Billy Graham and the 'old, old story'

Reflections on the 95th birthday of the world’s most famous evangelist.

By Bill Leonard

“Billy Graham is the most famous evangelist in the world and his power of persuasion has softened the skeptics who used to call him the hot-gospeller from the Bible Belt.” That’s how legendary (cigarette-puffing) CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow introduced his 1956 interview with the then 38-year-old revivalist.

A similar description might be offered on Nov. 7, 2013 — Billy Graham’s 95th birthday — although it might be more accurate to call him American Protestants’ last really national evangelist, an enduring source of doctrinal and pietistic stability amid years of extraordinary religious transition.

The years have come and gone and Graham’s once erect and angular figure, pacing the stage, bobbing and weaving in rhetorical warfare against sin and Satan, is now bent low by Parkinson’s disease.

Given the pluralism of contemporary American evangelicalism and extraordinary changes in homiletical “delivery systems” from stadium crusades to digital liturgies to hologramic preachers, it is doubtful another singular Protestant chaplain can arise.

American religionists now claim multiple “Billy Grahams” drawn from varying regional, methodological, personal and doctrinal perspectives.

billy grahamFor those who still remember his “crusades,” Billy Graham remains an iconic figure, the embodiment of a particular form of public and private faith — revivalistic, conversionistic, neo-evangelical and media savvy.

His calls to conversion are etched in the memory of those who (perhaps multiple times) prayed “out loud” with him, in stadiums or “watching at home.”

“Oh God, I am a sinner. I am sorry for my sins. I am willing to turn from my sins. I receive Christ as Savior. I confess him as Lord. I want to follow him and serve him in the fellowship of his church. Amen.” Salvation was always a prayer away.

In an anthology titled The Legacy of Billy Graham (2008), homiletics professor Thomas Long writes that while Graham is often touted as “the quintessential American preacher, his sermons are, in fact, anomalies on the American preaching scene.”

“Over the six decades of Graham’s ministry, the American sermon has been fashioned and refashioned by such forces as neo-orthodoxy, narrative theology, the reforms of Vatican II, the therapeutic culture, liberation and feminist thought and the electronic communication revolution, but Graham’s sermons have remained curiously untouched by any of this.”

His was an evangelist’s calling to urge sinners to immediate conversion, and he stayed on task.

Yet if Graham’s public sermons remained, in Long’s words, “a still point in the moving homiletical universe,” his theological views seemed to have evolved from fire-breathing-premillennial-anticommunist to a global ecumenism that made him the bane of separatist fundamentalists disturbed by his welcoming Catholics, actors and Protestant liberals to crusade platforms.

Graham’s generally rightward politics led to near-explicit endorsements of presidential candidates Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan and less connection to fellow born-again Baptists Carter and Clinton.

His later sense of the “wideness in God’s mercy” appears in an interview with none other than Robert Schuller when Graham stated: “Everybody who loves Christ or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, are members of the Body of Christ. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their heart that they need something ... and they turn to the only light that they have and I think that they are saved and ... they are going to be with us in heaven.”

He once told British interviewer David Frost that, “We [Christians] are closer to Islam than we think we are,” and praised Muslims for their religious discipline and appreciation for the person of Jesus Christ.

In 1957, as one of the architects of the Neo-Evangelical movement, he called conservative Christians to move away from the “Big Stink” of fundamentalism to the “Big Love” of Christ. Graham’s early decision to integrate his crusades, even in the South, was not lost on Martin Luther King, who urged him to continue such integrated events rather than join King “in the streets.”

Perhaps Billy Graham’s 95th birthday offers evangelicals an opportunity to reexamine the context and content of their own gospel insights. Questions abound.

Is Graham the last of the great revivalists in the tradition of Charles Finney and Dwight Moody? Was their revivalistic message shaped by a particular Protestant hegemony that no longer prevails, offering plans of salvation with less connection to sinners in a postmodern, pluralistic culture?

Did the context of their revivalism adapt or even change elements of the Christian message itself? Is the transactional nature of conversion offered by Graham and his revivalist-predecessors sufficient for articulating the gospel anew in an ever-texting-twittering culture?

Can the Jesus-story be reduced to a “simple-prayer,” sound-bite or the “like button” on Facebook? If not, then what story do we tell and how do we tell it?

On Billy Graham’s 95th birthday, perhaps the gospel is less “crusade” than “conversation” from the Galilean lakeshore to the World Wide Web.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.