Would Tim Tebow – and Jesus! – Like you to Buy a Pair of Shoes or a T-Shirt from a Slave?

As many of you know, several days ago, a friend of mine posed a question on his blog in which he asked: “Is Tim Tebow a Hypocrite?”  What could only be ordinarily described as a “sleepy little site” was suddenly alive and booming with internet traffic.  And for two days, his “hit count” went through the roof as many evangelicals sought to defend Tebow and his “platform.”

As I watched that little scenario unfold, I began to think about putting up a post on this site asking the same question.  Only, my interest was not so much an examination of Tebow’s actions in light of Matthew 6, but an examination of why celebrity drives evangelicals in the same way that it seems to drive others in society.  I had a genuine concern that when we elevate gifted young celebrities to a position of spiritual authority, we run the risk of their personal stories running afoul, as did the story of Ben Roethlisberger.  Not surprisingly, my post ignited this blog, much in the way that my friend’s post had done on his site.

Today, as I continue to ponder this issue, I want to approach my initial concern from another angle.  I want you to look at this recent ad for Nike and I want you to tell me what you think.

For me, two things jump out almost immediately.  First, this ad is part of a larger group of ads that feature some of the very best athletes of our generation.  From LeBron James to Dwayne Wade to Manny Pacquiao, this campaign is built on the idea that we are witnessing extraordinary athletes that are doing things worthy of our attention and adulation.  And than there is Tim Tebow.  Tim currently has a regular season quarterback rating of 72.9, which establishes him as the 27th best starting quarterback in a league with only 32 starters.  Clearly, he is not featured in this campaign because of his enormous talent.  He is not Payton Manning.  He is not Tom Brady.  He is not even Aaron Rodgers.  Tim is in this campaign because he is an enormously polarizing figure, whose popularity and notoriety stems from the fact that he is an outspoken evangelical Christian.  So there is an undeniable sense in which his “platform” for Christ is opening doors to lucrative contracts.  This alone should give us pause to think.

The second thing I notice is that the language and imagery being used in this campaign is undeniably Christian. “We are witnesses” is part of what we call the core “Christian kerygma.”  In other words, of all the things that are said in the earliest Christian sermons found in Acts (and elsewhere), “we are witnesses” is one of the six most common themes[1] that are being preached as the Gospel is being brought forth into the world.[2]  But here, the language and imagery of the Christian faith is not being used to testify to the work of Christ.  It is being explicitly co-opted for the sake of buying and selling products.  Consider, if you will, the following ads for Manny Pacquiao and Tim Tebow.  You will need to click on them to read the fine print.

Are you comfortable with this?  Are you comfortable associating sacred language and imagery with an advertising campaign designed to generate money for a transnational corporation?

Perhaps you are.  Perhaps you are not.  But what about when this Christian language and imagery is used by a company that has a prolonged history of utilizing underpaid labor – and even virtual slaves – in human sweatshops to produce its goods?

This is what I’m talking about when I am questioning the wisdom of giving a young, Christian celebrity a spiritual “platform.”   Today, on January 11th, the day we set aside to focus on the human trafficking pandemic, we pause and force ourselves to ask tough questions.  For the Gospel must be good news for all, including those in this recent 2008 video who were forced to labor under atrocious and inhumane conditions.

[1] In cases where the exact words are not used, the concept is captured by similar language.

[2] Acts 5:32 and Acts 10:39 are excellent examples of this language.

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20 Responses to Would Tim Tebow – and Jesus! – Like you to Buy a Pair of Shoes or a T-Shirt from a Slave?

  1. clair strohl says:

    I would wonder whether Tim approved the use of his name with Nike, his agent, or how that came about. If he was privy to how they would use it, if he approved the use knowing the nature of the add, etc… I am amazed Nike themselves would put this add out there, but then again, many Christians will be happy to have religion shown, while many will not be because it is being used to sell product rather than save souls. Its a one thing when we say, “anything to get the message out there,” and another when we realize that “anything” can sometimes hurt the cause as well as help it.

