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.