I can't quite tell if Linsanity is dying down yet, but one way or another, I've wanted to ask a question ever since the NBA's latest star surfaced: What if Jeremy Lin wasn't a Christian?
Would he still be the no-name basketball player who was waived from two teams before stepping into a moment of opportunity and leading the team on a seven-game winning streak, producing the kind of stats and hype that landed him the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row? Would he still be the undrafted 2010 rookie who was repeatedly sent to the NBA Development League during his first season? Would we still emphasize that he's the first Harvard graduate in the NBA since 1954? Would he still be the first Chinese- or Taiwanese-American ever to play in the NBA? Would we be talking about his faith in the same way?
Throughout the hype, Lin has directed recognition for his success to his faith in ways that have led to comparisons to Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback who displays his devotion prominently on camera. So perhaps Jeremy Lin believes that Linsanity is part of God's plan for his life--a divinely-engineered series of events that put him in a position to preach the Gospel to more people or to do more good for people in need, enabled by fame and fortune. I'm confident I would believe the same things if I were Jeremy Lin.
The question I ponder, however, is not whether Jeremy Lin is empowered by God in his instant NBA stardom; rather, what if he wasn't a Christian?
The things I've been hearing lately have convinced me that we don't always know how to talk about faith in America. Take Tim Tebow, for example. He shows his faith proudly in the pro-athlete spotlight but has drawn a fair share of ridicule for it from a variety sources ranging from his own teammate to Saturday Night Live.
So what if Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin were Jewish, Muslim or Hindu? What if they were outspoken atheists? Would they be comfortable speaking out about their values in the first place? How would America respond? Would we be having the same conversation?
The unfolding election year is further evidence of the poor condition of the national climate for a conversation about faith in public life. It seems that some still find the need to question the authenticity of the President's faith, not to mention the conspiracy theories surrounding Obama's Muslim father or the ways that GOP candidate Mitt Romney has been attacked for his Mormon faith.
Being an observer of this discourse saddens me. Even when the mainstream media is capable of talking about religion, it's often the butt of the joke or the subject of criticism. We need to start talking about the deep and meaningful role that religion plays in people's lives. That's why I'm excited to be a part of interfaith work on the University of Illinois campus -- a place where I've been a student for six years (with six more to go). This spring, our campus is organizing the Illinois Conference on Interfaith Collaboration which will bring student leaders from all over the country to discuss interfaith work on college campuses.
These students are having a different conversation about religion, and it's not the sort of discourse that makes faith the subject of jokes about a mediocre quarterback, or that questions the authenticity of presidential candidates and incumbents alike. It's the sort of conversation that builds bridges of understanding based on respect and inspiration, facilitating meaningful relationships instead of impersonal commentary.
That kind of conversation is just the sort of thing we need in light of the dialogue taking place right now around pro athletes and political figures. Somehow I think Jeremy Lin might agree. Because as a Christian who shares the same evangelical convictions as Lin, I'm more interested in the kind of conversation that is taking place here at Illinois, which allows me to be a storyteller and a listener. And that's something that empowers me to communicate my faith in a way that a football field or a basketball court would never allow.