    • I would have a hard time imagining how an athlete could allow his or her image to be used in a campaign without some “veto” power of the content of the ad. Perhaps I am wrong, but wow, if I am, I think that’s all the more reason that Christian celebrities should exercise extreme caution.

  2. http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/Tim-Tebow-Stone-Cold-Steve-Austin-gives-blessing-for-316-use-011012

    I found this article interesting. Do you think that “Austin 3:16” now turning into “Tebow 3:16” is mocking the verse and scripture as a whole? What are your thoughts on all that? do you think this whole thing with Tebow being a believer, in general, is going too far and becoming too big of a deal?

    • Truthfully, my interest is actually not in Tim Tebow, per se. Rather, my interest is in how we, as an evangelical subculture, have openly endorsed the notion of using celebrity status to “market” the faith. And I believe that any time we begin to tie our images and our language to products, we undercut the power of those images. Tebow is just the most visible symptom of the problem. But it goes all the way down to the those silly “Testamints” sold in Christian bookstores. Do we really want to suggest that God’s revelation – His testament – is somehow as trivial as a fresh mint?

  3. beth says:

    I hesitate to respond because there are others who respond here who seem to have a challenge being civil – so I’ll put here at the top, these are my thoughts, I’ll ask you to respect them as such and me as a human being. You’re welcome to disagree – but do it in the spirit of Christian love.

    I guess I’d have a few questions. First up is to ask if Tebow knows about Nike’s sweatshops. If he knew about them before hand and still willingly took the endorsement spot, I would 1) be surprised and 2) be disappointed and say that maybe there’s something to the fame going to his head. That said, I had no idea – and a link to Wikipedia doesn’t necessarily give me the kind of information I’d really like to have (if the site is something most schools won’t allow as a reference, there’s something to be said for it not being the only site linked as proof. Not to say that it isn’t accurate or that Nike doesn’t have sweatshops, just saying I’d want further backup, myself.) My current shoes happen to be Nike, cause they were the cheapest comfortable shoes when I was looking. Had I known, I would most likely have chosen differently, but it’s not out there in the headlines and I don’t necessarily research the practices of every company who makes things that I might buy. I don’t imagine that many people do.

    However, if the “campaign is built on the idea that we are witnessing extraordinary athletes that are doing things worthy of our attention and adulation” – your words (are they Nike’s? I wasn’t clear) — are they using the same verbiage in the other athlete’s ads? In which case, I don’t see it as “using Christian language”. They’re saying we’re witnessing history, and just because a Christian reads that and has a visceral reaction of one sort or another to the theological meaning behind the slogan doesn’t mean that Nike is trying to capitalize on people’s faith.

    The other two images appear to be from Tauntr.com, a website who says their aim is “Tauntr content is designed to evoke emotion, spur debate and achieve viral activity” — so are they authorized Nike ads? Or are they simply the authors and designers of the site doing what they’re very open about setting out to do? If The Onion ran a parody ad about Tebow and his faith, I don’t know that I’d bring it into a discussion, except to show that, hey, his faith is something that is getting into the minds of people out there in the world: for good or ill. Looking really briefly at Tauntr, my reaction is much the same – oh, look, people making comedy/commentary because Tebow is open about his faith. Shocker there, a public Christian being persecuted.

    So my question at the end of it is: do we only drink milk from Christian cows? Or do we do the best we can to live as salt and light in the world. Absolutely it means we should try and be aware of the reprehensible practices of companies with whom we might otherwise do business – but how many of you gave money to someone doing an Avon breast cancer walk? Did you know by doing that you funded Planned Parenthood? (Susan G. Komen? Even more money to PP.) (But I know these things because my major “hot button” social issue is abortion – I don’t necessarily expect every person out there to know it.) Do you have a little yellow Livestrong bracelet? Does that mean you happily support a man who dumped his wife and kids? Do you ever eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Does that mean you’re ok funding the homosexual agenda in politics (because they’re big donors to the cause)? If you don’t know these things, is ignorance an excuse? Or should we be spending hours researching every company before we purchase something?

