Graham abides


When Newsweek's Jon Meacham is on target, there are precious few more elegant stylists writing about religion in contemporary America. God is in the details, or the devil is, depending on which folk saying you believe, and Meacham's eye for detail is what makes his reporting such a pleasure to read. In his cover tribute to Billy Graham, Meacham mentions that the Graham property at Montreat, N.C., has a mechanical gate, and adds the humorous detail that this safety measure came at the suggestion of J. Edgar Hoover. In an introductory note for "The Editor's Desk," Meacham describes how Graham showed a kindly interest in the photographer who had come to shoot images of the evangelist sitting on his porch, looking majestic inside his home and visiting the family dogs (Paula, China and Theo). But then there's the most haunting detail, of Graham suffering a memory lapse:

On this particular night, Graham lay in the darkness, trying to recite the 23rd Psalm from memory. He begins: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ..." Then, for a moment, he loses the thread. "I missed a sequence, and that disturbed me," Graham recalls. It was frustrating -- the man who has preached the Gospel to more human beings than anyone in history does not like to forget critical verses of the Bible -- but in the end the last line comes back to him: "Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Relieved, he drifts back to sleep.

Meacham is less engaging when he makes such a fuss over Graham's not being so interested in expressing opinions about politics. In this segment, Meacham seems to undercut his own argument:

His mind is on the heavenly more than the temporal, on the central promises of Christianity more than on the passing political parade.

It was not always this way. After the 1963 March on Washington, Graham said: "Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children." In 1965, he dismissed demonstrations for peace in Vietnam, saying, "It seems the only way to gain attention today is to organize a march and protest something." Just 10 years ago, he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that "I don't think there is a single social issue I haven't spoken on."

Yes, Graham offered his thoughts on virtually every social issue, but his response to the March on Washington and to protests against the Vietnam War represented a common stance of evangelicals: Sin will remain a powerful and oppressive force until the Second Coming of Christ, so don't set your social-justice hopes too high. Graham has always preferred the mass-audience pulpit to the protest march. If he feels less of an obligation, at 87, to hold forth on embryonic stem-cell research, so what?

Meacham is just plain tedious when instructing his readers that Graham has realized -- at last! -- that good Christians may disagree on what some Bible passages mean, and that the Bible contains some figurative material:

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.

Put away those preacher's italics, Brother Meacham: We get it.

Other than the tender image of Graham resting peacefully after remembering the rest of Psalm 23, the best moment of the story illustrates why his biographer William Martin once said that the evangelist was a universalist in his heart but not in his head. Graham's remark will resonate with any Christian who realizes the Cross was something more than a political execution or a failure of powerful people to embrace the demands of God's perfect love:

Belief in mystery is crucial to the Gospel Graham has preached for so long -- a Gospel centered on the story that, for reasons unknown to the human mind, God chose to effect salvation through the execution and resurrection of his son. "As time went on, I began to realize the love of God for everybody, all over the world," he says. "And in his death on the cross, some mysterious thing happened between God and the Son that we don't understand. But there he was, alone, taking on the sins of the world."

At its best, at moments like these, Meacham's profile captures the essence of the man who once inspired even the Swirling Eddies, perhaps the most amusingly cynical Christian rock group ever, to sing these irony-free words:

I don't know about those other guys

there's somethin' in the back of their eyes

but Billy, you're the man

who don't use slight of hand

ain't wearin' no disguise

I love you, Billy

I love the simple things you say

and you never seem to get in the way

no one is quite like you

compassionate and true

"just as I am," I say

I love you, Billy

Photo: Like Father, like son, originally uploaded by PhotojProf.

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