Florida QB Tim Tebow (in)famously often wears eye strips with Biblical phrases on them during every game. For example, he’s worn John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Hebrews 12:1-2.
During the recent SEC Championship, Tebow wore John 16:33 which reads (Jesus is here speaking):
I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ (New Revised Standard Version)
This could be construed somewhat ironically as Alabama proceeded to beat the snot out of Florida. (Who’s conquering whom we might ask?).
But I thought we’d have a little theological reflection time.
Now before diving in, I need to take a little detour. Last time I did this kind of thing, specifically on the Gospel of John, I generated some controversy (perhaps not unlike Tebow’s Biblical quotations) and some misunderstanding. That post dealt with the famous water turned wine story (only found in John’s Gospel btw) where I said that it should not be read as “literally” suggesting a miraculous suspension of the laws of nature. I took some good-natured ribbing for that statement. [Jaybird still references it].
I should have said the story should not be construed/understood literalistcally. The “literal” or “plain-sense” language of the story is symbolic. So the “symbolic” reading I was giving was in fact “literal”, making me a “literalist”….while those who understand it to be about an actual event where Jesus actually did do such and such are literalistic.
Here’s why this distinction matters. If I said, “I can already hear the howls of people when I make the literalistic/literal distinction”, you would (correctly) understand me to be saying something like: I can already predict what (some) people are going to say about this thing I just wrote.
That understanding would be the “literal” or plain-sense meaning of what I meant. Literalistically, someone would (incorrectly) understand to me to hear actual words coming through the walls or telepathically or something.
Applied to The Bible what this means is that a literal (as plain-sense) interpretation takes into account the differences between different literary genres. Different genres open up/reveal different worlds or world-constructions. Within those worlds, different norms, styles, and logic apply.
One of the many literary forms in The Bible is poetry. Take The Psalms. When a Psalm says, “All the day long I cry unto you O Lord” we literally (qua plain sense) take it to mean something like, “this is a persistent theme of prayer.” Or it’s something “weighing” on the person. Weighing is in quotes there because it shows us that metaphor is intrinsic to “literal” language. We don’t speak except with metaphor (or in metaphor or through metaphor….all those being metaphors).
Literalistically, All Day Long I cry unto You, becomes someone, rather thick-headedly, saying 24 hours a day this person was yelling.
This same basic principle applies to Law Codes, Apocalyptic, Prophetic Sayings, Gospels, Epistles (Letters), and all the various other genres of The Bible.
This neat picture can be complicated by the fact that what is “plain sense” is (in part) culturally shaped. i.e. I have no idea if someone raised in Swahili language-culture would make of my “howling” reference. This especially comes into play relative to The Bible as it comes from a set of cultures and languages very different (though ultimately influential upon) our own culture.
Now back to our friend Tim Tebow. Tebow is an Evangelical Christian. Evangelical with a Capital E means from a distinct tradition (largely Anglo-American in nature) within Christianity. All Christians are supposed to be evangelical (lower case ‘e’) insofar as all are supposed to share by word/deed the evangelion (‘the good news’) of Jesus Christ. Only Evangelicals, Capital E, tend to interpret and perform that command by saying writing singular Biblical verses on their athletic equipment. (Not all Evangelicals do that obviously, but of those who do, the majority are Evangelicals).
Evangelicalism, especially in the US, is often labeled ‘conservative’ because of its dominant tendencies towards social moral conservatism and right-wing politics in recent decades. Evangelicalism, however, is a totally modernist (and therefore in many regards classically liberal) phenomenon. And Tebow’s Bible quotes under his eyes prove this very fact.
By modernism, I mean The Western, European Enlightenment. It was characterized by two major philosophical expressions: rationalism and romanticism. Rationalism was built in the belief that by analysis and observation one could discern The Laws of Nature.
Evangelicals have long argued for the “plain-sense” meaning of The Bible–at least on those issues considered most necessary and important. See The Westminster Confession for example. Now with my earlier point about ‘plain-sense’, you might think I was an Evangelical.