    Is there (should there be) a higher or more rigorous standard for public figures? Possibly – but that circles back around to my initial question: did Tebow know when he agreed to be a sponsor for Nike? Or did he have the same general information that the average consumer has (one whose major social ill of interest doesn’t happen to be slavery): they make shoes that nearly every athlete who makes it big sponsors. Hopefully, as Tebow grows and matures, as a person and a believer, he’ll start to be more aware of the social issues that his sponsorships inadvertently impact – but then, hopefully we all will.

  4. Morning Beth,

    Couple of quick thoughts. First, I don’t know if Tebow knew about Nike’s troubled history, but I would be very surprised if he did not. Why? Because he’s an athlete that is being asked to endorse a product. If you were in his shoes, would you not see it as part of your due diligence to research a company before agreeing to be their public face? I mean, it’s possible that he didn’t know about their history, but if that’s true, it’s a pretty irresponsible act on his part.

    As for your larger question of whether we should only drink milk from “Christian cows?” I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot lately. I recently purchased a shirt, the origins of which I am now deeply suspicious of. And every time I put it on, I find myself cringing internally. “Who made this?”

    And that has lead me to wondering aloud, “Is it possible to live a morally neutral (to say nothing of positive) life in a globalized empire?” This computer that I am typing on. The chips were manufactured by Foxxconn in China. Foxxconn has come under serious scrutiny for its working conditions. But if I need a computer, what do I do? While I don’t know for certain, I pretty sure that a morally neutral life is a functional impossibility. Most of my actions are probably sustained by the actions of many others who are oppressed and in need of wholistic redemption.

    But, here is my question. While it may not be possible to live a “morally neutral” life, I think there is still a massive difference between being an anxious consumer that tries to be aware and an individual who encourages and promotes the empire.

    Would you agree?

    • beth says:

      I definitely agree that it’s a challenge (potentially an impossible one) to live morally neutral (or positive) — but I really do wonder how much research athletes do on the companies they sponsor. I wonder how much time he had to go over the contract – or if he even did. Did his agent do it all for him and just tell him when and where to show up for his “Nike ad photo”?

      Does that get him off the hook? Not really, he *should* do the research, definitely. We all should, in so far as we’re able. But I say that now, at 38. I’m not sure how much it would have entered my mind at 20-something. Especially when I was in the midst of trying to remain solid in my faith in a reasonably new, high-profile career. My guess is that it never entered his mind.

  5. So I think you and I agree on a couple of things here. I think we both agree that he seems to be a good guy. And I think we both agree that young people often do not see things that older people see. Our looks may fade, our strength may give way. But theoretically, we become wiser. And that’s why I was wondering aloud about the wisdom of “platforms” for young Christian celebrities.

    Thanks for commenting.

    • beth says:

      I was thinking about this more last night – and it occurred to me that platforms for young Christians (which is to say chronologically young, not necessarily young in their faith) has been an issue for a good long while – take Timothy. And what did Paul say to Timothy? Don’t let anyone look down on your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity (1 Tim 4:12).

      Really, I think that’s probably what Tebow is trying to do. Should he rethink the Nike ad given their business practices – yeah. But I liked what another commenter suggested — make sure he knows! Send a letter (there’s got to be a way to send fan mail) and make him aware so that he can more readily and accurately set that example – regardless of his age.

  6. Douglas Yager says:

    Guys, I think the “platform” question is a good one. Maybe a question to ask is are we using our own God-given platforms most effectively? Yes, we don’t have as many cameras in our face and the whole country may not know us, but I would say we still have a similar responsibility. When we tell an off-color joke, use “unwholesome words” around safe, Christian friends, or watch that movie with the gay-activist actor in it, do we not put ourselves under the same “condemnation” that we are considering for Tim Tebow?

