The responses to the news of Billy Graham’s death have been varied, as one might have expected. They stretch from the kind:
“Thank you Billy.
See you on the other side,
To the septic, as in that of the Teen vogue columnist Lauren Duca:
“The big news today is that Billy Graham was still alive this whole time. Anyway, have fun in hell, bitch.”
Archbishop Cranmer, (aka Adrian Hilton) penned a brief but admiring note in which he concentrated on what he perceived as the shift in Graham’s soteriology, and an implicit interrogation of his role as an evangelist.
“I used to believe that pagans in far countries were lost if they did not have the gospel of Christ preached to them,” (Dr Graham) said in a 1978 interview with McCall’s magazine. “I no longer believe that,” he added, calmly and assuredly.
(Cranmer continued) He went further in a 1997 television interview with Dr Robert Schuller, when he explained that the body of Christ would be made up:
“..from all the Christian groups around the world, outside the Christian groups. I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ. And I don’t think that we are going to see a great sweeping revival that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time. I think James answered that – the Apostle James in the first Council of Jerusalem – when he said that God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for his name. And that is what he is doing today. He is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.”
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy; His reconciling love knows no bounds. The Bible is not wholly necessary for salvation, and Christ is optional, for his light shines in every sincere spirituality. Why contend for an unpopular evangelical doctrinal truth when God is so accommodating and universally accepting?”
At first sight this is an odd angle from which a life of someone as formidable as Graham might be observed and assessed.
But it reflects and draws our attention to an important aspect that his ministry provoked; the element of the discomfort so many felt in the face of the ministry of an evangelist and Graham’s uncompromising presentation of the Christian Gospel, which included warnings about hell, a struggle with the devil and the promise of heaven as the alternative and goal.
It also invites us to revisit our categories of theological assessment.
What must continue to strike each of us as extraordinary is that a man who spoke in such stark and simple terms should have had a life time audience pitched at about 2.2 billion, and was credited with bringing over 3 million people to repentance and faith.
Christian evangelists and preachers whose motivation were to save people from hell, have always exercised a degree of fascination mixed with irritation. The mention of hell, annoys, aggravates, captivates and repulses people like no other theological concept. It produces a visceral reaction. It would not be too much to say that one of the ways in which Christian public figures are either vilified or domesticated, relates to whether or not the reality of sin and hell figures in their public presentation of Christ.
It certainly did with Billy Graham.
But what lies behind this irritation with the approach Graham took, which was so congruous with the values and teaching of the Gospels? If we can unpick that, other puzzles may fall open before us.
The constant dismissal of him as a fundamentalist sets up a hierarchy of assessment based on an admiration of intelligence and sophistication. Those who guarded the study and practice of academic theology in his and our day were aghast and even disgusted by his spiritual and theological values and practice.
They had created a value system which was based on a rationalistic study of theology set in a humanist intellectual and cultural context which looked down on Graham’s evangelism with intense disrespect. The fact that their kind of intellectual snobbery produced adverse results for what became in their hands a dying faith, while his touched increasing numbers in real existential need, was wholly lost on them; obscured by the fog of pride and the heat of hubris.
If we shift categories from the rational and intellectual to the pneumatic and the holy (technically known as sanctification and transformation), we then find a different scale for weighing and assessing Graham.
The clue to the need to make this shift really ought to lie in pressing demands of theodicy.
Constantly during the twentieth century the lament would be heard “why did God allow such suffering to take place”?- with the attached rider, that the only appropriate act of retaliation for the suffering would be not to believe in God (despite the logical fallacy that lay at the heart of this emotional response.)
It was as if there was only one theological principle of assessment, that God was responsible for everything and that when things went wrong in human affairs this was due to God’s incompetence of impotence.
But both common sense and the New Testament provide us with the information that there are also other factors involved, and in particular human and spiritual revolt and rebellion.
But there has been a deep reluctance to recognise the existence and power of evil both inside and outside the human heart. A consequence of this is that the teaching in the New Testament that humanity was involved in a life and death struggle the devil and associated evil, became intellectually and emotionally inaccessible.
But this was the frame of reference that Graham found himself in and remained faithful to.
The struggle he embodied was not one that pandered to the bourgeois prejudices that admired the intelligentsia, and gain their respect, but one that set out to help people become free from the influence, power and corruption of the devil.
It would be too simple to contrast these two ways as the conflict between a religion of the head and a religion of the heart, but it was certainly the case that Graham refused to trade in potency in his ministry to heart and soul ,in order to gain credibility from those whose preference was for the head.
This was not to suggest that there was anything unintelligent about Graham’s approach. Our recent celebrations of emotional intelligence have helped us learn to be more subtle in our assessment of different forms of intelligence. But is it to claim that where a certain kind of restrictive rationalism refused to acknowledge the reality of mysticism, or spiritual experience, rationalism had to be and was repudiated.
