I admit it felt weird writing a book about Robert Griffin III just weeks into his rookie season with the Washington Redskins. At this point, nobody knows how God will use success, failure, and other circumstances to shape this professional, professing Christian football star. As John Piper once said in a sermon, "Living heroes are important, but they might cease to be heroes before they die." That's to say, the jury is still out on Griffin and, to be fair, all of us.
A scant three years ago, when Griffin was still playing college football at Baylor University, we may have thought the same things about then-hero Tim Tebow. Amazingly, we're already living in a post-Tebow NFL. (Well, maybe not. Hours after we posted this article, the Patriots signed him. Well, read on anyway...) Back then, everything Tebow touched turned to gold. Heisman winner. National champion. First-round draft choice. Author. Spokesman for everything.
A celebrity-hungry evangelical fan base "made" Tebow by clamoring for anything Tebow-related: books, jerseys, photographs, autographs, documentaries, commercials, articles, game tickets, and conference tickets. We put Tebow on a very significant public pedestal because he stood for what we stood for, everything from a pro-life position to homeschooling to the actual gospel.
If "mentioning your faith" had a spectrum, Tebow would be on the high end of that spectrum, and Griffin would be on the moderate-to-low end. While public faith was an integral part of the Tebow brand, Griffin seems low-key by comparison. He said nothing more than "God had a plan" at his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. He has tweeted periodically—but not excessively—about his faith. His Twitter bio is a play on the popular evangelical mantra of relationship-not-religion, saying "I have no Religion. I have a relationship with God." Still, Griffin seems to be walking a fine line, appealing to Christians and non-Christians alike.
There's something weird about the Christian celebrity culture. It certainly exists—it's what enables me to write books about football stars—but I can't help but wonder if it should exist, if it does us more harm than good. I'm reminded of Paul's word in 2 Corinthians 2:17, which reads, "Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit." Sometimes it feels like we're doing exactly that. Our hero-making, at times, ignores the most central truths of our faith. Whether we're talking about Tebow or RGIII or the next big name, we risk losing the gospel message in the powerful and popularized narrative of the Christian athlete.
Amid our hunger for Christian celebrity, it can be hard to maintain focus on sin and the cross. After all, there are Super Bowls to be won, commercials to be shot, products to be moved, and dreams to be lived. And yet, whether our name's on the back of an NFL jersey or not, we're all wretched sinners in need of a redeemer, and we can all do nothing good apart from Christ.
In Tebow, we finally had a public figure who was strong, handsome, articulate, wealthy, and not as patently uncool as the evangelicals we're used to. We saw Tebow stick to his convictions again and again and believed that God would bless his "public ministries" with wins and continued career success. God's primary purpose, though, is Tebow's good and God's glory—not our overblown expectations for the NFL's "Savior."
I feel a great deal of sympathy for Tebow's current situation, now a free agent with an uncertain future in professional football. I'm disappointed that he never really got to just be a football player. Instead, he practiced and played surrounded by a media circus, plus the hopes and dreams of Christian fans. It's this "baggage"—including the attention from us evangelicals—that (in part) keeps teams from signing him.
In Counterfeit Gods, author Timothy Keller describes the human heart as "an idol factory." He writes that, "An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought." I kept this thesis in mind as I considered the rise of RGIII.
Now that every athlete who brings up their faith gets compared to Tim Tebow, we may get in the habit of seeking out another star and creating another idol. We shouldn't be looking for the "next Tim Tebow" since such a pursuit effectively removes God from the throne and momentarily replaces him with a fully human, fully flawed football star.
Do I appreciate Tebow and Griffin? Of course. Do I enjoy their athletic feats, in a way that even reminds me of an amazing creator-God who bestows such talents? I think so. Do I wish them the best in their personal sanctification, lives, and ministries? Absolutely.
But do I think they can add a moment's worth of real joy and peace to the broken and sin-sick world we live in? No way. Only Christ, alone, can accomplish that, in the world at large, and in my own heart. Our football fandom should ultimately point people to a redeemer who is infinitely greater, more interesting, and more hopeful than any Christian athlete or celebrity could ever be.
Ted Kluck is the award-winning author of several books on topics ranging from Mike Tyson to international adoption to the Emergent Church. His book on Robert Griffin III (Thomas Nelson) drops in August 2013.
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