    If we are truly concerned for the witness Tim Tebow is having, then we should help Tim Tebow directly. Send him a letter, meet him in person, get a message to him somehow. If he’s ignorant, help educate him. If he’s gone astray, help lead him back.

    Right or wrong, celebrity and fame are out there and people are attracted to it. Frankly, when used appropriately, they can both be used to spread the gospel. Bill Graham wasn’t the only evangelist in the 1970’s when I was growing up. But because, in part, of his “celebrity” people went to his crusades more often than other evangelists’ crusades. Was Billy Graham sinning by using celebrity to share the gospel? I don’t think so, at least from my vantage point. But the obvious trappings of fame were still there for him as are for Tim Tebow. Will it be more difficult for a young Christian to avoid those trappings than a more mature Christian? Maybe. We talked about Ben Roethlisberger before, but what about older more mature men of faith you have fallen as bad or even worse like Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, King David, even the Apostle Peter.

    The idea of the church and evangelicals being cautious when using celebrities for ministry is a wise one – not just for the gospel’s sake, but for the celebrity as well. If Tim Tebow falls and “tarnishes” the name of Christ, it won’t be as much Tim Tebow’s fault as I believe it would be the churches fault for 1) expecting too much from the guy by settling him on a pedestal only Jesus could stand on and 2) for not loving him to restoration like should be loved since none of us are any better that even a fallen Tim Tebow.

  7. Scott,

    Wondering if you can clarify a couple of things; I’m a bit confused about this post:

    1) I’m not sure of your point with the first Nike ad. “We are all witnesses” might refer to Tebow’s faith, but you say just after that it is part of larger group of ads emphasizing “that we are witnessing extraordinary athletes…” so it might not. I just can’t tell without seeing any of the other ads and how they’ve used other athletes. But along with this, Tebow has generated a ton of controversy over his football skills entirely apart from his faith. Everyone agrees that he is an extraordinary athlete (we seem to be forgetting that he won a national championship and was the youngest Heisman trophy winner in history), and this with his popularity seems that it would be enough for Nike to use him in an ad. I wouldn’t make too much of this; I doubt Nike did.

    2) The other two ads – of Paquiao and the “Tim Tebows” – look like parodies, not ads. Maybe you can help me see how parodies are relevant to what you’re trying to say?

    By the way, I think the jury is still out on whether Tebow will become an elite – or even average – quarterback in the NFL. But from a purely sports perspective, he’s a compelling story, faith or no faith.

    • Aaron Hoffman says:

      I am really not trying to turn this into a sports thing but Tebow is a winner first and a QB second. At that level the x’s and o’s are only part of the equation, see 2010 Miami Heat.

      Some other thoughts, Scott a sweat shop and human trafficking, do you think they exist in the same category? I don’t. Folks make a living in a sweat shop, they don’t live at our standard. From the information I’ve been given, most of those who were illegally taken and “trafficked” are being routinely raped. Not the same.

      I am sorry that I am winging this a bit and don’t have time to out in the research, but I think I am pretty accurate.

      Finally, I bet Tim is shaking his head right now at the Nike add, but realizing that he has a few other things to think about.

      • Morning Hoss,

        With regards to your questions regarding sweat shops and human trafficking, I’ve actually done a fair amount of research over the past year. On one level, I agree with you that sweat shops and trafficking are not the same. For not everyone who works in a sweatshop has been “trafficked.” Having said that, sweat shops are often populated by many people who have been trafficked. And they are forced to work there with no recourse and no means of escape. In fact, most people invested in studying the modern slave trade argue that there are three major categories: sex workers, labor, and child soldiers. Of those three groups, labor workers comprise the largest group, with sex workers making up the smallest group. So your thoughts that slavery is in some way always (or even most often) tied to “rape” (or sex work) is inaccurate. The reason a lot of people think this is because when the media covers modern trafficking, they focuse on the sex workers. Why? Because: (1) sex makes for good headlines, (2) understanding the nuances between forced labor and sweatshops takes more than 60 second sound bites, (3) much of our global economy is based on forced labor, which makes us, as capitalists, uncomfortable.

