Welcome, Broadway Tim Tebow
Opening another New York chapter in the argument between science and faith
Like tens of millions of tourists before him, this week we welcome Tim Tebow to New York. Well, to New Jersey anyway. So if he ever gets into the city, a couple tips: keep an eye on your luggage. Don't ride in a gypsy cab. Wallet goes in the front pocket, not the back. No matter what she tells you, she's probably not a college student. That guy winning at Three-card Monte in front of the Belasco is a shill. We eat walking. Fold your slice. We yell into our cell phones, mostly about medical test results and bad breakups. We rant in the streets. A man will approach you on the sidewalk raving. Don't be frightened. It's just Donald Trump.
We argue everything. Bagels. Baseball. Foreign policy. We debate religion here at the top of our lungs on every corner in Times Square and in emphatic whispers on every crosstown bus. We dispute it on the subways and on the bridges and in the tunnels. So we encourage your thoughts, polite or otherwise, on every matter from virgin birth to West Bank settlement, and from the true nature of the Messenger to metempsychosis and transubstantiation. We are an equal-opportunity chorus of crackpots and mad men here. Pipe up. Sing along. Happy to have you.
In fact, you're already part of the argument.
The basic contribution of Tim Tebow to professional football, it seems to me, and to religious discussion and to modern American culture generally, has been to embody the essential tension between faith and science.
In the technocracy of today's NFL, with its 6-inch-thick playbooks and the evolution of its metrics and mechanics, with its self-importance and its reliance on "player development," corporate hierarchy and statistical analysis, we are in the Robert McNamara phase of the game. We delude ourselves into thinking war can be waged and won by air and by spreadsheet. That it's surgical. That it's science.
But even to sinners and cynics like me, Tim Tebow embodies an old-time tent show simplicity of inspiration and brings the smashmouth gospel of the single wing and the bloody nose. Hence the bad stats versus the good news and the mystery cult surrounding the assertion that "he just wins."
The debate at the core of American faith is exactly that: Evolution versus Creation, Science versus Magic. It has been so since the founding, and that our greatest scientific institutions -- Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. -- were built as Divinity Schools is neither an irony nor a contradiction but an acknowledgment of the fundamental question confronting us all: how did we get here, and why have we come?
Tim Tebow is polarizing not because he's engaged in that argument between science and belief -- but because he is that argument. Part of the problem for at least half the online commentariat is that Mr. Tebow is also a small island of sincerity in an ocean of ironic detachment. He is earnest and passionate in a popcult world that protects itself with sarcasm and keeps its feelings iced.
And while we rarely nowadays want to admit our dependence on the antique truths or ancient metaphors, to say that sports are important because we spend billions on them gets things exactly backward. We spend billions on sports because they're important. They help us tell our stories to ourselves.
Still, the whole thing is a gift to the buzzard press. Headlines like "God Him," and pull quotes on the order of "assets like size and athleticism may not be enough" are just the beginning.
The Jets under zillionaire owner Woody Johnson have been something of a screwball comedy, with Johnson in the Carole Lombard role: the madcap, the well-meaning hare-brained heiress. No one has so far stepped in as level-headed William Powell or Fredric March. Rex Ryan is the dissolute younger brother. From the zany scavenger-hunt acquisition of Brett Favre to the flirtation with Peyton Manning that ended in the Mark Sanchez contract extension, it's been one thing after another. Someone slides down the bannister, a shot rings out, a pile of cash is set alight, another martini is poured, another door slams and someone rides a policeman's horse through the living room.
Enter Tebow, stage right, the young cousin from the country, the bumpkin with a cardboard suitcase and a life lesson to teach -- if he can just make it past the chorus girls and the highball glasses.
Those quiet old-money Giants are Margaret Dumont by comparison. Or Commodore Vanderbilt: all spats and manufactured dignity and boiled shirt fronts. Buttoned up and buttoned down about 19 different ways. Successful, but not much fun.
The Jets are fun. Full stop.
We argue about everything here, including you, and as we crowd you in the street, or on the subway platform, we're just as apt to shove a copy of the "Watchtower" or the "Book of Common Prayer" or "On The Origin of Species" into your hand as we are Mao's "Little Red Book" or the "Bhagavad Gita" or a coupon for the Businessman's Special at Scores. Good luck with everything, be well, and remember, she's probably not really in college.
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