Billy Graham turned 90 at the end of this past week, a landmark event that received very little press, all things considered. There were other things going on in the nation, of course. But over at USA Today, veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman weighed in on the story. How would you like to try to write something about the life and times of Graham in a short news feature?
I'll be honest. The top of this story covers an amazing amount of territory.
Evangelist Billy Graham ... is frail from multiple falls and ailments, far from the strapping revivalist who roamed the globe for six decades.
Yet before Graham retired in 2005 to his mountainside log cabin in Montreat, N.C., he preached to 215 million people -- and changed the course of American Protestantism.
"Today's generation thinks his significance is his popularity, not his role as the architect of moderate evangelicalism," says Susan Harding, an anthropologist of religion at the University of California-Santa Cruz. "He created a new way to be a conservative Christian, not fundamentalist, not a judgmental separatist. A Billy Graham Christian could be more educated, more worldly and take for granted that Christians have work to do in this world."
Now, you hear that word "moderate" and you think anti-fundamentalist and you immediately think that Grossman is going to serve up another one of those Graham revisionism pieces -- like the infamous theological treatise on the cover of Newsweek not that long ago.
Yes, Billy rejected fundamentalism. Yes, especially post-Watergate, he dealt with a wider range of cultural and social issues. Yes, he worked with a growing spectrum of denominations (a great book that needs to be written would focus on Graham and Rome) and blurred lines on issues such as baptism and, to some degree, images of salvation. But, no, he did not compromise on the basics. Grossman leaves Graham intact. He is still a John 14:6 Christian.
Then, there is this:
In modern times, Graham became known as much for what he did not do as for what he did. He was the evangelist who did not rip off millions (Jim Bakker) or run with prostitutes (Jimmy Swaggart) or build a megachurch (Joel Osteen) or run for president (Pat Robertson) or run a Christian political lobby (Jerry Falwell).
And this, too:
Reinhold Niebuhr, ... the nation's most prominent theologian, called Graham simplistic, and evangelist Bob Jones denounced him as "doing more harm to the cause of Jesus Christ than any living man."
It's a big, big story that goes all over the place. The final chapter is a quiet one, but still significant. Grossman weaves in very high percentage of the big themes and then -- this is my main point -- leaves the man intact.
I have had many people ask what it's like to interview Graham, something I have had the please and challenge and pleasure of doing a few times. Here's the main thing that that I kept walking away with each time.
Yes, he knows how to handle the press. Yes, he knows he is a celebrity. Yet there is still a real man inside that persona and, almost all his biographers stress this, that man has not changed all that much. There's a Baptist preacher in there who is still trying to do his job.