Fans of the television program Britain's Got Talent may remember Paul Potts, an undistinguished, unprepossessing mobile phone salesman whose audition before a skeptical panel of judges launched an unlikely ascent to singing stardom. In January of this year, Jeremy Lin burst onto the NBA scene with seven magical games that made him the closest thing professional athletics has ever had to a Paul Potts story. Lin is an unlikely basketball superstar: The son of Taiwanese immigrants who work in computer science and engineering, a graduate of California's public schools (most future athletic stars end up at one of the state's elite private schools that function as de facto training academies for athletes), and then four years of college hoops at Harvard … hardly the pedigree of an elite NBA point guard.

Lin doesn't necessarily look the part either—he went from "undersized" to "gangly" without stopping in between. Even when he began to enjoy some success with the NBA's New York Knicks, sports analysts were incredulous. TNT's Shaquille O'Neal said his was a classic case of player meets system: "Mike D'Antoni's offense is designed for guys who can't jump," sniffed O'Neal at the start of Lin's magical two week run.

But there is another unique dimension to Lin (who was being pursued by the Houston Rockets this week but will apparently remain a starting point guard for the Knicks): He is a fairly outspoken evangelical Christian. Raised in the Chinese Christian church and actively involved in a number of collegiate ministries, Lin's childhood in many ways resembled the Platonic ideal of evangelical adolescence: raised in the church (check), involved in youth group (check), volunteered with at-risk youth (check), organized a Bible study in his public school (check), regularly praised by adults for his maturity (check). Indeed, it's so stereotypical that many evangelicals themselves—mostly my fellow millennials—have come to see such people as out of touch and inauthentic, dismissing them as "youth group super heroes."

For all these reasons, Jeremy Lin's story definitely belongs under the "didn't see that one coming" category. So it's unsurprising that only four months after Lin burst onto the scene, publishers have already begun to crank out biographies. Timothy Dalrymple, director of content at the online faith-and-culture hub Patheos, has written Jeremy Lin: The Reason for the Linsanity (Center Street), while Mike Yorkey, a veteran sportswriter, adds to an impressive list of Christian athlete profiles with Linspired: The Remarkable Rise of Jeremy Lin (Zondervan). (The profusion of seemingly spontaneous Lin literature also includes Ted Kluck's e-book, published by Bethany House, Jeremy Lin: Faith, Joy, and Basketball.)

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Both Dalrymple and Yorkey do a fair job of chronicling Lin's unlikely rise. Yorkey sticks more to a just-the-facts approach focused on Lin's life and NBA career—sprinkled with some anecdotes that may endear the book to evangelical middle- and high-schoolers. Dalrymple tends to wander a bit more, at times discussing Lin's specific religious beliefs and at others highlighting the significant racial elements to the story. On that point, Dalrymple understands the issues at hand better than most. Though not Asian-American himself, Dalrymple married a second-generation Asian-American whose parents' story bears many similarities to that of Lin's parents. Dalrymple also seems to have interviewed more people than Yorkey, which enables him to cast a wider net, giving more attention to discussions of Lin's high-school and college years. Yorkey, though, had better access to Lin himself.

Winning Over the Mockers

The most eye-catching quality about Lin, conveyed in both books, is a certain selflessness that validates his piety, even—perhaps especially—among those inclined to think it phony. It's a quality reminiscent of fellow evangelical stars like Tim Tebow and Josh Hamilton. When Tebow, for instance, first burst onto the scene, a number of sports writers were incredulous, mocking his religiosity. They convinced themselves it was either a charade to win over the masses or something so bizarre and outlandish it needn't be taken seriously. But the longer he was in the spotlight, the more people he won over. In January, ESPN's Rick Reilly—renowned for his comic cynicism—wrote about Tebow:

