Jeremy Lin, the Knicks’ Tim Tebow?

This morning I asked my sports reporter husband if he knew who Jeremy Lin was. He laughed and responded: “Do you know who Billy Graham is?” Feeling a little silly, I started reading up on the couch-surfing basketball star who is apparently taking the world by storm, or at least the NBA. “Forget Tebowing,” the Associated Press says. “Linsanity is the new sports sensation.”

Lin, an undrafted point guard from Harvard who wants to become a pastor, led the New York Knicks past the LA Lakers with a career-high 38 points Friday night. In two parts, the New York Times looked at how the star is impacting a particular community with a fantastic quote from a party of Asian American Christians. “I don’t even follow football,” one woman said. “Wait, this isn’t football.”

If Lin’s storybook week captured the imagination of New York City and the wider sports world, it hit the community of Christian Asian-Americans like a lightning bolt.

I especially appreciated this fascinating piece from Michael Luo, an investigative reporter for the Times, who draws on Lin’s popularity and his own experience to make a point about Asian American Christian culture.

Like Lin, I’m a Harvard graduate, albeit more than a decade ahead of him, and a second-generation Chinese-American. I’m also a fellow believer, one of those every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the-Bible-and-pray types, who agreed with Lin when he said to reporters after the Jazz game, “God works in mysterious and miraculous ways.”

Being a believer can mean different things in different circles. In a lot of the ones Lin and I have traveled, it can mean, essentially, you are a bit of a weirdo, or can make you an object of scorn.

Lin’s ethnicity is definitely part of the media’s storyline, since he is the NBA’s first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent and just the league’s fourth Asian American. But there’s a faith backdrop that a few outlets are picking up on, making the inevitable Tim Tebow comparisons. Luo makes the case that Lin will not, in fact, become a Tebow for the NBA because of how he approaches his faith.

Some have predicted that Lin, because of his faith, will become the Taiwanese Tebow, a reference to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, whose outspokenness about his evangelical Christian beliefs has made him extraordinarily popular in some circles and venomously disliked in others. But my gut tells me that Lin will not wind up like Tebow, mainly because Lin’s persona is so strikingly different. From talking to people who knew him through the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Christian Fellowship, and watching his interviews, I have the sense that his is a quieter, potentially less polarizing but no less devout style of faith.

Lin comes across as soft-spoken and winsome; he comes across as thoughtful. He comes across, actually, as a distinctly Asian-American Christian, or at least like so many that I know.

What I would love to see are some examples of how Tebow is more vocal than Lin about his faith. Is he perhaps interviewed more often? Are the NFL athlete’s outward displays of faith (Tebowing!) more visible than what Lin does on the court? Might Tebow’s role as quarterback play a factor in why the two athletes come across differently? When I look at Lin’s social media outlets, he seems just as vocal as Tebow.

God is good during our ups and our downs! Glad we got the win!! Thanks to @landryfields for lettin me crash on his couch last night lol

Awesome church service to start 2012! My new years resolution: love God more deeply and intimately by dec 31 than I did on jan 1

Psalm 46:10 — “He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’”

But I am open to Luo’s argument that there is something fundamentally different about Lin than Tebow, so let’s keep going.

Harvard’s Asian American Christian Fellowship, which started in the 1990s, is one of the most active student groups on campus. You will also immediately know it if you are part of a historically orthodox church in a major metropolitan center like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston or Los Angeles because your pews are probably filled with them. Like Lin, many Asian-American Christians have deep personal faith, but they are also, notably, almost never culture warriors. That is simply not what is emphasized in their churches and college Christian fellowships, including the one that played such a formative role in Lin’s life at Harvard.

Luo’s suggestion that Asian American Christians are not terribly vocal culture warriors is an interesting distinction if we’re keeping up with a Tebow comparison, who has been sometimes portrayed as a culture warrior. Yes, he appeared in a rather mild advertisement from Focus on the Family, but you have to know the back story to know it had anything to do with abortion. I’m not out to defend Tebow in any way, but he doesn’t actually really address any culture war issues when you think about it, unless Tebowing became part of the culture wars when I wasn’t looking.

Luo admits he kept up with Tebow’s season, in part because of their shared faith. “More than anything, though, I found the fierce emotions he incited on both sides of the religious divide depressing,” Luo wrote. Lin, on the other hand, has “a brand of faith, shaped by his background, that I can relate to much better than many I have seen in the public arena.”

I also read about his personal faith and the way he helped lead a small group for his Christian fellowship, harking back to the way I became a Christian in college, in part through some of these same small groups, in which we often wrestled with difficult questions deep into the night.

I like to think of my approach to faith as nuanced and not fitting easily into anyone’s standard boxes. I suspect Lin’s has to be as well.

