Voices from Russia

Friday, 6 January 2012

Tim Tebow God-Talk Could Be Elevated by Troy Polamalu


If Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu gets to tackle the Bronco’s QB in the first round of the playoffs, he won’t “Tebow”, but he might cross himself. If he does so, he’ll go right-to-left like other Eastern Orthodox Christians. Next to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy’s the second largest official Christian Church in the world, but for many people in North America, it’s shrouded in mystery. How interesting, then, that an icon for Head and Shoulders, who believes in honouring pictures of Jesus and the religious saints his tradition calls icons, will face off against a QB who is an icon for jockey underwear, sports drinks and an evangelical faith that normally rejects veneration of religious icons, such as statues or images.

If this sounds confusing and convoluted but you still want to read on, then, you’ve joined others in an encouraging display of thoughtfulness… I’ve received plenty of reader feedback that would indicate there are a number of people who like a splash of nuance in their drinks by the religion-and-sports water cooler. Sadly, though, others just want to spit their uninformed thoughts all over the place. Tim Tebow has provoked plenty of discussion about religion and sports this year, but some of it, to be frank, is facile drivel. Some writers just use the discussion as a springboard for an anti-religious screed. On the opposite end, other people seem to think criticism of Tebow’s throwing arm is an attack on the faith. Even if they dress their tantrums up with rhetorical flare, the underlying sentiment of such polarised arguments sounds like baby babble… “Wahhhh, religion sucks!” Or, conversely, “Wahhhh, why are you always persecuting me?!”

To these simple cries, I’d say the interplay between religion and sports is complicated. I certainly don’t have it figured out, but perhaps there are times when we can shut the hell up for heaven’s sake, and look for opportunities to grow in knowledge so that we can increase in understanding and love of our neighbours. So, in classical Trinitarian fashion (both Eastern Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals believe in a divine Trinity of three persons in one substance, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), here are three considerations of Troy Polamalu’s mix of religion and sports that could elevate the discussion beyond the ”I-say”… “God-says” impasse.

People sick of the collusion of religion and football would prefer that athletes “get a room” to pray. A lot of people are disgusted by a public display of divine human intimacy; it gets in the way of them watching muscular men embrace in tight combative struggle. Religion, though, doesn’t just exist in the private realm of ideas. Ritual practises in any religion call people to worship the divine with more than just lip service. Polamalu will sometimes cross himself on the field. Roman Catholics cross themselves from left to right, but Eastern Orthodox Christians do it in the other direction. In either case, this act can be a wordless prayer for help, thanks, focus, or any other reverent thought on a safety’s mind.

You may also see him mouth a classical prayer on the field called the “Jesus prayer”, which is anything but boastful. It’s simple and humble, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. Eastern Orthodox Christians are enjoined to use this prayer as a means of “praying without ceasing”, an admonition that comes from the Apostle Paul in the New Testament portion of the Christian Bible. Tebow, for his part, has famously taken a prayerful knee after touchdowns, during field-goal kicks (for both the opponents and Bronco Matt Prater’s) and after losses, which tell us that he believes that his divine football mission transcends any trivial calculation of wins and losses. He, like Polamalu, sometimes worships without words.



The above video is part of a project from the Orthodox Church to address the myriad stresses that grinding poverty brings to so many Americans. People who recruit charitable donors through this campaign can get signed posters from Polamalu, and even signed jerseys. By the way, Polamalu came in third for top-selling NFL jerseys of 2011, right behind some guy for the Broncos. The logic of this mix of religion, sports, and charity is that God isn’t just in heaven thinking deep thoughts, but working through compassionate people who serve the poor in this life.

Some people can’t get over how ridiculous the idea is that, if there is a God, God might get involved in sports. “Oh yeah, like God has time to get into football when there are all kinds of sick kids dying from cancer!” To such seemingly unassailable logic, you might respond, “Dude, do you know what Tebow does before and after the games?” If your interlocutor says, “Yes, he’s endlessly visiting sick kids with cancer”, then you can take that person off the boneheaded list, and you can also point them to Polamalu’s efforts on behalf of the poor and sick. That’s not to say, of course, that there’s a God who looks down from heaven every time someone gets in the red zone, but if we grant the possibility that there’s some kind of caring celestial being, it isn’t unreasonable to assume this God would use prominent football players for higher purposes than success on the field. In other words, arguing that football is trivial doesn’t preclude divine tasks for its players.

If you get into a discussion about religion and sports in which a friend starts bringing up all the millions of dollars these football players make on endorsements, and the fact that all their hocking of underwear (Tebow) and shampoo (Polamalu) makes their religious devotion sound like they’re selling Jesus as well, I’d recommend putting your fist to your chin in that classical proto-Tebow pose, “The Thinker”. Because when it comes right down to it, the sometimes messy mix of religion and sports gets downright grimy when you throw it into the economic marketplace. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be there, necessarily, but it certainly means that those of us who want to do more than play a game of “nah nah nah nah-nah” when discussing religion and sports have a whole lot more to think and talk about.

5 January 2012

Sean S O’Neill

Bleacher Report


Editor’s Note:

For something from a non-Orthodox sportswriter… this is good, a 3.5 out of 4.0, actually. He gets a detail or two wrong… but he’s no historian, theologian, or religious scholar. He’s an ordinary guy looking at what he sees and hearing what he hears. He got the “Jesus Prayer” slightly wrong… but the loudmouthed semi-converts have so muddied the waters that I want to give Sean the benefit of the doubt. He’s not aware of the Imiaslavie and their heresy (or of the Blunder’s snarky approval of it)… give him a break.

Good on you, Sean… will you let my Nicky pour you a shot of Bushmills? It’s the Russian Orthodox Christmas season after all.



Blog at WordPress.com.