It's a question I have heard outsiders ask quite a few times during my 40 years or so in the news business: How do journalists produce those long, deep feature obituaries so quickly after the death of a major newsmaker?
The answer, of course, is that these lengthy obituaries are written far in advance and then quickly updated when the subject of the profile passes away. This puts reporters in an awkward position, since they often need to call experts and insiders for comment on the meaning of a famous person's life and work, even though this person is still alive.
So when do journalists start producing this kind of feature package? Basically, the more famous the person the earlier newsroom prepare for their deaths. I am sure that The Los Angeles Times already had something ready when superstar Robin Williams died, because of his stature and his history of struggles with drugs and depression.
All of this is to say that major newsrooms have had obituary features ready about the Rev. Billy Graham since -- oh -- 1955 or so. I know that I worked on some Graham obit materials for The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) back in the 1980s. I have known, for several decades, the basic outline of the "On Religion" column I plan to write about his legacy.
You can hear the ticking of this clock in a new Religion News Service feature written by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman, which focuses on the 1949 event when Graham's path cross that of another major figure who is currently in the news -- Louis Zamperini. Here is the overture:
(RNS) Two October evenings in 1949 brought together an alcoholic war hero and a fiery young evangelist. From then on, neither would be the same.
The preaching in that rented circus tent in Los Angeles changed Louis Zamperini, then 32 -- who put away the bottle forever and devoted the rest of his life to Christian testimony and good works. And those Los Angeles nights also changed the preacher, Billy Graham, and the future course of American evangelicalism as well. In Graham’s autobiography, “Just As I Am,” he calls that chapter of his life “Watershed.”
On Christmas Day, a movie directed by Angelina Jolie about Zamperini’s extraordinary survival amid the horrors of Japanese POW camps opens in theaters. “Unbroken,” is based on the award-winning book by Lauren Hillenbrand. The film version of “Unbroken, however, ends before he reaches Graham’s tent revival, the climactic chapter of Hillenbrand’s best-seller.
Yet it was this eight-week sin-slaying marathon where the story of “Billy Graham as an icon begins,” said Duke Divinity School historian Grant Wacker. He’s the author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” published just before Graham’s 96th birthday last month.
As Grossman notes in fine detail, it was in Los Angeles that the Graham crusade system first fell into place -- the combination of networking, location, charisma and social commentary that then went global. The key experts are here and on the record and, while politics is mentioned (as it should be, because of the Cold War era context), the story stays focused on the remarkable skill the Graham team demonstrated in turning local events into regional and national news.
I thought this passage, during a list of key crusade elements developed in that Los Angeles tent, was especially crucial:
Personal magnetism: Graham may have been the first evangelist to pace the pulpit with a lapel microphone like a modern talk show host. With a commanding voice, the tall and movie-handsome evangelist seemed to connect eye to eye, ear to ear with every person in the tent.
Celebrity power: The willingness of famous men such as Zamperini and radio host Stuart Hamblen to testify to their “born-again” experience led to massive crowds in Los Angeles. By 2005, when Graham retired from the sawdust trail of evangelizing, it became impossible to count the celebrities who found faith through Graham. On the cover of “Just As I Am,” Graham wears a denim shirt, a gift from Johnny Cash.
Grossman also argues that it was in Los Angeles that Graham truly began to outgrow his early base of supporters, on the right side of evangelicalism and among those who could accurately be called "fundamentalists." There was a reason that the Rev. Bob Jones Jr. once called Graham the "most dangerous man in America."
By 1957, Graham could pack Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden for weeks on end. And by then, he had the staying power to withstand critics from his fundamentalist early years when he began opening ecumenical doors, first with Catholics, later with Jews.
“What Graham did was normalize the idea that you can cooperate with others,” Wacker said, “He wanted to retain a core of belief without breaking fellowship with everyone else” who believed in God and Christ, moral values and patriotism. He represented the possibility of a consensus, of a bridge.”
He shifted from firing “turn-or-burn” thunderbolts to a mesmerizing, almost crooning, invitation to people to step toward the pulpit and change their lives by seeing them differently, through the prism of a new relationship with God.
This is the one place that I think this report missed a key element of the Graham story -- a crucial series of crusades that came in between Los Angeles in 1949 and New York City in 1957. I am referring to the famous London (Harringay) crusades of 1954.
As Graham has stressed through the years, it was preaching in the increasingly secular context of London that forced him to wrestle with the criticisms offered by leaders of the Church of England, including sympathetic voices from its low-church evangelical and high-church Catholic wings. Graham met several crucial intellectuals who helped him rethink his way of looking at the world, including the great apologist C.S. Lewis.
In the future, "Billy's boys" from the Harringay crusades would have a major impact on the future of global Anglicanism and evangelical Anglican intellectuals -- especially the Rev. John Stott and the Rev. J.I. Packer -- would do much to shape Graham's global vision.
That said, every young Godbeat reporter should file a copy of this Grossman story. As Graham has been saying for years, he knows that his homecoming is not that far away.