Luo offered some reader response and a bit of background on his twitter feed today:

Got reader email who said he was “puking” from the xianity ref. Another said it made him “doubt” my “harvard credentials.”

Backstory on my @jlin7 essay. Sports ed asked if i wud consider doing Tues. I grappled w/ vulnerability, whether i had anything new to say.

I thot abt writing what Lin meant 4 asian-amers broadly but felt that’d been done. What i tried to do was introduce a-a xians specifically.

And more i thought abt it, Lin being asian american xian is a very distinctive thing, something country hadn’t seen and was significant.

Sports analysts who look try to tackle the Tebow vs. Lin question will likely consider pure athleticism. While I’m still grappling with the implicit idea of Tebow as culture warrior, Luo’s smart analysis of the Asian American Christian community is something few other reporters would think to spot. And perhaps some day we’ll get to read more about Luo’s nuanced approach to faith.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    A comment by Lin during last night’s post-game interview (after the win over the Lakers) made it clear that Lin is a Christian. The lead ESPN announcer characterized Lin as “humble” but made no mention of his faith. As people learn more about Lin, it will be interesting to see how the press reacts to his faith references.

  • sari

    Mollie,
    The differences may stem from the differences between Asian-American and mainstream American culture. He may have been looking for a basketball scholarship, but look at the schools to which he applied: Harvard, Brown, Stanford, UCLA. These are the same schools my childs’ Asian/Asian-American classmates target (along with MIT, CalTech, and the rest of the Ivies). A look at interview transcripts shows him to be more intelligent and articulate than Tebow. He sounds like a person of deep but quiet faith. And does he do the Lin version of Tebowing every time he scores?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Sari, he may indeed be very different from Tebow, I’m not sure. But we’re not comparing two quarterbacks, which makes the distinctions a bit different. I haven’t seen enough from both athletes to detect intellect, but I’m just guessing a Harvard grad is going to have an upper hand. The numerous, fast-paced basketball games play out a bit differently than football games do if we’re talking about visible expressions of faith.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Sari,

    I didn’t write this — Sarah did.

    Anyway, I really found Luo’s piece moving and adding something new to the discussion. I’ve been excited by Lin’s performance but had no idea he was religious or Christian.

    I thought the paraphrase of the verse from Romans at the end of the article was interesting. Wondering why the “perseverance” part wasn’t kept in.

  • sari

    Apologies for confusing you with Mollie, Sarah.

    I liked the article, found it interesting and thoughtful, like the player it profiled.

  • Yani

    Sadly, for all of us at home wondering just why “the press” doesn’t get religion … Reading Luo’s twitter feed comments made the answer blindingly clear. Someone is “puking” over references to Christian faith? Its not as though Luo is evangelising in his report.

  • Dave_c

    “Luo suggestion that Asian American Christians are not terribly vocal culture warriors”

    Perhaps it’s because most assume that people who are vocal culture warriors are white evangelical Christians (and definitely not Ivy league grads)?

    but it may also be due to cultural differences. It would be nice if some religion reporter dig into that a bit. Luo also made this assertion:

    “You will also immediately know it if you are part of a historically orthodox church in a major metropolitan center like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston or Los Angeles because your pews are probably filled with them.”

    I have no idea what he means by “historically orthodox”. My personal experience with 2nd generation Asian American Christians tell me that they tend to be evangelicals.

    And the Roman’s verse at the end of the article feels more rooted in racial pride than in hope for afterlife.

  • nate

    Tebow has never experienced the racism that Lin has, so Lin’s evangelical streak is perhaps more moderated than Tim’s. Lin was taunted by catcalls of “wonton” “open your eyes” and the ever utilitarian “ch*nk” on the court during his time at Harvard. His Amateur Athletics coach recalls clear instances of discrimination ranging from being told “this is not volleyball” to derision about Lin’s athletic ability (when Lin was always one of the most athletic players in the building). Trent Johnson, the Stanford coach who was recruiting him, perhaps resistant to the idea of “wasting” a scholarship on the Asians kid “from across the street” lied to Lin and his parents in an effort to get Lin to walk on and pay his own way at Stanford. These are all documented instances you can find spending a few minutes googling Lin’s career before the Knicks.

    One thing I’ve noticed perhaps related to being an Asian American christian versus a white Christian is that even when he overtly talks about God, Lin doesn’t get nearly the backlash that Tebow does over his every move. The danger of Christianity has always been political power and moral influence, not faith… perhaps coming from a tall, skinny Chinese kid the idea of Christ is less threatening to all the athiests, agnostics, zionists, out there than from a strapping 250lb Southern white male. More choir boy than crusader?

