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Pilgrim's Progress - A Commentary on the Life of Evangelist Billy Graham

by Gringo Sat Aug 26th, 2006 at 11:35:07 PM EST

Whether one considers religion a gift or a scourge, it has to be recognized that religious beliefs are among the most powerful of all cultural characteristics.  Religion has the power to unify a nation or to cause deep divisions. I believe that man is religious by nature and that religion is so pervasive that the very act of refusing to believe in a superior or supreme being may be considered a religion itself; i.e., the religion of "no god(s)."  Perhaps this would be good grist for another mill, however, because my primary reason for presenting this diary is an article on the Christian evangelist Billy Graham that appeared in the August 14, 2006 issue of Newsweek Magazine. I apologize for the fact that the article I have chosen is available online only to subscribers. The Newsweek link reveals only a lead-in for the article. I have endeavored to supply sufficient quotations and organization to cover the most important points.  

Billy Graham has been around as long as I can remember.  Born in 1918, the same year as my father, Mr. Graham came from a religious Southern protestant family.  Raised Presbyterian, he was ordained as a Baptist preacher in 1939.  Now retired in North Carolina at 87 years of age, Newsweek journalist Jon Meacham, who interviewed him for the article, states that Graham "...preached a conservative but not fundamentalist brand of Christianity with a style that took him to six different continents and into the company of 10 presidents."  Today, as fundamentalists and ultra conservatives from many religious groups vie for political power, it may be refreshing to focus on a man, who despite fame and access to powerful leaders, chose to tread a road of political moderation. This article is a reflection upon the life of this prominent, influential man or as Meacham states "In the twilight, Billy Graham shares what he's learned in reflecting on politics and Scripture, old age and death, mysteries and moderation."

Earlier this summer, on a warm Carolina evening, Billy Graham awoke in the middle of the night.  He had been asleep in his bedroom at the end of a long hall off the main part of the log house he and his wife, Ruth, have lived in for 50 years.

On this particular night, Graham lay in the darkness, trying to recite the 23rd Psalm from memory. He begins" "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..."  Then for moment, he loses the thread.  "I missed a sequence, and that disturbed me," Graham recalls.  It was frustrating - the man who has preached the Gospel to more human beings than anyone in history, does not like to forget critical verses of the Bible - but in the end the last line comes back to him:  "Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."  Relieved, he drifts back to sleep

"All my life I have been taught how to die, but no one ever taught me how to grow old," Graham remarked one day to his daughter Anne Graham Lotz.  "And I told him, `Well, Daddy, you are now teaching all of us.' "The lesson of age", Anne says, is this:  "When you get older, secondary things, like politics, begin to fall away, and the primary thing becomes primary again - and for Daddy, the primary thing is, as Jesus said, to try to love God totally, and to love our neighbor as ourselves."  And that, in a way, is Billy Graham's last testament.  As his days dwindle, the man whose heyday was consumed with preaching and with presidents is increasingly reflective.

Graham has made it clear that partisan politics and the culture wars feel far away.  He will not offer opinions on stem-cell research, for instance, and he has stopped giving political counsel to the powerful, a habit that began with Eisenhower.  He was tempted to call President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war to advise him on the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, but decided against it.

You can see more from a mountain, and from the perspective of years.  Graham believes both the right and the left in America have sometimes gone too far in elevating transitory issues when, in Graham's view, the core message of the Gospel, and the love of God "for all people" should take priority:  "The older I get the more important the eternal becomes to me personally."  His mind is on the heavenly more than on the temporal, on the central promises of Christianity more than on the passing political parade.

It wasn't always this way.  After the 1963 march on Washington, Graham said: Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children."

Just 10 years ago, he told the St. Paul Press that "I don't think there is a single social issue I haven't spoken on."

Politics and the Religious Right

But more recent years have given him something he had little of in his decades of global evangelism: time to think both more deeply and more broadly.  As he has grown older, Graham has come to an appreciation of complexity and a gentleness of spirit that sets him apart from many other high-profile figures in America's popular religious milieu - including, judging from their public remarks, his own son Franklin Graham, and men such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

"I spend more time on the love of God than I used to." He pauses, and alluding to more politically active conservative ministers, adds: "But I have tried to maintain friendships with all these people."

One of those people is Jerry Falwell, who called on Graham after New York (referring to Graham's last crusade in 2005) They sat together in Graham's kitchen and discussed the distinction between an evangelist, whose job is to spread the Gospel, and a pastor, who in Falwell's view, has a duty "to confront the culture."  There is no question that your role and mine are opposites," Falwell told Graham.  "You are an evangelist; I am a pastor.  I have prophetic responsibilities that you do not have."  Falwell is unapologetic about his calling.  "I have spent the last 30 years forming the religious right."

For Graham politics is secondary to the Gospel, which transcends party lines and, for believers, transcends reality itself.

Should ministers, evangelists or pastors spend time engaged with politics?

A partial answer to this question may lie in a distinction Graham draws between lobbying organizations and the spirit of individual Americans.  "In the founding era of our country, it was not organized religion but personal faith that brought focus and unified the early leadership - maybe an unspoken faith in God, and certain values that came with that faith," he says.  "So in that sense, we cannot discount, in my judgment, religious faith in politics."  But he is talking about faith as one factor - perhaps the most important, but still just one - in the life of a people, not about churches or lobbies using the name of God to win votes.

