Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

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The Rev. Billy Graham must have told the turtle story a million times, so surely -- somewhere in the tsunami of analog and digital news ink we will see tomorrow -- there will be journalists who include it in their features marking the great evangelist's death.

Graham, 99, died Wednesday morning at the family's rambling log home in the mountains outside Asheville, N.C. They bought the land 60 years or so ago, when it cost next to nothing and that's where Billy and Ruth stayed. What will happen to it now? Getting to spend part of a day there while interviewing him was certainly one of the highlights of my reporting career.

But I digress. Members of the GetReligion team will start looking at the actual coverage of his life and career tomorrow. With only a few hours before deadline, I wrote my own piece on Graham and you can read it right here (with the permission of my Universal syndicate editors).

Please send us links to the good and the bad. Obviously, there is a massive package already at Christianity Today, which Graham founded long ago, and at The Charlotte Observer (main story here). Here is the  main Associated Press story.

But let's return to the turtle and the fence post. Here is how I retold that story soon after the creation of this blog:

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.

That's a perfect example of Graham being folksy and safe, but there is content there if you think about it.

Obviously, Graham was a skilled media personality, with decades of experience in the trenches facing journalists who knew his life and work inside out as well as general-assignment reporters who, believe it or not, were sent to cover him after reading little more than a sheet of PR material. Graham knew the difference and was an outspoken advocate of newsrooms hiring religion-beat professionals. Check out this C-SPAN link, with Graham speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1994.

I interviewed him several times and also saw him work in numerous press conferences, mainly linked to events in Charlotte and Denver.

I hope readers don't take this the wrong way: Graham was so-so when it came to short interviews. He was a cautious man -- with very good cause. But if you had a chance to sit with him for a long time -- discussing questions linked to topics that had more to do with religious faith than things like hot-button political issues -- then he was a remarkably articulate and thoughtful person to interview.

From talking to other journalists who have interviewed him, I would say that the consensus is that it was remarkable that there was still a real man named "Billy Graham" at the core of the public figure called "Billy Graham." The man from North Carolina was still in there and you could talk with him, if there was the time to do so and the topic was right.

Let me give you an example that frames material that I have used many times here, in which I asked Graham to define the word "evangelical." That was already an issue in the 1980s. Here is a chunk of one of my On Religion columns about that "define 'evangelical" question:

"Actually, that's a question I'd like to ask somebody, too," he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has "become blurred. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals."
Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn't know what "evangelical" means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist."

Yes, and then there's the political definition of the word, in which "evangelicals" are automatically white folks (mostly men) who vote Republican by reflex, even when the candidate is someone like, well, Donald Trump. Is that issue still with us?

Hang in there with me, I have a new twist at the end of this story.

Long ago, Graham stressed that this term must be understood in doctrinal terms, if it is to be understood at all. He finally defined an "evangelical" as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.
"I think there are evangelicals in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox churches," he said.

Did that, to name a name, mean that Pope John Paul II could be called an "evangelical"? Graham laughed and said that he thought so and that the two men had discussed that very question.

I said: #SAYWHAT or words to that effect. I would have to dig out my old cassette tapes to get the exact quotes for Graham's response, but the story went like this.

Graham said he was preparing for his 1986 Mission France Crusade and, well, he was concerned about how -- in a culture rich in Catholic history -- to deliver his altar calls. Thus, he brought the subject up while meeting with John Paul II. Graham shared some language that he had arrived at with the help of a famous Anglican evangelical, the Rev. John Stott (who died in 2011).

How did that go? Graham shared language close to the following, and I heard him use variations on this formula in the 1987 crusade in Denver's Mile High Stadium. As part of his call for people to come forward to make a public profession of Christian faith, he said: Maybe you were baptized as an infant, but you feel like you've lost touch with those vows that were made long ago. Come forward and "claim those baptism vows as your own."

The Graham team had Catholics, including a few priests, trained to help talk to Catholics who came forward. Dozens were referred to evangelism-friendly local Catholic parishes for follow-up classes and Bible studies.

The pope endorsed that language, Graham said. He appreciated the Graham team's desire to be sensitive to Catholic seekers.

Now, stop and think about this for a minute.

I have always assumed that officials at the Vatican record almost everything, in terms of people meeting with a pope. Was this meeting of 20th century titans recorded? Is there a recording somewhere of Graham and St. Pope John Paul II sitting and "talking shop" about evangelism and altar calls? If you are a researcher at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, do you want a copy of that recording (if it exists)?

Related to that, let me also mention something else. Rice University sociologist William Martin, whose "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story" has just been updated, told me that while researching that book it was clear that the subject of Graham's complex relationship with Catholicism was a topic that almost deserved a book on its own.

"I kind of opened that door and looked inside," but knew it was impossible to deal with that subject in depth, Martin told me in an interview after the book's 1991 release. Graham's friendliness to Catholics and other liturgical believers was also a big reason that many true Fundamentalists (with a large "F") considered him an apostate.

So what does this have to do with the turtle story?

Well, Graham was a man who knew how to tell a folksy story. He also, as you would imagine, had an ego. He didn't shortchange the work that his team had accomplished through the decades. He knew that the character named "Billy Graham" had clout.

But at the same time, he was genuinely mystified about how a lanky guy who dreamed of playing baseball turned into a youth-revival preacher and, finally, a religious leader who counseled presidents, popes and the Queen of England.

Graham sincerely believed that, in this case, there was no way this particular turtle climbed this global fence post on his own. Journalists who had a chance to spend time with Graham could see that, no matter what they thought of his sermons and evangelical theology.

So that's that. Billy Graham was who he was.

I will leave the final word to Bob Dylan, who had this to say in 2015:

When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time -- that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the ’50s or ’60s. This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified -- volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution -- when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30– or 40,000 of them.
If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. He could fill football stadiums before anybody. He could fill Giants Stadium more than even the Giants football team. Seems like a long time ago. Long before Mick Jagger sang his first note or Bruce strapped on his first guitar -- that’s some of the part of rock ’n’ roll that I retained. I had to. I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.

At one point, the young Dylan tried to get a meeting with Graham -- but the evangelist's handlers weren't sure that Bob Dylan was, you know, really Bob Dylan.

But that's another story.

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