Goodbye, Billy

When Robert Dahl died some years ago, I wrote an essay I called “Robert Dahl, R.I.P” That seemed about right, but today, as I am saying goodbye to Billy Graham, it occurs to me that a big part of Robert Dahl was Yale and a big part of Billy Graham was rural North Carolina. I think I might have managed “Requiescat in pace, William Franklin Graham.” but nobody called him William Franklin Graham. [1] so I have settled for “Goodbye, Billy.”

According to the New York Times, Billy died early in the morning of February 21. Now the wars will begin. Billy’s own goals were narrowly focused. He was an evangelist. He held mass rallies all over the world. [2] It is what he was good at.

billy 3Unfortunately, he was a very popular man and everyone wanted a piece of him, including every president of the U. S. since Truman. Psalm 18 refers to God as our “shield and buckler” and that is a good thing, but President Nixon used Billy Graham as his shield and buckler and that was a bad thing. Billy hoped to be spiritually helpful to the presidents he counseled, and he may have been. He was, without question, politically helpful.

Billy was the cleanest of the clean in the sometimes sordid field of American evangelists. He didn’t get rich. He didn’t have affairs. The books of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association were open to scrutiny. He doesn’t ever seem to have really desired fame except as a tool to use in his work.

He was a social conservative. It’s hard to see how he could have been anything else, given his background. That made him an easy target for feminists and gay rights activists. He was likely to apologize to the people whom he had offended—real apologies, not the current “non-apology apologies we hear today [3]. He considered himself bound by the same standard of conduct he preached, and I think that’s admirable.

I don’t have any trouble admiring Billy Graham, but his view of what Christianity was all about has been has been one of the major entrapments of my life. I have spent all of the fifty years since my late 20s trying to get out of the box that Billy lived  in preached from and believed in. That’s really what I want to talk about today.
I have been thinking about Billy anyway because last week, Bette and I watched an episode of The Crown in which he played a role. [4] Here is the beginning of his sermon.

As I considered what to preach about today, I considered various topics which speak to me personally. but I thought that i would start with a simple question. What is a Christian?

The Bible tells us. Colossians 1:27 says that a Christian is a person in whom Christ dwells. It’s Christ in you. The hope of glory. It means that you have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. That encounter has taken place. You have received Christ as savior. And that is what a Christian is.

That seems quite straightforward, but, of course, it isn’t. It is hard to say just what “a person in whom Christ dwells” means. It is hard to say clearly what “personal relationship with Christ” means. It is hard to say what “encounter” must mean, even though it is easy to say what Billy means by it. Similarly with “received” Christ, rather than “recognized” or “admitted” or even “acknowledged.” All that language is familiar and meaningful in the rural south and in evangelical circles everywhere. When I say that it isn’t straightforward, I mean it is hard to explain to people from other Christian traditions and that (now) includes me.  It is completely straightforward in Billy’s home culture.

billy 1The matter gets further complicated in The Crown in the next scene where Queen Elizabeth has a private audience with Billy, after the chapel service. She compliments Billy on his clear exposition of the demands of Christian faith.

Elizabeth: In an increasingly complex world we all need certainty and you provide it.

Billy; Oh that’s not me. The scriptures provide it.

“Certainty” Billy says, is what the scriptures provide, but I don’t think so. One of the things I did at Wheaton that has served me well over the years is study Greek. Without any Greek, you are pretty much stuck with “the English translation,” which in my youth was the King James Bible.

The King James Bible does indeed say what Billy says it says. “ to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” But the Greek makes it clear that “you” is a plural preposition, so Billy could have said “Christ in y’all” and been truer to the text.

Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 6.04.10 AM.png
The ‘umín in line three (fifth word from the left) is “you plural,” not, as Billy uses it, “you singular.” So a better way to translate it would be “Christ among you,” or “Christ in your presence.” which is certainly what Paul or a disciple of his (however you judge the authorship of Colossians) meant. The New Jerusalem Bible catches that nicely as “ It was God’s purpose to reveal to them how rich is the glory of this mystery among the gentiles; it is Christ among you, your hope of glory.”

So the relentless individualism which is so characteristic of Billy’s slice of conservative Protestantism is not at all well served by the text he chose for Queen Elizabeth in this episode.

According to all the Bible study I have been doing for the last few decades, the first job of studying scripture is to find out what the author meant in addressing the text to some particular body of Christians. And when I have a chance to teach at our church in Portland, I rail against the common practice of taking the text as it appears and applying it immediately to our own situation and language context. What I would say to my class is that when we understand what Paul (or whoever) meant is saying that to the church at Colossae, then we have a better chance of understanding what that same text—in its context, of course—can mean to us.

And if one of my students said that scripture provides certainty, meaning thatbilly 2 we make safely snatch those words out of context and apply them to ourselves, I would say, “Actually, we can’t. They don’t apply directly to us. They apply indirectly to us. They matter enormously, but you have to deal with the thought, not just the words.”

So I have been battling “Graham-ism” all my adult life. It has been costly. When so much of your work is showing that the passage does’t really mean that, it is hard to turn the corner and commit yourself to an openminded and open-hearted consideration of what the passage does mean and what effect it would have on your own life if you took it seriously. Turning that corner has been the work of decades now and I still lapse back into criticism when I am off my game.

But I don’t think I would have battled Billy. People who knew him said he didn’t spend all of his time being “the big deal evangelist.” He was just a thoughtful and kindhearted Christian man and I think I would have liked him.

[1] When I was at Wheaton. Billy’s alma mater and mine, the President, V. Raymond Edman, had that same difficulty. He was bestowing an honorary doctorate on Dr. Graham in 1956. As he was putting the hood over Billy’s neck, he said, “William Franklin Graham…” and then he stopped as if that was inappropriate, and revised it to “…Billy.” I think if President Edman had had his way, Wheaton’s most famous alum would have been known as Dr. Billy.
[2] Including racially integrated rallies in Mississippi. He wouldn’t do it any other way. This North Carolina son said, “I will not preach Jim Crow.”
[3] He once ran afoul of the Nixon secret taping machine in the Oval Office where he was recorded saying some scurrilous things about Jews and their effect on American society. He didn’t remember saying it, but when the tape showed he had, he went to his Jewish friends and apologized.
[4] This is Season 2, Episode 6, “Vergangenheit.” Queen Elizabeth asks Billy to preach in the chapel in Buckingham Palace and the section of the script I will be using here is from that episode. It is a fact, however, that Billy and Queen Elizabeth were friends and she knighted him in 2001.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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