Some were stupefied by Tim Tebow’s 316 passing yard total in his first playoff game; others thought it was just plain stupid to conclude that God was sending biblical messages via the Broncos quarterback. To both sets, it is my scholarly duty to let you know there has been another Tebow 3:16 sighting—I saw it myself.
Whenever you hear a new piece of gossip, you probably check your source so that you can filter out the outlandish from the possible. Accordingly, if you are intrigued about this new connection between Tebow and the New Testament verse John 3:16, you likely want to know who I am.
In that case, you are like people on planes who make me nervous when they ask me what I do. In short, I am a scholar of religion, but that shorthand leads to long conversations.
I study and teach religion in a non-confessional, secular university environment. This means that I am used to discussing religion among atheists, agnostics, Jews, Hindus, Christians etc., all huddled together in the same stuffy academic quarters.
That is not as difficult as it might sound—mainly because there are an abundance of respectful, intellectually-engaged college students who like to study the social and political implications of religion, no matter how they feel about religion personally.
This profession, though, is difficult to explain to strangers, especially on a plane. When I am 30,000 feet in the air and a stranger asks me what I do for a living, I want to go all Samuel L. Jackson on them. I’m not comfortable around snakes, but any non-life threatening diversion would do at these moments, because my hands get clammy and my brow runs like a river.
I am scared that my flight neighbor will assume that I think my study brings me close to the gods or a God and that I have mastered their/his/her languages and trace every sacred movement on the earth.
That’s not me. That's not us.
Scholars of religion usually study what can be known with academic tools. I won’t enumerate all of the possible queries for academic study, but you can discount such questions as “Is there a God/gods/sacred?”
I (we) can’t answer that in an academic setting.
Tim Tebow, though, comes along and, in the language of Leonard Cohen, sinks beneath our academic wisdom like a stone.
The former University of Florida quarterback used to stencil John 3:16 into his “eye black,” which football players wear to avoid glare. The NFL forbids such practices, so there was to be no more athletic guyliner at the professional level for Tebow.
Did he find a supernatural means to circumvent league policy by throwing a whopping 316 yards of passing?
It certainly got the word out. The verse in question--"For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life"--sent shockwaves through the Twittersphere, and landed John 3:16 on the top of various trending charts.
I asked my mom, who is one of the most devout and evangelical Tebow-loving people you will find, what she makes of the numbers.
“You heard about the 3:16 thing, right?” I probed.
“That’s a stretch, isn’t it?”
“Oh yeah, it's completely ridiculous,” she assured me.
I told that to my wife. We laughed and then I went seeking online Tebow highlights so we could re-live some of the most enthralling moments of the season.
Guess what I heard?
First, let’s review the 3:16 signs:
Against the Steelers, Tebow threw 10 pass completions for a total of 316 yards and an average of 31.6 yards per carry. If that weren't enough, the "final quarter-hour television rating" was 31.6.
That makes sense according to the Tebow narrative, right? He owns the fourth quarter.
Is God not with him for the first three? This is where I come in. Or God comes in. Or something.
After just having laughed off the 3:16 significance with my wife, I listened to a commentator during the mic'd up session of the Broncos vs. Bears game give Tebow's stats for the first three quarters.
He completed...wait for it, wait for it...
3-for-16 passes. Bam! Holy Bam?
These figures are intriguing, but they are mainly made meaningful by focused, retrospective gazing that shapes the past according to what we already know about the future.
That would, though, take a lot of the mystery (and “magic”) out of all this Tebow numerology (and religion, for that matter).
If God decided to pull out all the stops in Tebow's first playoff game, is this where it ends? Why not wait to send that message in the Super Bowl where the audience would be even larger?
At this point, go ahead and put in your two cents on the survey.
Careful. God/gods/the sacred might be watching.