Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.
According to Tebowing.com, to participate in the phenomenon of “Tebowing,” simply “get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.” If you take a picture of yourself Tebowing and send it to the site, it might even get posted, garnering you the glorious modern crown of 15 minutes of digital fame. (And it’s also ”safer than planking.”)
Tebowing is inspired by Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who is known for unsubtly kneeling to pray in the midst of touchdown celebrations. While I’m certainly not an expert in the arena of high-dollar gridiron, from the articles I’ve read, it appears that Tebow is a rare find: a good, sincere man who is simply trying to follow Jesus well in his vocation and moment. Whatever my opinions on sports-star-brand evangelism may be (short answer: I think it’s usually annoying and unhelpful), I am very glad men and women like him exist.
Obviously, Tebowing is making fun of an act of prayer. For the sake of space, I’ll dub this sort of thing “religious humor” and then ask, “Is religious humor OK?”
I have mixed emotions about religious humor. When a satirical jab or poignant one-liner reveals a thoughtless or hypocritical aspect of modern faith, I think: “Ha! Exactly what was needed.” Other times, an attempt at a topical quip or pointed zinger toward things of faith will strike me in an awkward way, and I think: “Huh. I’m not sure that was helpful.”
And so here, I have mixed emotions about Tebowing. Taking a knee during a touchdown celebration is well-intentioned, but it can look kind of silly and standoffish. The current Tebowing-mania satirically points out the awkward reality that our best intentions can sometimes be construed as self-righteousness by the watching world. That sort of satire can be helpful to the church at large—it reminds us that we should pay more attention to the way we go about things in public.
Then again, Tim Tebow is a good guy with good intentions. We’re not talking about a self-aggrandizing prosperity preacher or shock-jock xenophobe; this is a 24-year-old professional athlete aware of his position of influence and trying to glorify God through his actions. Poking fun at that, from my in-house perspective, makes me a bit uncomfortable.
If you were to corner me and require a definite stance, I’d say that while I won’t be participating in Tebowing, I also won’t be irritated with those who find it funny. Like political satire, religious satire can be an avenue to elucidate the complexities of Christian morality, whether it comes from outside or inside the church. In other words, we should be humbled to the point of laughter when we see how silly our attempted approximations at godliness often are.
Morality is a complex thing, because human beings are complex creatures. We do the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons—and everything in between. Often we aren’t even aware of our true intentions until we mature and gain perspective. Even more often, we misread and wrongly assume we know the intentions of others. Satire and religious humor can bring this to light.
You could even argue that evangelism itself is an exercise in satire—in teaching humanity how to laugh at itself: “Ha! Do you really think all of our efforts are enough to please a holy God? Please get in on the joke: Come sit at the jovial table of heaven with the rest of us beggars and receive God’s grace!”