Meacham's Billy Graham benediction

billy graham2I wanted to like Jon Meacham's Billy Graham exclusive Newsweek cover story. It contained lots of good information. There were colorful, well-described scenes and a solid understanding of Graham's mission as an evangelist. It dealt with most of the Graham-related scandals. At about 4,500 words, the piece was thorough and non-repetitive. One of my main problems with the article was that it mirrored Meacham's book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, in its attempt to have Graham walk the reader down what Meacham considers the ideal fine line of religious moderation. In American Gospel, moderation is made out to be the ideal religious experience; in the Newsweek piece "Graham's spirit of moderation" is portrayed as exactly what will solve all of America's problems:

The administration cannot count on the Second Coming to resolve the crisis, but Graham's spirit of moderation, of concern for both sides, is welcome not only overseas but at home, for Americans seem hungry for a ceasefire in the culture wars. In a Pew Research Center survey released last week, 66 percent of all Americans want a "middle ground" on abortion. Six out of 10 white evangelicals also support compromise; meanwhile, 44 percent of white evangelicals -- the highest figure recorded in five years of polling -- back stem-cell research.

Though flocks of the faithful have lionized Graham, turning his crusades into epic events, his books into best sellers and even his house into a shrine, he remains contradictory and controversial. One of the most formidable figures in the 2,000-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.

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 that 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."

So Graham's new intrigue is that he believes that God acts mysteriously, that not every verse of the Bible is to be taken literally and that Christians can disagree over theology. I'm curious, at what point did Graham come to these conclusions? Or, as the article suggests, are these facets of Christianity becoming an increasing part of his thinking as he grows older? In other words, is it a matter of degree? Later Meacham expounds on those concepts:

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. "This is a little difference in my thinking through the years." He has, then, moved from seeing every word of Scripture as literally accurate to believing that parts of the Bible are figurative -- a journey that began in 1949, when a friend challenged his belief in inerrancy during a conference in southern California's San Bernardino Mountains. Troubled, Graham wandered into the woods one night, put his Bible on a stump and said, "Lord, I don't understand all that is in this book, I can't explain it all, but I accept it by faith as your divine word."

Now, more than half a century later, he is far from questioning the fundamentals of the faith. He is not saying Jesus is just another lifestyle choice, nor is he backtracking on essentials such as the Incarnation or the Atonement. But he is arguing that the Bible is open to interpretation, and fair-minded Christians may disagree or come to different conclusions about specific points. 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." Then believers shall see: not now, but then.

No, really? Christians can disagree? Who is saying they can't? Are we talking about disagreeing over abortion or stem-cell research? Or matters of theology? The article says Graham believes the Bible is the "inspired, authoritative word of God," not a collection of AP bulletins on Middle East news. No, really? When did he ever believe that?

Finally, when Meacham cites Graham's shift in faith as being like-minded with the Apostle Paul, he is making a significant editorial leap that could be open to those biblical interpretations Meacham is so quick to point out.

Meacham does his best to pull Graham away from the culture wars. But painting Graham as this aging moderate is just not quite accurate. For instance, the piece completely fails to address Graham's position on abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research. Not that we don't know where he stands, but merely mentioning it would keep Meacham from painting Graham as some wishy-washy cultural moderate.

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