By Michael Brown
March 5, 2018
To the surprise of many, conservative columnist George Will penned an unflattering article about Rev. Billy Graham after he passed away last month. To the chagrin of others, the article, titled, “Billy Graham: Neither Prophet nor Theologian,” was carried by the historically conservative National Review. How might Rev. Graham have responded to an article like this?
In 1957, as reported by Collin Hansen for Christianity Today, Graham’s gospel crusades in New York City were met with serious opposition.
“Leading the charge against Graham,” Hansen writes, “was none other than Reinhold Niebuhr, the venerable professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In an article for Life magazine, Niebuhr vigorously denounced Graham for presenting Jesus as the all-sufficient answer for man's ills. ‘Perhaps because these solutions are rather too simple in any age, but particularly so in a nuclear one with its great moral perplexities, such a message is not very convincing to anyone—Christian or not—who is aware of the continuing possibilities of good and evil in every advance of civilization, every discipline of culture, and every religious convention,’ Niebuhr wrote. ‘Graham offers Christian evangelism even less complicated answers than it has ever before provided.’”
Hansen continues, “Despite repeated requests by Graham, Niebuhr refused to meet with him. So Graham simply complimented Niebuhr and explained away their differences. ‘I have read nearly everything Mr. Niebuhr has written and I feel inadequate before his brilliant mind and learning,’ Graham told reporters. ‘Occasionally I get a glimmer of what he is talking about. . . . If I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered they would walk out.’”
This was classic Graham, responding with humility and wit, but not without making his point: He was called to preach God’s Word in simplicity and clarity, and from that task he would neither deviate nor apologize.
How, then, might Graham have responded to Will?
Will faults Graham for being too popular, for not taking enough controversial social stands, and for not being a serious theologian (offering one, hardly-representative quote to prove his last point). In Will’s words, “Jesus said ‘a prophet hath no honor in his own country.’ Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.”
Needless to say, Will’s normally-sharp logic seems to have failed him here, since few Americans have been showered with more honors than Dr. King, who even has a holiday named after him, while the Catholic Church reveres the memory of John Paul II. Does that, therefore, disqualify them (or make them less prophetic)? Should their popularity be counted against them?
The fact is that Rev. Graham had his large share of detractors (and does this to this moment, including pastors who have zealously damned him to hell and LGBT activists who celebrated his passing). But like the Lord he followed, he had his large share of supporters. And the honor he received did not come his way because he was a savvy politician (as implied by Will) but because he was blessed by God. (The more you learn of his origins and background, the more apparent this becomes.)
Will is also critical of Graham’s message and methods, because of which he is skeptical of the results: “Graham’s effects are impossible to quantify. His audiences were exhorted to make a ‘decision’ for Christ, but a moment of volition might be (in theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase) an exercise in ‘cheap grace.’ Graham’s preaching, to large rallies and broadcast audiences, gave comfort to many people and probably improved some.”
Yet those who heard Graham preach heard him call for them to renounce their sins, having warned them of the judgment of hell, hardly ear-tickling words that were an exercise in “cheap grace.”
Will, however, reserved some of his strongest judgment for Graham’s alleged anti-Semitism, writing, “One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying.”
And it was while reading those words (after looking up “toadying” for myself) that I imagined how Graham might have responded to Will’s column. (As for his alleged anti-Semitism, see here.)
Perhaps he would have said something like this (similar to his comments about Prof. Niebhur): “I have read much of what Mr. Will has written and I feel inadequate before his brilliant mind and learning. Occasionally I get a glimmer of what he is talking about, but I always need to have a dictionary in hand. Frankly, I’m much more comfortable with a Bible, and I think that with that Bible, I could do more good than with a dictionary.”
I for one am glad that Graham kept his Bible in hand, preaching a simple enough message that he could touch hundreds of millions around the world and pack out massive stadiums while his critics pointed out everything he was doing wrong.
Nothing has changed with his passing.