He is an old man now, white-haired and slower. The voice is neither as crisp nor as forceful as it once was. He rode to the stage in a golf cart and walked with a cane, and in four nights, a fifth of a million people came to hear him speak of God in a facility built by and for mammon.
They had come streaming past the bars and souvenir shops, past the Hooters and the storefront psychic (”The higher the price, the more detailed your reading“) to be with him. To be with them, really, for this was decidedly a joint appearance. Billy Graham speaking about travel or fitness would not fill Adelphia Coliseum. Neither, of course, would Jesus, were he fronted by your average spittle-flecked tub-thumper. No, Graham and Jesus are a team, and they have been since they first joined forces in the late ’30s.
Still, it was not always clear on opening night who was the bigger draw, especially as Graham walked to the pulpit and looked out over the crowd. He got the evening’s only standing O and triggered an Elvis-level explosion of flashbulbs. An earlier exhortation to ”get your hands together for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords“ had indeed earned the Creator of the Universe an ovation, but it was seated and had nowhere near the volume or the verve.
For half a century, Graham has towered over Protestant revival Christianity, and soon he will be gone. Many came simply because he is a piece of history and this was an event, another hole to be punched on the life card of big experiences. But many came as they have since the days of St. Paul, seeking answers in a world that doesn’t always work very well. In contrast to the days of Paul, though, there were 20,000 volunteers from 600 churches in 48 denominations, along with state-of-the-art sound and video, name musical acts, and saturation press coverage.
There was also dissent outside the stadium, not from atheists or Muslims but from other Christians. As always, the followers of Jesus are quick to fight over points of doctrine and purity of message. Graham is enough of an establishment figure that some accuse him of having sold out or softened. Leaflets blasted him for not touting baptism, for toadying up to Catholics, and for other failings, real and imagined.
On the other hand, Graham’s own billboards dissed practices associated with Eastern mysticism, in keeping with many Christians’ dislike of alternative religious approaches. Such disagreements are, of course, just one more aspect of the general human discord that spurs revival in the first place. As Graham reminded his audience, the Middle East is still simmering, racial tensions and conflicts abound, and people are still bedeviled by hate, lust, greed, and a host of other spiritual maladies. As the book says, ”Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.“ Or, if you prefer Hamlet’s retort to Polonius, ”Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?“
And so they came.
The trouble with God, of course, is that He uses human messengers, who have always been a mixed lot. Some are good, some are bad, and some start one way and end the other. The Lutheran return to the Bible was supposed to help solve that problem for Christians, but if the Bible were clear and straightforward enough to offer such a solution, there would not be 48 denominations in the first place.
The trouble with humanity is that it needs God. We let others lead us down an unseen path because we hanker and yearn and fear and grieve and ache for immortality and long for redress for injustice. We look for solace elsewhere, and many of us turn finally to those messengers.
The bad in religion comes when we see the evil in others and try to do something about ithence war and witch-hunting and hypocrisy, which Jesus denounced forcefully. The good comes when we see the evil in ourselves and try to do something about that. Graham begins with the one and ends with the other. It is the cosmic bait-and-switch. In just a few sentences he can sketch the moral detritus of a nation wealthy beyond measure but adrift morally in a strife-torn world. And then the switch. He is suddenly talking about us, about you, about me.
”Deep down inside you’re not sure you’re ready to meet God,“ he says, and whether you take that literally or metaphorically, it is a statement that often triggers self-examination.
He doesn’t ask us to change society by changing others. He asks us to change society by changing ourselves. It is, we soon realize, an impossible task. Whether or not we are born evil, we are born selfish, and all else stems from that.
Graham brings an answer that has resonated across the Western world since a ragged band of disciples hit the road with the story of the preacher and miracle worker they had followed in Judea. Graham’s continued stature lies in the fact that he has never traded on that answer for self-aggrandizement or riches.
”I’m nothing but a Western Union boy bringing a message to the people of Nashville,“ he told a crowd at Vanderbilt Stadium four decades ago. There is a little less fire and brimstone now, and he has eased toward the center, but his approach has not changed greatly.
In the 60 years since he began preaching, Graham has spoken live before a fifth of a billion people. In that time society is, by most measures, arguably much worse than it was when he began. He knows it as well as anyone.
”Something has happened to our moral life,“ he said. ”The bottom has dropped out and we need a revival.“ But even the simplest steps forward elude us. He pleaded for Baptists and Methodists and the Church of Christ to find more common ground. They hadn’t found it when he began preaching. They haven’t found it yet. What then of the Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus?
At bottom, though, he preaches that salvation is individual, and in the end, this was simply an old man relaying to individuals the call of the Christian Lord as he heard it. It is a call that is more and more being drowned out by competing religious approaches and by the siren call of mammon, but it is a call the old man had carried tirelessly across the latter half of the American century.
”When will there ever be another moment like this in Middle Tennessee?“ he asked. When indeed.
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