Billy Graham, the turtle and the cow

TurtleI hope that, somewhere in the newfangled Billy Graham Library (or museum) in Charlotte, that there is a picture or even a statue of a turtle atop a tall fence post. Hey! There's an idea. Perhaps the people who created Bessie the talking cow for the facility -- a special commentator for children who visit -- can create a turtle on a post who sings "Just As I Am" with the voice of George Beverly Shea?

I need to explain the turtle reference.

For decades, Graham has been asked -- thousands of times, I am sure -- why he has been so remarkably successful, preaching to more people in person than anyone else in history. Why have so many people, from the earliest days of his career, responded to his call to accept Jesus Christ as Savior? What's so special about Billy Graham?

At this point, Graham almost always offers the following explanation. If you are walking down a road, he says, and you happen to see a turtle sitting on top of a tall fence post, what would you assume? You would, of course, assume that the turtle did not climb up there on his own. You would assume that someone far larger than the turtle picked him up and then placed him atop the tall post for some mysterious reason.

Get the point? Clearly Graham did not get on top by his own merits. God chose to raise him up, for some mysterious reason. Now keep that in mind as you read the top of the omnipresent Stephanie Simon's report on the new Billy Graham Library for the Los Angeles Times.

The other day, Billy Graham toured the showy museum that will soon open here to honor his six decades of bringing God's word to the high and the humble.

America's best-known evangelist walked through stage-set re-creations of the barn on his parents' dairy farm; the canvas tent where he held his first blockbuster revival; a graffiti-scarred checkpoint at the Berlin Wall, symbolizing his crusades behind the Iron Curtain.

As Graham finished the tour, his son Franklin recalled, Franklin asked how he had liked the tribute. The gruff reply: "Too much Billy Graham."

And then there is the issue of Bessie, the talking cow that Simon uses as a symbol of the tensions linked to this whole project, tensions between scholarship and showmanship, between media-friendly tourism and the high calling of evangelism. There seem to be divisions in the Graham camp over all of this, and that's understandable. How do you build a modest salute to the turtle on the tall post?

Back to Bessie, who is located just inside the giant, cross-shaped door into the $27-million facility built to mirror Graham's childhood on a dairy farm:

In a calculatedly Southern drawl -- the first attempt at a voice-over was deemed too Yankee -- Bessie tells visitors how a young Billy Frank used to practice preaching as he milked her. She invites children on a scavenger hunt as they walk through the museum, promising free ice cream at the snack bar as a prize. "Get moooving!" she urges.

Franklin Graham thinks the talking cow will teach children what he sees as the central message of his father's life: that God can do mighty works with anyone who submits to him, even a poor farm boy. But critics, who emphasize that they have not seen the finished museum, worry that Bessie may be too gimmicky, unbefitting Billy Graham's air of dignity and purpose.

Eddie Gibbs, a senior professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, opened a recent interview about the library with an anxious question: "Is the cow still there?" His response to Bessie's animatronic presence: "Oh, noooooo!"

BillyGrahamFall 01Maybe a talking turtle on a post would have worked better, paired with a video of Graham telling that old story about his career.

Then again, maybe not.

So please read the Times story as an introduction to the issues at play here. Meanwhile, I am sure there will be much more coverage (the dedication is tomorrow) after the library opens. You can also click here to follow the coverage in his hometown newspaper, The Charlotte Observer.

But back to the Los Angeles Times story for one final minute. Other than the missing turtle, there is only one major fact that I think Simon really needed to add to this story. Perhaps there wasn't room for more detail.

You see, there is another perfectly logical reason that the new Charlotte facility is more tourist destination than serious library or museum. After all, there is already a massive and highly respected Billy Graham Center at his alma mater, Wheaton College, just outside of Chicago.

If anyone wants to read or hear about the turtle atop this high fence post, that's the place to start. They have the goods on just about anything you might want to know about Billy Graham (sans singing cows). I would predict that most of the serious books and papers stay there. At least, I hope that they do.

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