That however would be a mistake because ‘plain sense’ was almost always (if not always) understood historically within Evangelicalism, as consisting of a series of isolated propositions. Deductions as it were from the Laws of The Bible. This is where the ‘modernism’ of Evangelicalism comes in. It takes isolated passages–like induction in natural sciences–and believes propositions (the laws, hypotheses, theories, etc) come from these isolated pieces.
Hence a person puts what he thinks to be (or has been taught to believe more likely) is a one-line summation of the entirety of the Scriptures.
Something like, I don’t know John 3:16
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
What this does is make a ‘proposition’ out of The Bible. There it is, abstracted from you or me or communities of faith (and even from the Scriptures themselves), and you either “believe” it or not. Belief here means mental assent to this proposition.
The other great trend of The Enlightenment was Romanticism. As the rational took over social dominance (through science, politics, and technology), the emotional was let loose in the individual’s life. Which is why Paul Tillich called The Enlightenment Age, a “weepy” one.
In Evangelicalism this tendency shows up as Revivals, emotionalistic forms of worship, and the tendency to interpret Biblical passages in an individualistic emotional way—by which I mean taking passages, often considered “comforting” from the Scriptures, and then projecting them out onto individual lives.
Like say, Philippians 4:13
13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Or John 16:33
33I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’
Tim Tebow is a classical modernist Evangelical. Notice I don’t have to resort to trying to “divine” his inner mind or understanding of these passages to make that call. In that sense, I’m a postmodernist, following in the line of Ricoeur and Gadamer. I’m making sense of the intelligible public acts of communication in the lifeworld of the media not trying to read his thoughts.
My main problem with such an approach is it’s reductionistic (on the propositional side) and far too individualistic (on the emotional-salvation side).
It should be noted, there are postmodern (post-propositional) Evangelicals who are well attuned to the literary and performative genres of The Biblical text. Two of the best of such people are Kevin Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright.
So what if we looked again at John 16:33 in the context of the rest of the Chapter and with an eye towards literary form (and lifeworld). What happens then?
[If you don’t have a Bible, you can use this one and enter John 16)
The first thing to notice is that this takes place in the context of a final “homily” by Jesus in the Gospel of John. This discourse beings towards the end of Chapter 13 and continues all the way through the end of Ch. 17.
The entire piece is modeled on a Greek symposium. These are the final words of Jesus in the mold Socrates’ final dialogues. Jesus is here the coming martyr hero who is going to die for Truth. Or who rather is (according to the story), The Truth Incarnate.
And as such, the world, or the opponents of Jesus, stand as the representation of Illusion and Falsity. The world crucifies Truth.
So already we should approach the text in that mode. In the mode of the final words of a Beloved headed to death. The disciples continue to misunderstand Jesus, asking him, “Where are you going?” Peter wants to know why he can’t follow Jesus.
Jesus, as this discourse unfolds, is headed (back) to The Father. But he must do so through The Cross to come.
Jesus’ sufferings (and his eventual Resurrection) become the model for Christians actually suffering at the time of the writing and reading of this text.
‘I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.
They will put you out of synagogues is a clear reference to a historical event of The Johannine community being expelled (as heretics) from the mainline Jewish synagogue. Jesus in the Gospel of John, therefore, speaks of “The Jews” in the third person. Historically this is nonsensical as Jesus was Jewish. But written during a much later period (probably around 90-110 C.E.) the Community of John had found themselves in this place of alienation and separation from other Jews (they, the Johannine community still considered themselves Jews). So Jesus is retroactively (or rather proto-actively) placed in the position of the community itself….being persecuted and alienated from “The Jews.” As a historical sidenote, when this passage’s “literal” meaning was not understood any longer and was literalistically understood as implicating all Jews in opposition to Jesus and “Christ-killers”, well then we know the horrible consequences of that history (and minsinterpretation).
The text itself even mentions this distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” in their community. The next half-verse after that quoted above is (Jesus still speaking):
‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.
