I was watching Jesus play football on Saturday. He was embodied in the person of Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos. During a commercial break, a gaggle of elementary school kids gave an interpretive reading of John 3:16. The advertisement was paid for by a group called Focus on the Family. I think I was supposed to be inspired by the sight of these babes mouthing scripture.
You see references to John 3:16 all over the place, typically behind home plate, where a baseball fan waves a sign so that spectators are reminded all at once that "God so love the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."
But the advertisement for Jesus on Saturday was almost enough to make me choke on my popcorn. Is nothing sacred? We are now making football into a forum on the divine in time?
I am too much of a fundamentalist to make sense of such claims as that expressed by John 3:16. Words generally denote either things or express meanings. I am forever on the hunt to link what comes out of our mouths to either objects or expressions of value. When the words add up to little more than nonsense, well, I can’t make sense of them.
Never mind that God is omnipotent and that he loves us all. Jesus is his only begotten son, making God, who was mysteriously absent after that divine moment of procreation, history’s most celebrated deadbeat dad. So God, who is all powerful, and who, we are also told, knows everything, drops his Son, who is, by the way, co-equal to him as part of the Godhead, onto Earth to make sure we all get saved. The Romans get their hands on Jesus, and nail him to a cross. He dies, does a three-day tour of Hell, and is resurrected. If you believe in him, you get eternal life. The rest of history is a mere footnote to this central drama.
It will take more than a commercial break to make sense of all this.
I’ve never understood, for example, why Jesus’s death was all that big a deal. People got crucified all the time in ancient Rome. It was how the Romans dealt with dissent. The usual course was that a person died on the cross stayed dead. But Jesus, being God’s son, got a break. He only stayed dead for three days. Then he rose from the dead. What’s more, because he was God and knew everything, he also knew death was a long weekend’s road trip. Yes, he suffered, but not moreso than any of the thousands of others whose crosses were vehicles used on a one-way trip.
But it is an election year. We will soon be selecting another president. For a whole lot of people what a presidential candidate thinks of John 3:16 is all they need to know. If you believe that God wrote these words using a guy named "John" as an existential secretary, then you are in pretty good shape in the Bible Belt. Michelle Bachman can tell you how Western Civilization depends on a shared belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. Rick Santorum, being a Catholic, will spin inerrancy a different way, giving it a papal cast. But the point is that shared beliefs mobilize folks. The religious right is, well, both religious and right.
All this sound and fury doesn’t signify much to my ears.
We pretend every few years that politics is rational. But I think we really know better. What moves the electorate are not appeals to reason, policies and platforms. We are stirred by passions. I recall a trip to Mississippi years ago. We stopped at a convenience store to get some soda and snacks. There were religious tracts on the spinning sales racks, and Bibles, too. It had the look and feel of a foreign place, but it was home to those who shopped there each day. I knew I was a visitor when I saw God for sale right there next to the potato chips and chewing tobacco.
I have good friends who report that they pray for me. They want me to know Jesus just as they do. I never know what to say to them when they say such things. Generally, I smile, and I tell them their prayers can’t hurt. And they can’t. But I can’t say they have thus far done me much good.
Tim Tebow’s aggressive brand of evangelism made the football season a little more entertaining this year, that I know. I imagined him praying in the huddle: "End run on three, praise God!" As with all theological proofs whatever happened manifested God’s will: an outcome Bronco fans cheered were a sign of God’s blessings to the faithful; setbacks were a mere challenge. In the believer’s heart no outcome lacked meaning: All was part of the divine plan, each event proving precisely everything and nothing at once, praise the Lord.
But to those of us who are tone deaf to the divine whisper, it all just looks like chaos, or, at best, a good game.
By the way, Jesus got his ass kicked on Saturday: Satan, in the form of the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, re-enacted the crucifixion. Tebow will most likely rise again next season. Unless he is not, in which case we will simply observe that "God works in mysterious ways."