Billy Graham was feted in a conference at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, September 26-28, 2013. The Institute for the Study of Evangelicals planned and hosted the event, which featured a dozen substantial in-process chapters from a forthcoming book. The 95-year old now-weakened evangelist is in retreat at Montreat, his North Carolina home.
Instead of following my usual Sightings approach, which depends on the press and the internet, I’ll lapse back into my old journalistic mode and report, using my own ample notes and impressions. The forthcoming book’s editors, Edith Blumhofer (of the Institute) and Grant Wacker (who is writing a major biography of Graham), and the book’s authors have more to say.
What business does Graham have in our context of “public religion?” Were not his preaching of the Gospel and acting pastorally part of a vocation usually typed as “private religion?” No: he broke barriers and holds the patent on evangelistic activities which are, to say the least, public.
Summarizing from the conference’s lectures, films, books, and conversations: we heard frequently that Graham has appeared in more forums dealing with more expressions globally and nationally to reach more people than any human who ever lived. Add to that his inventive use of television, which multiplied his messages and messagees by the millions. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea—I think it’s tea that they drink at Wheaton, isn’t it?—and his political, economic, and cultural approaches did not always match mine. As if that’s important in this context!
What we conferees learned was how often and how much he changed through the years from his Southern fundamentalist beginnings and through many steps and missteps on the diplomatic and political fronts. Here are just a few jottings from my many pages of notes:
1. In my metaphor, he’s on the Mt. Rushmore of Protestant American shapers such as Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King. (Fill in the fourth sculpted spot with a figure of your choice.) Once a subject for journalists, now his record is for historians.
2. Part of his power came from the single-mindedness of his vocational sense. When he wandered into formal political or theological realms he often embarrassed himself and had to backtrack and re-track. But from 1948 into our times, he was consistently an evangelist. He could speak of salvation in Jesus Christ within the contexts of a semi-secular society and was heard.
3. He turns out to have been (to be?) a pastoral diagnostician of what ails generations and populations that do not naturally give voice to their real situations. In a glib society, he reminded people that they will die. In cultures where loneliness is lethal, he offered common life, modeling through his Christian language what, by analogy, people in other religious contexts could understand.
4. In Emanuel Levinas’ sense, he dealt with “face,” or in Martin Buber’s language with “I-Thou,” as opposed to the mere “I-It,” and this in his busy, crowded world.
5. He taught the people we now call “Evangelicals” about fresh ways to be at home in the world. As Christian, I read him through the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a) he asked, “who is Jesus Christ for us today?” b) He contended that “Christ exists as community. c) For him, prophesy is “hope projected backward,” and put into action.
End of sermon. Next week I’ll no doubt have lapsed back into my at-home-in pluralism approach to religion and religions in public life. I owed this one to Billy.