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Books: Just what he did

Books | After nearly 900 pages of Billy Graham's autobiography, the reader will know very little about the evangelist

Issue: "Just say clean needles," May 9, 1998

Fiction is my regular beat for this magazine. I comment on stories, which are merely the narration of a sequence of events in which character is revealed. For example, as you find out what happens to Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, you come to know him as a person. As he becomes a part of your life, your soul is deepened. And that is why we read. This principle applies to all stories, no matter whether they are cast in the form of fiction, biography, or autobiography. So, for this issue I am taking a break from fictional stories to look at an autobiography, the self-told story of Billy Graham. Working with a team of researchers and writers, Mr. Graham does an admirable job of setting forth the sequence of events of his long and eventful life. He begins with his birth in 1918, his childhood on a dairy farm near Charlotte, N.C., and his upbringing in the Presbyterian church. As a high-school student, Mr. Graham attended a revival led by Southern Baptist preacher Mordecai Ham. One night, the 16-year-old William Franklin Graham went forward: "The key word was do. Those of us standing up front had to decide to do something about what we knew before it could take effect." Mr. Graham went on to do much for the Lord. Mr. Graham felt the call to preach and was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister while a student at the Florida Bible Institute. He continued his education at Wheaton College, where he took a bachelor's degree in anthropology and also met his future wife, Ruth Bell, daughter of a medical missionary to China. All the while he was preaching with great success. In 1945 he became a full-time evangelist with Youth For Christ, a move that led to independent city-wide campaigns (later called crusades). The turning point came in the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade, where he preached to overflowing crowds with national media exposure. The story goes on to chronicle the overwhelming success of Mr. Graham's major crusades in all the major cities of America, Europe, and the Orient, and the development of the ministry team, methodology, and philosophy, along with many anecdotes about the famous and obscure people he met along the way. As he concludes, Mr. Graham says, "The first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask, 'Why me Lord? Why did You choose a farmboy from North Carolina to preach to so many people?'" He asks this in genuine humility and gratitude, with appreciation for the great ministry God gave him for 50-plus years. Yet one wishes this doer for the Lord could have tried to answer this question himself. I actually met Billy Graham once, at a Lutheran church in October, 1981. We shook hands and I told him I appreciated his ministry (which was and is still true). The whole exchange took less than one minute. Now I have read all 895 pages of his autobiography, and I find to my consternation that I still don't know Billy Graham any better than I did after my church minute. An autobiography is a story. But this autobiography gives the sequence of events while revealing very little of the real character of the subject. Why him and not another evangelist? What were his conflicts? Who were his enemies? Did he ever struggle with sin? Ever fall? Ever fail? Did he have any dark nights of the soul? When you read Paul and Augustine and Luther you find out these things. With Billy Graham, you don't. There is no drama here, nothing to drive the story forward. Hints are dropped here and there that he is a real person, but the denim-clad cover portrait notwithstanding, the dominant image given in this book is that of the public figure. He notes that famous people are often lonely and fearful. He himself seems to be the same, and never really lets himself out. Along with the shallow portrait of Mr. Graham the man comes a superficial treatment of other famous people. Each U.S. president since Harry Truman gets a chapter, but as with himself, Mr. Graham never really lets us get close. He stays with anecdotes. Most notable is Mr. Graham's treatment of Richard Nixon, a man he'd been friends with since 1950. He expresses shock at Nixon's foul language on the Watergate tapes. "Looking back," he says, "... I wonder whether I might have exaggerated his spirituality in my own mind." This naivete is perhaps not surprising in one who never really was a pastor. Pastors, keeping close watch over their flocks year in and year out, get to know what people are really made of. Evangelists, traveling constantly and speaking to crowds, apparently do not. So, with Mr. Graham and Mr. Nixon, we see two public figures showing their public faces to each other. Perhaps the explanation of this imbalance in the story is the hint Mr. Graham himself gives when he says that at the revival the key word is do: Go, act, make a decision. Mr. Graham has done much in his ministry and for that we can be thankful. Too bad he didn't give much time to reflection. Just As I Am might have been better titled, Just What I Did.

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