        Thanks for chiming in.

    • Hey Dave,

      My apologies for taking a few days to get back to you. I have been consumed with issues not related to this post; and I knew that my response to your question would take just a bit of research. Let’s start with your second question. You suggested that the Pacquiao and Tebow Shoe add looked like parodies. With regards to Pacquiao’s, it is not. Click here for a link that will take your directly to Nike’s site. Click on the video link and you’ll see a full video with Pacquiao talking about his faith, etc… Here it is: http://nike.com.ph/giveusthisday/

      As for the Tebow shoe ad, I put it up knowing that it was a parody, but trying to subtly suggest how parodies like this are hard to spot when compared to other equally corrupt advertising. I think that point was soundly missed by all, and looking back, I was my mistake. I should have made it more clear. So I’ve pulled the parody ad.

      Having said all that, I can now address your first question. “We are witnesses” is religious language, as is Nike’s use of “King James” when talking about LeBron. There is subtle tie between being made between God and LeBron as a basketball “god.” The Pacquiao ads get even worse. Now we have the cruciform image and the use of the Lord’s Prayer to sell shoes and shirts. Given that, I don’t think you can say that “we are witnesses” is an accidental overlap of language. Nike seems intent on using explicit Christian language and imagery to sell their product; and Tebow (who is, at present, a mechanically below average quarterback that happens to win) is being promoted because of his faith. And that’s where I see the questionable ties.

      Does that help clarify what I was trying to say?

  8. clair strohl says:

    General question, how much will the world try to bring down any person of faith in the public either through tricks, ego, or whatever means possible? In the past, being a person of faith brought fame and adulation. Now being a person of faith brings mockery and a desire to bring that person “down”.

    In regards to what Scott asks about younger people and public faith, wasn’t there a topic recently in here about Disciples and their age? It will be tough for Tebow to deal with his religion and fame. I believe the quote from (of all people) Dave Chappelle goes something like, “Fame will take you places your ego can’t handle.” As bad as some of his comedy gets, his insight into fame and money are right on and a quote from him in wikipedia: Chappelle is a Muslim, having converted to Islam in 1998. He told Time Magazine in a May 2005 interview, “I don’t normally talk about my religion publicly because I don’t want people to associate me and my flaws with this beautiful thing. And I believe it is beautiful if you learn it the right way.”

    see also the Bart Starr award for Christians in Football…: Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson won the award for the 1998 season, but was arrested the very same evening he received the award in Miami, Florida for soliciting a female undercover police officer posing as a prostitute.

    So the question for Christians, famous and not famous, is do you wear your faith on your sleeve or keep it to yourself? And I believe that answer lies with you and God and should be checked occasionally with people of faith around you, but always let God lead your way. Whether it be to build an alter and challenge others to light theirs on fire or too quietly pray for those around you and the leaders of this country in your bedroom. Maybe someone of faith will talk to him and ask if it is God leading him to kneel at every 1st down, or maybe he could just kneel with the group at the beginning and end of every game as MANY football players do which gets some attention and shows your faith but does not bring a light onto you and your stumble does not bring down God;s work. (sorry if this is at all disjointed, writing while watching kids).

  9. mahoneyrm5150 says:

    Just found this interesting tid bit..Frank Deford, in a 1976 piece for Sports Illustrated, called it “sportianity.”

    “Sportianity, as this brand of religion might best be called, is thoroughly evangelistic, using sport as an advertising medium. The idea is simple enough: first, convert the athletes, who are among the most visible individuals in our society; then, use these stars for what is generally known in the business as “outreach,” an up-to-date rendering of the old-fashioned phrase “missionary work.” To put it bluntly, athletes are being used to sell religion. They endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver.”

  10. Pingback: Tim Tebow | Classical Christian Discussions

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