I've come to believe in Tim Tebow for what he does off a football field, which is represent the best parts of us, the parts I want to be and so rarely am.
Who among us is this selfless?
Every week, Tebow picks out someone who is suffering, or who is dying, or who is injured. He flies these people and their families to the Broncos game, rents them a car, puts them up in a nice hotel, buys them dinner (usually at a Dave & Buster's), gets them and their families pregame passes, visits with them just before kickoff (!), gets them 30-yard-line tickets down low, visits with them after the game (sometimes for an hour), has them walk him to his car, and sends them off with a basket of gifts.
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Home or road, win or lose, hero or goat.
Remember last week, when the world was pulling its hair out in the hour after Tebow had stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers with an 80-yard OT touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the playoffs? And Twitter was exploding with 9,420 tweets about Tebow per second? When an ESPN poll was naming him the most popular athlete in America?
Tebow was spending that hour talking to 16-year-old Bailey Knaub about her 73 surgeries so far and what TV shows she likes.

Lin seems to have produced a similar effect. Describing Lin's approach to a high school state title game, a moment when intense scrutiny threatened to make or break his athletic future, Dalrymple writes: "He knew that college scouts were watching, just as they had watched for much of his senior campaign. And yet, time and again, when he might have put his skills on display, when he might have put on the flashiest show he could, instead he chose to play for the greater good of the team. Rather than playing selfishly and taking his future into his own hands, he played selflessly and entrusted his future to God."

Yorkey closes his book by alluding to similar themes: "We've all seen athletes disappoint us, but I don't think success will spoil Jeremy. I think God has been preparing him for this moment. He never shied away from ambition, never backed down from confrontation, never ran away from accountability. He put himself and his game out there, and if you beat him, you were the better man that day. But if he beat you, he shook your hand and didn't gloat. That's the Golden Rule in action: Treat others as you would want to be treated."

Lin's story makes a fascinating test case for evangelicals—especially younger evangelicals—burned out with church, convinced that it's hypocritical, greedy, and backward-thinking. The repeated refrain by Philip Yancey, Sheldon Vanauken, and others is true: The best argument against Christianity is often Christians. When God's people are "are sombre and joy-less," Vanauken wrote, "when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths."

But what about the many Christians who aren't that way at all? Perhaps my generation of evangelicals, wallowing in a fashionable jadedness, too readily overlooks examples of believers whose lives offer a winsome advertisement for Christianity. After all, Lin and Tebow both grew up in the sort of churches that have turned off so many millennials. Yet they emerged from those churches as well-spoken, generous, kind individuals whose charitable nature can be recognized even by skeptical sports writers like Rick Reilly. That's something significant.

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Authentic Faith

As a millennial Christian myself, I've often spoken of Christianity's need to adapt to culture, to be relevant. I eagerly read Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change, and when Michael Spencer published his evangelicalism doomsday story ("The Coming Evangelical Collapse," published in The Christian Science Monitor in March 2009), I felt vindicated. That's the story of evangelical burnouts, and there are plenty of us. But stories of high-profile Christian athletes like Lin suggest that the evangelical congregations we've spent so much time criticizing aren't as bad as we once thought. Indeed, the Christ-life itself still seems to be present in them, judging at least from the testimony of these young men.

The athlete who "just wants to thank God and my Savior, Jesus Christ" at the start of every interview is a trope. It's the sort of thing that often makes the irreligious roll their eyes and causes many of the faithful to cringe. That sort of cynicism, though seldom emerging without reason, has a way of choking the heart, of making genuine appreciation of good character—or even the far more basic correction of one's wrong ideas—nearly impossible. It reduces athletes like Tebow and Lin to opportunistic showoffs eager to ingratiate themselves to the faithful. Indeed, it's the very same sort of cynicism that made Piers Morgan roll his eyes as Paul Potts walked onto the Britain's Got Talent stage.

But as Yorkey and Dalrymple both attest, there are athletes for whom those words constitute an authentic statement of personal mission and identity. What's more, some of those athletes even back up the words with their lives. By all accounts, Jeremy Lin does—not perfectly, of course, but by always striving to be a little more selfless, a little more available to fans, ultimately a little more like Jesus. And, as Jesus himself predicted, a watching world notices. We should too.

Jake Meador blogs at Notes From a Small Place.