Wholly spiritually impotent as they were, the Christian and theological establishment mocked Billy Graham for what they miscalled ‘fundamentalism.’
They bombarded him with criticism that focussed on his refusal to move from the metaphysical (which they were unable to cope with) to the political which was the world they lived in.
As so many of the tributes written about him demonstrate, he came under great pressure to adapt the Gospel to the political issues of the day. He mainly refused, which was where his offence lay.
Because if Christianity doesn’t appear to be about contemporary political injustice – what then is it about?
If you refuse to acknowledge the presence and power of evil, what can the Gospel be about apart from the fluidity of politics?
Yet Billy Graham refused to modify the language and concepts of the New Testament to find an easier way to gain respect; and in that lay the provocation of his presentation of faith. He refused to dilute the spiritual struggle he claimed Jesus taught about with political or social subcategories of justice, race, gender and sexuality.
There are significant problems with accommodating the Gospel to contemporary secular preoccupations, but one of the most important is that injustice and political turbulence are symptoms of personal disorder, not ends or causes in themselves.
They appear to be ends in themselves, certainly, but Jesus taught that these injustices were the outworking of the corruptions in the human heart. And the corruptions in the human heart were caused by our interaction with metaphysical evil.
And perhaps it was this metaphysical dimension and language Billy Graham remained faithful to, that caused so much disturbance among his observers and critics.
But without this dimension the Gospels make deeply uncomfortable reading. Jesus begins His ministry with a face to face encounter with the devil in the wilderness, and ends it by encouraging his disciples with the dramatic news that the ‘ruler of this world’ has been thrown out and displaced.
From where do the Gospels tell us that satan is displaced by the sacrifice and power of Christ? Cosmically, yes, but above all, from the human heart; and it was the human heart that Graham targeted with this good and potent news.
These two areas of human struggle, the political on the one hand and the metaphysical on the other, help us understand the dynamics we are dealing with. For as long as the problem is one of injustice, we can flatter ourselves that it lies within our power to confront and perhaps overcome it. Our inner Pelagians are comforted. We do it; our power, our vision, our commitment.
But if the injustice and political stresses are symptoms of our disturbed and dis-eased hearts where satan has found a foothold, the ‘we’ can’t do anything and we are in serious trouble.
Our pride revolts against this diagnosis. Our Humanistic and Renaissance sourced empiricism is appalled by such a possibility. And so we react by preferring to displace all our discomfort and impotence by instead humiliating and attacking so-called ‘fundamentalists’ who insist on presenting us with a Gospel that strikes at the roots of our sense of self-sufficiency and our pride; one we don’t want to hear because it brings such stress to the categories of complacency we live with; and having heard, raises the terrifying and threatening prospect of the surrender of our autonomy.
Because we realise, that this surrender will be the cause of an ego-death which will be disastrously debilitating; yet only as debilitating as it will be healing and liberating when and if accomplished.
Why make so much of this spiritual v social argument? At this point I have to be somewhat personal.
In part because I spent a large portion of my own life trying to avoid the difficulty of recognising and responding to the reality of metaphysical evil.
In struggling with what presented itself as evil, I became deeply disturbed by the proximity of the effects of this evil to mental illness. It proved frighteningly difficult to separate the symptoms of evil from the symptoms of mental illness. I succumbed to intellectual and moral cowardice and withdrew from the task.
And I was also much perturbed by the resistance of evil to intelligence (which was largely what I thought I was trying to bring to the situation).
I found a place of theological escapism and refuge shifting metaphysical frameworks and in adopting the psychological categories presented by the work of Carl Gustav Jung.
Until- I found myself overwhelmed by fresh personal experiences of evil; ones so vivid and so distinctive that I could no longer explain what happened by reference to Jungian psychology, or even mental illness and distress, but only by reference to the raw paradigms of the New Testament. I therefore changed my theology, mental map and my values to make sense of this highly uncongenial new map of reality.
My own experiences of are no great importance in this context, except that they acted a stimulus to repudiate the spiritually impotent intellectualism of our contemporaries and make a fresh start in the quest for holiness.
This quest for holiness is important not only because it is a consequence of a developing relationship with Christ, but also because it offers leverage in the quest for freedom from the influence of evil.
One of the consequences of the passing of Billy Graham ought to be that it provides the opportunity and stimulus to defend the purity and simplicity of Billy Graham’s evangelism and to stand with him against those who dismissed him as ‘a fundamentalist’ and in so doing to review the categories of our analysis and assessments.
Liberal, secular and politicised Christianity fails to mend the human condition and change very much for longer than a generation, if that. The holiness tradition, or what we might call ‘pneumatic Christianity’ which was what Graham practiced, does both.
This also provides the motivation and impetus to confront ‘Cranmer’s’ critique of Dr Graham and his implication that there was some softening of his position, thus subtly shifting him into a more acceptable category of theologian.
