For a few days now I've planned on writing a brilliant, incisive, and deeply moving piece about Billy Graham, his life, his influence, his crusade in the Big Apple, etc. Since that isn't going to happen, this post will have to do.
For those who don't know, I was raised in a Fundamentalist home and attended an Evangelical Bible College. I've sometimes said, only half in jest, that as a Fundamentalist my understanding of Church history consisted of Jesus/Apostles/Bible in the first century and then Billy Graham/our church/Bible in the twentieth century, with a substantial gap in between. Sure, we thought Billy was a bit soft on Catholics and other so-called "Christians" (Lutherans, Methodists, etc.), but he preached the Gospel with vigor and that was good enough for us. I watched Billy Graham Crusades (BGC) just about anytime they were televised. And in 1992 I finally attended a BGC in person in Portland, Oregon.
In the long run I probably gained more from reading some of Graham's books than I did listening to broadcasts of the BGC. It's not that Graham is a great theologian or writer, but many of his books were solid, helpful guides to topics that interested me, especially in my early teens. The Graham book that I recall most clearly is The Holy Spirit (1978) — a straightforward but somewhat systematic popular guide to who the Holy Spirit is, what He does, etc. The topic was especially engrossing to me since we really didn't talk about the Holy Spirit. As Fundamentalists we were all about Jesus — the Holy Spirit was mostly for the Pentacostals. Graham helped me to appreciate the Third Person of the Trinity and gave me a sense of how the Holy Spirit related to the Father and the Son and (surprise!) to me as a Christian.
There is much to admire about Graham, and I do admire and respect him. Obviously, in his prime he was a riveting and dynamic orator. But I think his great strength is that he knows who he is and what he does well. For the most part, he has avoided complex theological problems and thorny denominational issues and has simply preached the Gospel. If C.S. Lewis is known for "mere Christianity", Graham might be known for "mere Evangelism" — proclaiming an unadorned, to-the-heart message of man's sin, God's mercy, Christ's death and Resurrection, and God's invitation for us to accept the free gift of salvation.
So there is much to admire about what Graham has done and how he has lived his life (he's no Jimmy Swaggert, thank goodness). But I think that his strength — his focus on a largely singular task — was also a big weakness. Put another way, while Graham apparently transcended many denominational lines, it was at the expense of any sort of substantial ecclessiology. And, in a real way, it had to be so; again, I think of C.S. Lewis, although the comparison only goes so far. Graham undoubtedly has introduced thousands of people to Jesus Christ. But I think they often met a Jesus who did not have a Church. Or, they met a Jesus whose Church was vaguely defined, off in the foggy distance. This matter of ecclesiology stands out to me because it is at the heart of why I (and so many other Fundamentalist, Evangelicals, mainline Protestants) became Catholic: I didn't want a vague Church, or a local church without any real connection to something bigger and older, or a denomination without authority, tradition, and weight behind it.
A couple of days ago I was reading this Christian Science Monitor article about Graham and I was struck by this comment:
Now that Graham's career is at its close, few see any other ministers able to match the charisma and widespread appeal that made him such an important figure in American religious history. "The reach of his preaching - nobody has ever come close, and I suspect no one else ever will," says [Randall Balmer, professor of American religion at Barnard College in New York]. "His people claim that he has preached to more people than anyone else in history, and I don't know anyone who would seriously dispute that claim."
Has Graham "preached to more people than anyone else in history"? He has had 417 crusades, dating back to 1947, and it is estimated that 83 million people have seen him preach in person, with many more having watched him on televison. That's very impressive, but I wonder if Pope John Paul II rivaled those numbers, especially taking into account that he was on the world stage for 26 years, compared to over 50 years for Graham. How many millions watched the Jubilee? Christmas Mass every year? How many have read one or more of his 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 45 apostolic letters, and various books of essays, audiences, poems, prayers, etc.? I suppose it comes down, in part, to what we mean by "preaching."
Of course, it isn't a contest; both men benefited from modern technology and both knew how to utilize it. Both men proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord. Indeed, I do respect Billy Graham. But, I must confess, that when I turn to reading about the Holy Spirit these days, I no longer look for Graham's book, but instead pick up Dominum et Vivificantem...