    @Mollie, Lin’s one and only choice was Stanford University which not coincidentally was across the street from Lin’s high school. The Stanford coach lied to him and no other D1 school recruited him… even though he led his team to a State Championship and was a California Division player of the year. Race played no part in it despite what you may think, other than the fact that he didn’t get a scholarship to any school probably because he lacked the melanin in his skin. He ended up paying his own way at Harvard… his parents undoubtedly taking out loans

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    Michael Luo is truly a class act.

    Genuine, gifted, gracious, smart, sincere. He’s one of the good guys.

    Regarding the nasty e-mails he’s received, I have no doubt that he’s gotten a few. That comes with the territory when you’re a reporter at a daily newspaper.

    And angry e-mailers come from across the religious and political spectrum. Lord knows, I’ve been damned to hell by a few readers for the mortal sins of questioning the acting skills of Kirk Cameron or the prophetic abilities of Pat Robertson.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks for the post, Sarah. I don’t follow the NBA closely, but it’s amazing to me that I’d never heard of Lin until reading a Wall Street Journal story about him Friday. Since then, his name is everywhere I turn, from Twitter to … well, GetReligion.

  • sari

    … perhaps coming from a tall, skinny Chinese kid the idea of Christ is less threatening to all the athiests, agnostics, zionists, out there than from a strapping 250lb Southern white male.

    Nate, your comment above is every bit as prejudiced as the entirely inappropriate comments made to Lin. And you (presumably) call yourself a Christian.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Sarah Pulliam Bailey: “When I look at Lin’s social media outlets, he seems just as vocal as Tebow.”

    I totally concur with you.

    —–

    Michael Luo: “Like Lin, many Asian-American Christians have deep personal faith, but they are also, notably, almost never culture warriors.”

    It would be helpful to know how and who Michael Luo defines as a “culture warrior.” If he defines Tim Tebow as a “culture warrior” then what is it about Tim Tebow makes him a “culture warrior”?

    Does Michael Luo use the term “culture warrior” as a pejorative and in a derogatory sense?

  • MikeD

    For many people, especially in the news media, “culture warrior” = “anti-abotion” For many chinese-american christians, abortion and its relationship to china’s one-child policy is a very different issue than it is for many white american christians like Tebow. E.g., there are some, whose parents fled China because of the policy, whom are very pro-life. There are also others, who do not have the same experience with the policy, who do not have the same opinions about abortion. Not sure if there is much polling on this issue amongst Asian-american christians, but it would be an interesting subject for the media to cover.

  • Chris S.

    There are key differences (i.e. demonstrable ability at the position) that play into the differing coverage but the core issue here is “stereotype ”

    Tebow fits a media stereotype, Lin doesn’t and doesn’t in so many ways.

    But it would be nice to have some media coverage of Christian churches as cultural phenomena that goes beyond “THE black church” and the “evangelical church” (inevitably white and Southern). The “Chinese ” church IS a distinct cultural phenomenon.

  • Roberto

    Calling Lin the “Knick’s Tim Tebow” is lazy and shallow. (I’m not referring to you, Sarah.) It ignores what makes Tebow controversial in the first place.

    First, Lin is already a far better NBA point guard than Tebow is or likely ever will be an NFL quarterback. Part of the Tebow controversy is that many of his critics (rightly) questioned whether he should be starting for the Broncos. They pointed to his deficiencies as a passer and wondered if the Broncos weren’t simply caving to fan pressure. It wasn’t just “I hate Christians.”

    Whether you agree with this or not, the point is that no one in New York or the Knicks diaspora, e.g. me and my brother, are questioning why Lin is starting for the Knicks: 129 points in five games kind of answers the question. We’r4e asking whether this is an illusion, the start of something big or whatever.

    Second, as was lost in the Tebow kerfuffle, neither he nor Lin are especially unusual in being high-profile professional athletes: the NFL is full of them; the NBA less so but still not uncommon.

    What set Tebow apart was that his faith became caught up in the culture wars. Whether he was a “culture warrior” or not, he became a symbol for both sides and his on-field success or lack thereof became a proxy for culture war battles.

    Idiotic? Sure! But none of this applies to Jeremy Lin. “Linsanity” is a function of how improbable he is: Chinese-American, Harvard, undrafted and cut from two teams who seizes the spotlight at “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” the Garden that isn’t at Madison Square but on Eighth Avenue and West 33rd. His being a Christian makes it even better but it is isn’t the defining element of Linsanity.

    Which brings me to the final reason he isn’t the “Knicks’ Tim Tebow”: he’s not divisive. I’m not saying that Tebow is to blame for the controversy but there’s no controversy surrounding Lin.

  • Roberto

    Okay. I should have typed “Christian” before “high profile.”

    But it would be nice to have some media coverage of Christian churches as cultural phenomena that goes beyond “THE black church” and the “evangelical church” (inevitably white and Southern).

    Amen to that.


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