Aging Billy finally achieves humility, says Jon

Franklin Billy 1As noted in the past, Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham really doesn't do ordinary journalism anymore. Instead, he writes cover stories that are doctrinal essays that seek to guide Americans toward a more mature, nuanced, educated, intelligent approach to religious faith. This would bring us closer to Meacham's approach, of course.

This week's "Pilgrim's Progress" feature -- yet another report about Billy Graham as a lion in winter -- is an instant classic and a perfect example of why Meacham is must reading for anyone striving to understand what is happening on the left side of American Evangelicalism. Meacham is the voice crying in the wilderness, "Repent! Repent of your doctrinal absolutes! Repent and embrace mystery and humility! Like me!"

So let me start with a personal note of my own. Regular GetReligion readers may remember my list of the three doctrinal issues that, in this era, tend to separate Christian liberals from Christian conservatives? As journalistic questions, I think they are relevant to Meacham's epistle. As a refresher, they are:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)."

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Meacham leaves the Resurrection alone, but addresses the other two. The key is that the elderly Graham is, we are told, maturing into a more nuanced, mysterious view of Christianity. Thus, this new Billy can be held up as a moderate prophet whose example should be heeded by his less mature, more judgmental brethren. That means you, Franklin.

Here is the key passage:

A unifying theme of Graham's new thinking is humility. He is sure and certain of his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation. When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: "Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't ... I don't want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have." Such an ecumenical spirit may upset some Christian hard-liners, but in Graham's view, only God knows who is going to be saved: "As an evangelist for more than six decades, Mr. Graham has faithfully proclaimed the Bible's Gospel message that Jesus is the only way to Heaven," says Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross. "However, salvation is the work of Almighty God, and only he knows what is in each human heart."

Surely Meacham knows that Graham has been giving these very same answers to basic questions for decades, at the very least since the hard lessons of the Watergate era. There is a reason that Christian fundamentalists have, since the 1950s or thereabouts, called Graham a dangerous man who has sold out to modernity. You can look it up.

What we needed here were a few specific questions and then some solid direct-quote answers from Graham himself. Other than strident voices on the far right, no orthodox Christian would claim to be able to see into the human heart and pass judgment. Graham has been saying that for decades. At the same time, he will also affirm that Jesus did not call himself "a" way, "a" truth and "a" way to eternal life.

In other words, I think Meacham needed to take a more journalistic approach. Ask the man specific questions. Print the answers. Read the man statements that he has made in the past and ask him to respond. Print the statements in the past and contrast them with his current words.

Then again, I am more interested in what Graham has to say about Graham than what Meacham has to say about Graham. Silly me. The GetReligion non-Borg will now weigh in.

(Photo from Baptist Press.)

Please respect our Commenting Policy