The Bible and Christian Belief

The new interviews with Newsweek, however, reveal a more intriguing figure than either his followers or his critics might assume.  He is an evangelist still unequivocally committed to the Gospel, but increasingly thinks God's ways and means are veiled from human eyes and wrapped in mystery.  "There are many things I don't understand," he says.  He does not believe that Christians need to take every verse of the Bible literally; "sincere Christians," he says, "can disagree about the details of Scripture and theology - absolutely."   "I can't say that I like the fact that I can't do everything I once did," he says, "but more than ever, as I read my Bible and pray and spend time with my wife, I see each day as a gift from God, and we can't take that gift for granted."

Graham spends hours now with his Bible, at once savoring and reconsidering old stories and old lessons.  While he believes scripture is the inspired, authoritative word of God, he does not read the Bible as though it were a collection of Associated Press bulletins straightforwardly reporting on events in the ancient Middle East.  "I'm not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord," Graham says.  

Like Saint Paul, he believes human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much.  "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror," Paul wrote, "then we shall see face to face."  

Debates over the exact meaning of the word "day" in Genesis (Graham says it is figurative, on the other hand he thinks Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale) or whether the "Red Sea" is better translated "sea of reeds" - which takes Moses' miracle out of the realm of Cecil B. DeMille - or the actual size of ancient armies in a given battle may seem picayune to some.  For many conservative believers, however, questioning any word of the Bible can cast doubt on all Scripture.  Graham's position, then while hardly liberal, is more moderate than that of the strictest fellow Christians.

Belief in mystery is crucial to the Gospel Graham has preached for so long - a Gospel centered on the story that , for reasons unknown to the human mind, God chose to effect salvation through the execution and resurrection of his son.  "As time went on, I began to realize the love of God for everyone, all over the world," he says.  "And in his death on the cross, some mysterious thing happened between God and the Son that we don't understand.  But there he was alone, taking on the sins of the world

A unifying theme of Graham's new thinking is humility.  He is sure and certain of his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation.  When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says"  " Those are decisions only the Lord will make.  It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't... I don't want to speculate about that at all.  I believe the love of God is absolute.  He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have."

On Failures and Mistakes

One of the most formidable figures in the 2000-year story of Christian evangelism, he is the first to tell you he is far from perfect.  He was caught on tape exchanging anti-Semitic remarks with Richard Nixon, and he allowed himself to be used as an occasional political prop in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon years, bestowing benediction on the presidents with whom he golfed, prayed and embraced - often as photographers clicked away. Such images have long led critics to dismiss Graham as a name-dropping, theologically naive showman.

For Graham, the softening of perspective began with Watergate.  He believed he had a genuine friendship with Nixon, only to find himself horrified by the president's misdeeds and by the ferocious profanity evident on the White House tapes.   The recordings ultimately brought about Graham's own darkest hour.  In a conversation released in 2002, Graham was heard exchanging anti-Semitic remarks about alleged Jewish control of the media.  The shock of the revelation was magnified because of Graham's longtime support of Israel and his refusal to join in calls for the conversion of Jews.  "If it wasn't on tape, I would not have believed it," say Graham.  "I guess I was trying to please.  I felt so badly about myself - I couldn't believe it.  I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness."  In a statement, Graham said: "Much of my life has been a pilgrimage - constantly learning, changing, growing and maturing.  I have come to see in deeper ways some of the implications of my faith and message, not the least of which is in the area of human rights and racial and ethnic understanding." The lesson for Graham was that earthly power was alluring but perilous for a man of faith.  The bitterness of the Nixon connection was complete, and Graham saw the wisdom of the Psalmist, who wrote: "Put not thy trust in princes."

I believe that man is religious by nature and that religion is so pervasive that the very act of refusing to believe in a superior or supreme being may be considered a religion itself; i.e., the religion of "no god(s).

That's a rather unlikely point of view, given that secular Western cultures get by just fine without assuming that historical narratives about supreme beings are in any way associated with reality.

"What does this have to do with anything?" is a reasonable question to ask people who try to persuade you that their own personal mythopoetic religious personification is the only one that matters.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Aug 27th, 2006 at 08:17:08 AM EST
"What does this have to do with anything?" Nothing much, mostly just getting attention. Blogger mankind, I think, is drawn to  controversy and religion is one of the most controversial subjects. However, the point to take from the statement, if there is one, is that religion is a powerful force and shouldn't be trivialized. I wouldn't mind a discussion on the topic in the future, as I stated. In the US there is an unwritten law - don't mix religion with anything. Similar to don't criticize race or ethnicity.  Both issues are taboos. The article itself is fairly bland, unless considered in a particular light.  For me it was interesting because I have always admired Graham, not so much for his achievements, but his unwavering core beliefs and moral character. And, again, not necessarily the message, but the constancy.  

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Aug 27th, 2006 at 10:40:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness."  

diplomacy of the future...

humble pie

seems downright angelic next to the following wave of god-botherers after him!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Aug 27th, 2006 at 08:54:34 AM EST

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