And then (still in the context of persecution and the final discourse), the end of Chapter 16:
25 ‘I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.* 28I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’
29 His disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ 31Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? 32The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’
verse 25 takes us back to our literal versus literalistic duality. The text (recursively) tells us that’s its native language game consists of “figures of speech”, i.e. symbols, signs, farewell discourses, and metaphors.
The disciples think they get it–“Yes now you are speaking plainly”–but clearly they do not. For Jesus tells them that they are just about to abandon The Truth (Incarnate).
And then our Tebow line: “I have said this to you so that you may have peace.” The this obviously refers back to the persecution and the abandonment of the disciples. They are to have peace because they are both A)forgiven of the abandonment (or at least the founding disciples were) and B)because they still face persecution.
Now the peace hinges on the “conquering the world” piece since the world (in this story) represents the forces of opposition to light and truth.
So what does this book-story-performance (called The Gospel of John) mean by conquering?
Not what we expect.
The “conquering” or “over-coming” of the world by Jesus occurs through his horrific murder, being hung between heaven and earth, for a time accepted by neither. By Christ becoming, for that moment, the embodiment of our sinful state: the alienation we experience alive on earth yet suffering, not in heaven, nor feeling the embrace of heaven in this life. Jesus becomes The Passover Lamb whose blood seals the covenant of God and creation, thereby overcoming (or conquering) the opposition to the Divine, namely ‘the world.’
This “hour” that Jesus always speaks of in the Gospel of John is paradoxically the revelation of fulfillment. The “eschaton” or end-times are “realized” in his death and in the persecuted lives of his followers. They are already experiencing the kingdom of God on earth.
Christ overcomes by being overcome. He “conquers” our normal conception of victory and heroism but being “conquered” by this world–in the normal sense of being destroyed. In his Resurrection, he shatters the normal conception of power and conquering, of heroism and true sacrifice.
Jesus is no Evangelical Warlord Conqueror, shinning triumphantly from human glory to glory. He receives no Glory because He IS Glory. Glory, true Glory, is the Presence of God on earth traveling with the people of God, like a nomad—-“and the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” (John 1:14)
He’s not “powerful” by our human standards. He is the undoing of those presuppositions. He himself is undone and we are undone in him, in God.
Tim Tebow receives a lot of unfair criticism, both as an athlete and more so as a person. Some of that (much of it?) is due to his overt expression of his Christianity.* He suffers a kind of persecution we might say, though truth be told it’s of a very minor sort. He’s not actually being pulled from synagogues or put before civil magistrates with his life on the line. He’s getting called unjust things as people project their stuff onto him. A scapegoat if you like. Though again in the realm of possible persecution, not the most “goated” of kinds.
The question I have is whether his performance of the text, which I’m arguing is flawed in some key manners, becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? The Gospel of John argues (from the experience of the community that penned it) that persecution is inevitable and the only reality. That however is not the argument of all of the other books in The New Testament. (And certainly not The Bible as a whole).
When the dramatic (or performative/genre-based) nature of each text is not understood–when it’s turned instead into a doctrinal propositional handbook full of proofs and assertions–then there is a danger of absolutizing any of the Biblical texts into the end all/be all of religious truth and experience.
This is especially the case with Evangelicals and their (over?)use of The Gospel of John.
Different dramas are appropriate from different times. It’s not clear to me that lines about “conquering the world” are the best choice for public expression of faith in a pluralistic society. Especially in the context of sports, and certainly as one as brutal as football, where “conquering” will pick up the connotation of physical prowess and violence over another, thereby overturning the text itself and giving it a meaning it expressly does not want. i.e. Jesus as the “White” Knight Conquering Hero.
The text Tebow chose–whether he knows this or not–“performs” or “enacts” division and confusion. It may have even confused Tebow himself for all I can tell. It’s one thing to give voice to such contradiction, division, and confusion in a situation where such a thing is reality. It even makes sense within the confines of say a Holy Week and the liturgical calendar, which in its broad sweep, gives voice to the breadth of human and divine “voices”.
It’s another thing to create division. Or at least I think it is.
* Plus he’s a media favorite and while I think a very good college QB, over-rated in the eyes of too many commentators.