Some people like writing. Others like having written. Me? I like having written without giving offense to people I love and respect.
By that standard, my musings in "Tim Tebow's ostentatious faith" and "Tebow, revisited" have been flaming disasters, with responses from my Christian friends generally ranging from stern disagreement to angry chastisement. The common theme in those responses: That (perhaps) I'd let antipathy to Christianity cloud my judgment.
The estimable William Voegelli weighed in with the least-angry but still-pointed variation on this theme: "If your point is that we would be better off rediscovering the value and satisfactions of reticence, I'm on board. If you're singling out Tebow because fundamentalist Christianity gives you the heebie-jeebies, I'm not." Privately, a close friend suggested (in not-so-many words) that I'd made a shtick out of being a big-city agnostic who was once a small-town Christian.
I didn't sleep much, or well, last night. It's quite a thing to have produced as intense a reaction as that.
But having examined my conscience, let me say this, unreservedly: Christianity doesn't give me the heebie-jeebies.
Here's my dirty little secret: You can take the man out of the church, but you can't really take the church out of the man. I know that 30 years of immersion in Christian circles—particularly among Mennonites—still shapes both me and my worldview. And though I've been frank about my own fall from faith, I've also felt a deep desire that (in the words of Paul writing to the Romans) I "not cause my brother to stumble." I've never wanted to undermine anybody else's faith: They have their journeys and I have mine. The idea of evangelical agnosticism is kind of silly if you think about it, anyway, and I've not had much use for the fundamentalist atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
There's a "but" coming, however.
I also don't believe that religion or Christianity are necessarily unmitigated forces for good, nor above critique. Just this week, Rick Perry released an ad that I believe to be a shining example of Christian chauvinism. It's not his faith that offends me; it's the political and societal implications of how he wields that faith that I find frightening and objectionable. I think it's possible to criticize that without being anti-Christian. But I also understand that if you're a conservative Christian, such criticism might look anti-Christian to you. To some extent, then, I have to offer my critiques in (er) good faith and let the chips fall where they may.
So what does any of this have to do with Tim Tebow, you may be asking. He's just a guy who is public about his faith, right? It's not like he's running for president or anything. Fair point. Why does an athlete deserve my critique?
Well, for one thing: Tebow's big news. His faith is big news, and controversial. Seems worthy of discussing in an op-ed column, then.
But let me tell a personal story. A number of years back, I was walking down Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, Kan. A church had gathered at one corner—as it often did weekly during early summer evenings—and one man stood atop a planter, shouting a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon at traffic and passerby. This was when I was still immersed in faith and church, but I stopped and chatted with one of the leaders. And what I told him was this: If the church was trying to win converts to Christ—it was—then the planter sermons were a bad idea. They were alienating far more people than they were attracting; the result being that by the church's own lights it was pushing more people away from Christ (and thus possibly condemning them to hell) than it was saving. This seemed alarming to me. It didn't seem to bother the street preachers.
In other words: What I say now is pretty much precisely the thing I was saying when I was a Christian.
Obviously, I'm not a man of faith anymore, so maybe I'm not the best person to counsel Tim Tebow about the effectiveness of his ministry. But if you look not-terribly-closely at what I wrote, some of the main thrusts were A) the Christ that Tebow worships seems to urge modesty in one's public displays of faith and B) evangelizing the way Tebow does might be counterproductive. I didn't tell Christians to shut up; in fact, I proclaimed that idea "undesirable." Given that I'm not a Christian, it seems likely that I was perceived as using Scripture to try to stifle Christians. I can see how it would look that way. From my perspective? I was evaluating Tebow by the standards of the Scripture he claims to adhere to. When you are so very public about your faith, that is going to happen. And it's often going to be people with a real antipathy to the faith doing the evaluating.
It legitimately grieves me that my Christian friends would perceive me as attacking their faith. I'm not sure what to do about that without forfeiting my option to write about issues involving Christianity—a bad idea in a still-quite-religious nation.
But I wrote in a provocative tone. And I provoked. I accept that some of my friends found that hurtful. I can't say I won't do it again. I will, however, be mindful.