Tim Tebow references were a dime a dozen as the 2011-2012 NFL season drew to a close. News media, op-eds, fans, Bill Maher — everyone was talking about the Broncos QB's accomplishments, his unabashed Christian faith, the way he would pray when he scored a touchdown. (See: Tebowing.)
And plenty of people questioned whether or not God was really on Tim's side.
Football season is over, and the lull in “Tebow fever” is forcing more than a few of us to look for similar athletic incarnations of the John 3:16-face painted footballer. So when word got around that the New York Knick’s (until recently) virtually unknown point guard Jeremy Lin is scoring some big points at the start of his professional career AND that he is a committed Christian, the masses have found their new fixation.
But are the comparisons between Tebow and Lin really valid?
Lin part of a close-knit Christian fellowship community in New York City, and according to a recent piece in the New York Times, where his pastors and fellow congregants value the young superstar more for his character than his rise to fame.
“I think it’s wonderful that he’s gifted enough that people are looking at him," said Charles Park, pastor of The River church in New York City, referring to Lin's sudden rise to prominence. "If his character comes across as something very attractive, something that people can emulate, something that people can look up to, I think that would only be positive. I think that can only be good for society, good for people."
After a victory earlier this week, Lin told a reporter for San Jose Mercury News, “I'm thinking about… how can I trust God more? How can I surrender more? How can I bring [God] more glory…It's a fight. But it's one I'm going to keep fighting.”
Yes, in this respect, Tebow and Lin are similar. Here we have two athletes actively engaged in a faith community and unafraid to share that part of themselves with the public. (And perhaps, the way the general public and as well as religious folks have freely embraced both young athletes demonstrates that Christians are pleased to have public figures other than politicians representing their faith.)
But Lin's fellow congregants are taking his fame in a way that differs from Tebow's faithful fans. In that same New York Times piece, one 30-year-old man from The River points to his infant child and says, “I think for [my child] seeing [Lin] play will be different from me growing up and not seeing anybody that looked like me play.”
Here, the man touches on something unique to Lin. He’s the first U.S. born player in the NBA to be of Chinese or Taiwanese descent AND the first Harvard graduate to play in nearly 60 years. At a time that many college players are forfeiting their education to jump straight into a professional basketball career — in 2009, only 21 percent of NBA players had a college degree — Lin is a stellar example of someone a dedicated and hard worker, one whose parents pushed him to finish his undergraduate degree before pursuing basketball.
Perhaps even more significant, though, is how Asian Americans and other minority groups admire him as one of their "own" whose meteoric rise in the NBA is being hailed widely as example of how racial barriers are being knocked down in professional sports and in society writ large.
Lin is also an archetypal underdog. When he entered the NBA in 2010, he was undrafted, yet he eventually signed with the Golden State Warriors, only to be dropped by the team during the NBA lockout. Then (in a divine reversal?) the Knicks picked up Lin, and thus began his career's meteoric trajectory.
This season, after the Knick’s starting point guard Baron Davis suffered an injury, Lin logged his first career start. That’s when things really started to take off for him.
In his first four games as the starting point guard for the Knicks, Lin scored a total of 109 points. And just to put this achievement into perspective, consider this: In Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Shaquille O’Neal’s first four games as starters, they scored 99, 70, and 100 points respectively. Additionally, the Knicks have won their last six games with Lin leading the charge.
Even if the “Lin-sanity” settles as quickly as it took hold of fans around the globe, Lin likely will find his place as a regular starter and one of the NBA's most familiar faces.
Surely Lin is a influential and inspirational figure. He’s embraced by the Asian-American community as a role model and he’s also a solid testament to the duality that can exist between education and professional sports. The bonus? Lin also is a model for Christians.
Though Lin hasn't clocked as much camera time as Tebow (let’s face it, he’s not the Heisman-winning, last minute play-making quarterback), when he gives post-game interviews he is terribly compelling. Lin displays an authentic humility— he even seems a bit uncomfortable talking about himself. And yet he’s not shy about saying he’s been blessed and giving thanks to his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” for his athletic abilities and success.
Lin's short Twitter bio emphasizes his faith, saying “to know Him is to want to know Him more.” Lin's profile picture is the Internet meme of Jesus clarifying what he meant by “follow me,” saying to a young man, “No, I’m not talking about Twitter. I literally want you to follow me.”
A palpable air of mystery still surrounds Lin. How long will he continue to draw media attention? Will he be able to keep the fire alive?
And then there are the macro-level questions: If Lin didn’t have a breakout six games, would anyone care that he’s the first Asian-American, Harvard-educated athlete in 60 years?
Lin seems to be grateful to be where he is and maybe that’s enough. He’s receiving a lot of praise for his skills and ability to perform well in high-pressure situations – and he’s giving it right back to God.
So is Jeremy Lin the new Tim Tebow?
No. Though they’re both gifted athletes, they come from different worlds, face different challenges, and have worked to overcome different obstacles.
Though the comparison stories have a nice ring to them, they don't adequately capture the complexity of Lin's real-life narrative.
James Colten is a campaigns assistant at Sojourners. Follow James on Twitter @JamesColten.