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Gerson: Billy Graham was consumed by grace


Billy Graham was easily the most influential evangelical Christian of the 20th century—a man at home in the historical company of George Whitefield and John Wesley.

But this would be hard to tell from reading his sermons, which even close associates described as ordinary. His books are hardly more memorable. So what was it that compelled hundreds of millions of people to attend and watch his evangelistic “crusades” and to find personal transformation in his words?

Graham’s global ministry was the triumph of complete sincerity, expressed with a universally accessible simplicity. “There is no magic, no manipulation,” said publicist Gavin Reid. “The man just obviously believes what he says.” Graham could display charisma in meetings with presidents and queens. In the pulpit—the place of his calling from an early age—he was nearly transparent, allowing a light behind him to shine through him. He had the power of a man utterly confident in some other, greater power.

American fundamentalism from the Scopes monkey trial to the 1950s was traumatized, marginalized and inward-looking. Graham’s achievement was to turn the face of fundamentalism outward toward the world—shaping, in the process, a distinct religious movement.

His evangelicalism was more open and appealing, more intellectually and culturally engaged. Graham took his fellow evangelicals from the margins to the center—from the sawdust trail to the White House. He managed to be winsome without being compromised. And evangelical Christians felt grateful to have a public representative who—through his integrity and consistency—brought credit to their faith.

There was initial resistance to Graham’s work among mainline Protestants. As Graham announced more and more crusades, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was not amused. Graham, Niebuhr warned, would “accentuate every prejudice which the modern, ‘enlightened’ but morally sensitive man may have against religion.” Graham responded: “I have read nearly everything Mr. Niebuhr has written and I feel inadequate before his brilliant mind and learning. Occasionally I get a glimmer of what he is talking about ... [but] if I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered they would walk out.”

Nearly 2 million people walked into Graham’s 16-week, New York crusade in 1957. And Graham was joined one night at Madison Square Garden by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There was also resistance among some fundamentalists.

I grew up in a theologically conservative Calvinist church in which the reformation was refought on a weekly basis. The man who would become my father-in-law—blessed with a fine voice—decided to sing in the choir at a Billy Graham crusade that came into town. Afterward, he was hauled in front of the elders of the church to be questioned. They were upset at this participation because Graham—when people would come forward during the altar call—would refer them back to their home churches, including Catholic churches.

In fact, the tone of Graham’s public voice changed over the years, becoming more ecumenical, less harsh and nationalistic. Some of this he credited to broader exposure to the world. “I think now when I say something, ‘How is this going to sound in India? How is it going to sound to my friends in Hungary or Poland?’” But this also involved a theological shift. “I used to believe that pagans in far countries were lost if they did not have the gospel of Christ preached to them,” he reflected in 1978. “I no longer believe that.”

His faith in the essentials of the Christian gospel, however, never changed. And it made him into a busy builder of institutions that still carry the Christian message. Graham was instrumental in the founding of Christianity Today, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He was a major supporter of the National Association of Evangelicals and Fuller Theological Seminary.

As in any long, public life, there were low moments, particularly when Graham came into contact with political figures such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But he also had a powerful, positive influence in the life of the young George W. Bush and countless others. And this much is clear. For Graham, faith was not the instrument to some other end; it was the prize itself. He had no ulterior motives. No trace of cynicism. He was consumed by grace, and spoke in gratitude.

For a Christian, it is not a small thing for a man to talk about Jesus Christ, face to face, to more people than anyone has ever done. Or to see how remarkably God used his servant Billy, just as he was.

Guest Views: What Olympians like Chloe Kim teach us about individual and national greatness

Are American snowboarders show-offs? Maybe a little, but then there’s been something going on at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games that is worth noting in an era marked by division and vapid commentary. Athletes from across the planet are demonstrating that real greatness, the kind that is based in excellence and dedication, is not only possible, it is also within our grasp.

We pick on snowboarders for a simple reason: America dominated the sport, and American Chloe Kim became a sensation in these Games. She also turned in a sparkling performance after it was clear she would win gold. In her first run, she scored 93.75, far ahead of Liu Jiayu of China, the eventual silver-medalist. Rather than take a victory lap on her last run down the halfpipe, Chloe turned in a dangerous but sparkling performance that earned her a score of 98.25.

Her explanation for taking the risk was that she couldn’t imagine taking home the gold “knowing I could have done better.” Regardless of having already secured first place, she sought to achieve excellence.

That’s not showboating. It’s leading.

The thing about athletics is that it is a great equalizer. Regardless of your background or your family history, if you can perform faster or with more precision or with a smarter strategy, then you can rise to the top of the world. If you have the heart of a champion, you can compete for gold. But to prove you have that heart, you must ignore the cynics who would have you believe that great achievement is either not possible or not worth the sacrifice. To pursue excellence, you often have to first cultivate optimism.

This dynamic is healthy for civil society. In a free system, we can see how far people can go when they have free rein. This inspires us all, and it underscores the fact that in all of life, it is possible to pursue excellence and thereby chase greatness.

And to that end, nations can share in the glow of the collective success of their athletes in the Games. Americans can take special pride in the U.S. medal count (as citizens of any free country can), because those medals were won by athletes who freely chose to take their shots in life. Their success is a reflection of a goodness inherent in the system, a goodness that kindles hope and rewards the courage to stand apart.

At the same time, nations that do not afford their citizens the freedom to chase their dreams can only diminish themselves. Their athletes can win, but the honor the athletes carry is rightly theirs alone. Authoritarian regimes can’t rightly claim authorship of the hope and dreams that lead to individual achievement.

So we’d like to offer three cheers for the champions of these Games for reminding us where greatness comes from.

—The Dallas Morning News

Your Views: Ryan has wrong answer to nation's violence problem

Seventeen more people are murdered by a demented individual with a semi-automatic rifle. And what is our congressional representative, Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, doing about it? He calls for a nationwide concealed-carry law, apparently believing that having more people armed makes our society safer.

But if more guns made us safer, the United States would be the safest country in the world--and we are far from that. In fact, the U.S. is one of the least safe countries in the industrialized world.

As a national “leader,” Ryan is in a rare position to actually do something about gun violence in America. He could reject the National Rifle Association and support a ban on semi-automatic weapons and bump stocks, which turn a semi-automatic into a fully automatic weapon.

There are lots of things that Ryan could do to try to improve public safety and reduce the scourge of mass murders in American. But he does nothing other than parrot the NRA line about guns not killing people; the problem is people killing people.

But without such ready access to guns, sick individuals like the man in Florida--and others guilty of mass shootings in the U.S.--would have a much harder time committing mass murder.

Ryan does not represent the interests of the people in his district--or the country as a whole. With his dedication to the NRA and the unstable “genius” in the White House, he has failed the American people.