image: the activities portrayed in both images should be “okay” in an America that advocates religious tolerance. But would neoconservative Christians, who have been vocal on the subject of the evils of the Muslim religion, be able to remember such principles when confronted with the reversal?
Like the questions in the image, these are rhetorical questions. The true answer is impossible to find, and could be as diverse as the numbers of practicing Christians willing to offer a response. But given the traditional lack of tolerance among Christians when it comes to Muslims, one cannot help but wonder if the majority of responses to a reversal of images would still recognize the image’s prompt for religious tolerance.
And thus, we cannot help but wonder if, despite its apparent advocacy of religious freedom, the image above is symptomatic of a deeply rooted cultural neurosis, an exaggerated fear of the “Muslim other,” harbored by large numbers of Americans.