Friday, December 19, 2014

Evaluating the Evangelists: Billy Graham

From the November 2011 E-Block.
Evangelist Billy Graham is one of the most trusted figures in the world, and I am pleased to say that after surveying a sampling of his works below, I believe that trust is justified:
  • Ask Billy Graham (ABG)
  • Facing Death and the Life After (FDL)
  • The Key to Personal Peace (KPP)
  • Angels (A)
  • Answers to Life's Questions (ALQ)
What differentiates Graham from so many other popular Christian authors -- Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado, and so on -- is an overlay of cautionary humility that prevents Graham from (for the most part) overextending himself. (I know few people who, like Graham, will say that they do not like to be called "doctor" when what they have is an honorary degree -- ABG95). He does not allow excitement and emotion to let him say more than is warranted: For example, in A, he reports anecdotes of angelic interference in the world, but does so with a cautionary tone and occasional acknowledgments that he cannot absolutely vouch for a supernatural element, only suggesting that there may be one.

By his own account he consults others when his own expertise is not sufficient, and is also willing to change his views when more and better information comes to his attention. To that extent, I would say that Graham's works are overall good choices for a new Christian.

Is there an "on the other hand"? Yes, but I don't think Graham is to be blamed for it. As a trusted leader, Graham has either been called upon -- or felt a call -- to write many books on subjects that one would not ordinarily expect an evangelist to write about. His book on death (FDL) is mostly common sense advice and commentary on death-related issues (euthanasia, wills, etc). But why should Graham have written such a book, and why would anyone read it, rather than a book by, saying, an attorney specializing in such matters? And in ABG819, why would anyone write to Graham asking for his views on public debt? One can only suppose that it is precisely because Graham has a sterling reputation of trust -- for that reason, he becomes like a trusted father figure to whom one may turn for any perceived need.

On that account, it is on the one hand a very good thing that Graham does not overextend himself. Indeed, in ALQ, we see him frequently telling readers to seek someone qualified to counsel them. This leaves me with only two significant reservations.

First, Graham also sometimes tries to segue some concern into an evangelistic message; the artificiality of his appeal is too often transparent, and may do more harm than good. In ALQ240-1, for example, he has a question from a reader about organ donation, which, after his answer, he turns into a reminder that Jesus gave the gift of life through the cross. That seems rather too much of a stretch. But such "stretchy" instances are rare that I found.

(In this respect, I am reminded as well of Franklin Graham, who during CNN interview answered every question by appending the same rote mini-sermon each time. I also reminded of a Wittenburg Door parody I once saw, titled "Dear Abbott," in which an advice columnist did the same thing to every letter. I now know that ALQ, a compilation of Graham's answers to readers in what was apparently an Ann Landers style column, is what they were parodying!)

The second reservation is more serious. Although Graham indeed does wisely not overextend himself, he has been put into an awkward position in which people expect him to have answers he does not have. Graham indicates, for example, that he won't get into issues like the reliability of the Bible; he gets results by just saying, "the Bible says" (ABG481) . He also refuses to discuss theological issues like inerrancy (ABG105). Now this is not problematic in itself; Graham is an evangelist, and explaining such things is not his job. However, he has been put in an awkward position in which he will be expected to give answers to a wide array of such questions, which end up being inadequate. For example:
  • KPP: In this he does well to emphasize the essential historicity of the Resurrection; but he has one of his rare overextensions and says that there is more evidence for it than there is for Alexander the Great dying at age at 33! In a sense I agree, but to make such a statement requires much more than a few sentences of affirmation.
  • ALQ103: Asked about Sabbath observance, Graham offers sound -- but vague -- warnings against legalism, then advises the reader to make up their own mind to honor God as they think should be done.
  • ALQ108-9: Graham is asked about a religious group that came to someone's door (it is not specified what group), and his advice is to ask: What does this group think of the Bible, Christ, and salvation? Do they have books or Bible translations not recommended by scholars? That's actually spot on advice, but it comes at the end of what should be a much longer string of argumentation. (It would have been sufficient had he offered at least a short list for further reading.)
  • ALQ284: Asked if Jesus claimed to be God, Graham, offers only 3 passages from John's Gospel, with no explanation.
Beyond this, Graham's attitude towards scholarship is, thankfully, overall positive. He indicates that he wishes his education had been more complete at times. On the one hand, though he says (ALQ291) in response to a request for a book or commentary to explain the Bible that the Bible "is its own best commentary," he also (294) says that some Biblical scholarship has helped in understanding the Bible better. We may be thankful that Graham was at least somewhat positive in this regard rather than sharing the offer of many modern writers towards scholarship.

In sum: It is a pleasure to offer an overall positive assessment of Billy Graham as an author, one who handles his material, in general, responsibly.

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