Tim Tebow and the Terrifying Tightrope of Public Piety

Tim Tebow and the Terrifying Tightrope of Public Piety
Will he fall?

I couldn't run this blog and have issues with public displays of faith. If I did, I would fall too easily into that Dead Zone of hypocrisy that has so soured religion for me in the first place.

So let me be very clear - there is a distinct difference between public piety and public faith.

I love watching a good football game. For someone like me who has absorbed so much fictional media that my suspension of disbelief is so easily broken, I tend to gravitate toward documentary film and live sports if only because the stakes are easy to believe in and the dramatic tension can be very serious and real, as is shown each time a player is hauled off the field. This is never more true than in a game where the two teams are perhaps unevenly matched by stats but one team really tries hard to win - despite errors and failings.

It's like watching a tightrope act in public. Will they make it? Can I stand to watch? You almost want them to fall - just so the suspense will be over.

People show public signs of faith - even in sports -  in many ways. As Rick Reilly put it in his excellent editorial for ESPN.com, players cross themselves on the field all the time and nobody seems to mind.

We see crosses and religious symbols on jewelry and we even invoke God in prayer or the pledge of allegiance to the flag during sports.

What makes Tim Tebow so special that his public displays garner so much national attention and serve to polarize opinions?

This author's opinion is that it has more to do with piety than faith or Religion.

The rhetorical impact of Tim Tebow's displays of faith (in the form of "Tebowing" and the scripture on his face) are weightier than a simple cross on a chain. What is the difference between public faith and public piety? The degree to which an individual wants to be publicly perceived as good and recognized as such by the larger public is public piety. Public faith just means that people know something about your faith - you don't hide it per se. Piety is a public virtue, faith is a personal choice that can be hidden or obvious.

A refresher from Wikipedia:

"The word piety comes from the Latin word pietas, the noun form of the adjective pius (which means "devout" or "good"). Pietas in traditional Latin usage expressed a complex, highly valued Roman virtue; a man with pietas respected his responsibilities to other people, gods and entities (such as the state), and understood his place in society with respect to others. That doesn't mean others will understand it. In its strictest sense it was the sort of love a son ought to have for his father."

What does Tim Tebow want the results of his public displays to accomplish? Only he can answer that, but what it has accomplished in a statistical sense is to create a scenario whereby 43% of people polled by Poll Position believe that "divine intervention" is responsible for the wins.

Does he want God to get the credit? Or does he want credit from the public for appearing to credit God?

There is a sense in the west that people who choose to allow themselves to be lifted up as examples of "good" are not merely "living their faith" they are feeding their megalomaniacal impulses - their drive to win "the game of being known as good" - a flaw that is easily excused by an assumed advancement of a particular brand of faith.

I have no doubt that Tim Tebow does good things, Reilly's article sheds some great light on those things that have great positive impact on many people, things that would have no less impact if done in private.

With faith comes humility and public displays of piety (look how good I am) often meet with public scorn because of this apparent lack of humility.

Tebow has never officially credited his Religion or faith with wins in words or in the press in a direct way. But he must know that the visual act of "Tebowing" after successful plays does so if only because he does not do it after unsuccessful plays.

His behavior has been lampooned on SNL, by Jimmy Fallon and by others as disingenuous, arrogant, or self serving - but, as Reilly points out, there is some real hard evidence that the man just has a great capacity to give and is choosing to use his station as a public sports figure to try to set a good example.

That is a tremendous amount of weight for anyone to bear, especially a 24 year old with some limited experiences.

He is walking a tightrope with stakes far higher than an intercepted pass or sack. What if the boy snaps and wakes up in a penthouse in Vegas with a duffle bag full of cash, under-age prostitutes, and a couple of grams of cocaine? Granted that's a scenario on the extreme end of the spectrum and temptation can manifest for wealthy celebrities (and make no mistake he is now officially a celebrity, not just a quarterback) in many ways.

I worry about Tim Tebow as I feel he has opened himself up (and his faith) to public scrutiny of his piety and few who do so walk away unscathed. It is as if I know he is going to fall - to fail - in that piety and it is only a matter of when. Or perhaps he may make it to the end of the tightrope?

The suspense is almost too much to take and I would almost rather see him fall now, before his star rises quite so high as to further damage the role of faith in public life, not to mention his own well being.

People want him to fail in his piety - to fall - because they themselves feel fallen.  People want him to succeed  in his piety despite his shortcomings because they themselves want to feel capable of success despite their own.

I wish I could say that the public at large is more accepting of errors made by its public figures. I wish that - even if he falls or fails (at the piety or the football) - I could rest assured that folks will give him and the faith he publicly supported the benefit of the doubt and an infinite number of second chances. I do not think that will be the case.

Billions of people walk this tightrope every day in the privacy of their own self image or in front of their viewing public, be it as simple as their children, lovers, parents, and friends. They know the risks of publicly calling attention to how  good they are because they feel the height of that walk. They know there are not many second chances for themselves because of the pain they feel in life every day.

I'm not sure Tim Tebow feels this - how precarious this walk is - but then again maybe this is a skill unique to him or requisite for any NFL quarterback or person who lives daily with high stakes. For his sake I certainly hope he has large absorbent cushion in the form of family and friends who can help him land softly no matter how all this public display of piety ends.

As to the extent to which he needs to be worried about furthering any particular faith, I would argue that personal agendas always feature too heavily in such grand callings, and rarely - if ever  - end well. Do you agree?

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