Tim Tebow is the answer to the prayers of a certain kind of macho Christian, one who recoils at the image of Jesus Christ as a mild, effeminate savior presiding over some nice bread and wine at supper. Such Christians prefer a tougher king, Mel Gibson’s bloody action hero in The Passion of the Christ to Michelangelo’s lank corpse. They consider it their faithful obligation to be honest, brave, and humble, yes, but also unafraid of confrontation or competition. “Christians don’t have to be weak, either in mind, body, or soul,” writes Tebow in the preamble to his 2011 autobiography, “Through My Eyes.”
The scholarly term for this theology—which is also practiced by Jeremy Lin, boxer Manny Pacquiao, and baseball’s Josh Hamilton—is “muscular Christianity,” and it can be traced back to a Victorian-era phenomenon in which elite British and American Protestants, concerned that their boys were becoming pale and flaccid singing hymns in church congregations dominated by women, promoted a version of Christianity that stressed athleticism and fortitude, cold-water swims and pre-dawn calisthenics. “Never hit soft,” said Theodore Roosevelt, America’s most prominent muscular Christian. Muscular Christianity eventually found its way into mainstream American life in the form of the YMCA and the Boy Scouts (basketball was invented by James Naismith, a muscular Christian), where it influenced generations until the sixties, when red-blooded males began to find other ways to spend their Sunday mornings. Groups like Promise Keepers have since attempted to lure men back into the fold by emphasizing their duties as husbands and fathers—traditional “manly” roles. The group’s revival meetings are often held in sports arenas.
In his book, Tebow, the youngest of five kids, describes his childhood as an idealized boy world, an age of rowdy games where scrapes and scars were badges of pride and prayers were said daily. Before his first year of high school, Tebow attended a “Burly Man Retreat” organized by his church. It involved wood-chopping, tug-of-war, and a biceps-curl competition (Tebow won with 315 reps). In his junior year, in an attempt to inspire his son’s team to victory during the playoff season, Tebow’s father, Bob, a Christian pastor, presented Bible verses spliced with scenes from Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s heroic World War II epic.
How do muscular Christians square the violence of sport with love, kindness, and charity? Courage and physical prowess are always tempered with humility and restraint. Intentionality is also key. A man might bloody an opponent in defense of a noble cause but never out of ambition or lust. Whether football qualifies as noble, of course, is open to debate. Tebow seems to chalk up his own pursuit of the game to a common Christian platitude: Everything happens for a reason. “My dad felt that somehow the plan God had laid out for me,” he writes in Through My Eyes, “was going to involve a lot of visibility.”