This brings us back to the assessments of Graham on his death, and in particular to the comments from ‘Archbishop Cranmer’ site.
Cranmer exhibits some of the residual cultural discomfort with the theological motivation that lay behind Graham’s evangelism. He preached to save people from hell and from the devil. It comes as a relief to the spirit of the age to be able to suggest that Graham modified his views. He did modify them, but only to incorporate a degree of spiritual width and largesse that the younger Graham had given little thought to, but the older Graham had pondered on.
Largesse is not repudiation. What Graham was doing was following the same path of reflection that St Paul does in his letter to the Romans. Paul is very interested in the four categories of people he is involved with; Christian Jews, non-Christian Jews, Christian pagans and non-Christian pagans.
St Paul’s analysis in his letter to the Romans, begins with the pagans who have no direct experience of the revelation brought through the House of Israel. His reflection was that everyone being made in the image of God has a conscience that to some smaller or greater extent informs them of the reality of ultimate Goodness and its call upon us.
St Paul reminds us that we will be judged in the light of that conscience. No doubt some people will find more favour and mercy than others in the last day on that basis. No doubt too, that the sacrifice of Christ is cosmic, and in the hidden alchemy between the divine examination of our conscience and the shedding of Christ’s blood for the whole world, some who have never heard of Christ, or who have even have misheard, will be carried into heaven.
But you can’t bank on it. St Paul himself, couldn’t bank on it.
In Romans 7 he wrote
“21So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Later in his letter Paul was to move through his argument that conscience played a part in judgement, past his own self-awareness of his fractured will and intentions, to the need to be set free from evil here and now.
And that is why people need evangelists. Because the human heart is fatally compromised by fractured wills and the greater or lesser presence of evil, and needs to be set free, forgiven, and remade – and defended against further fatal infection.
In Romans 6
“11In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.”
The great rescue attempt that evangelists undertake as agents of the Holy Spirit cannot be understood if it is thought to be only about salvation. It is about salvation, but it is also about its concomitant , which is freedom from the grip of evil and the remaking of the human soul in the imitation of Christ.
This freeing the mind and soul from the influence and traction of evil in the remaking of the human soul, is above all the place where the solution to injustice and the whole range of political poison, from the catastrophes to the irritations, is found.
If you change the human heart, by allowing it to greater freedom from the leverage and gravity of sin and all its effects, expressed in pride, revenge, rage, greed, etc then you begin to make serious substantial changes to families, societies and the body politic.
Did Billy Graham change from preaching salvation to being a universalist? No of course not.
He preached salvation, repentance and the quest for holiness in an uncompromised and undiminished way the whole of his life.
So how do we answer Cranmer’s rather odd and somewhat misdirected questions in the light of this?
“The Bible is not wholly necessary for salvation”
The Bible is wholly necessary for salvation because without it God’s intervention and invitation are obscured and muted.
“and Christ is optional”,
Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, his sharing of the existential burden of being, his potential entrance into the human heart to drive out the devil, is the only way in which humanity can be provisionally and ultimately rescued and healed.
“for his light shines in every sincere spirituality”.
Christ’s light shines in the conscience of everyman and woman, but without a surrender to His love and an experience of His pardon, that light also exposes what most people instinctively want to hide, both from themselves, as much as from one another and of course from God.
“Why contend for an unpopular evangelical doctrinal truth when God is so accommodating and universally accepting?”
This is the whole point about freedom from evil. It is because we are in a life or death struggle with evil, and every misdiagnosis of the struggle weakens our capacity to resist the enemy of our soul who uses all the guile at his disposal to mislead and mis-shape us.
Why contend for the Truth? Because it is the Truth that sets us free, and the more of the Truth we have and live, the freer we become.
This is exactly the importance of the struggle over issues of human sexuality that divide the Church today. The political Christianity embraces the secular values as a way of gaining respect and a valued place in the body politic, and the secular imagination of their neighbours.
Pneumatic Christianity recognises the perversions of God’s creation paradigm as a satanic strategy of maintaining the influence and presence of evil, both within the unrepentant soul and within the unrepentant politicised Church. The consequences of such spiritual pollution are a diminishment in faith, in prayer, in forgiveness, in humility, in peace of mind, and in witness to Jesus himself. All these things are amplified by the Holy Spirit and diminished by the perverse spirit. It is for the sake of freedom that we struggle for unpopular evangelical doctrinal truth. It was for the sake of that same freedom that Billy Graham did too.
The life of Billy Graham ought to offer a reminder to the Church that the Holy Spirit likes it when the Church is faithful to the narrative of the Gospels and chooses them over the seductive lure of the contemporary and the political. It is the Spirit that melts the human heart, and the Church is impotent and deeply unattractive without the Holy Spirit.
Graham’s life ought to remind the Church that there is nothing to be gained by adapting to secular values, and everything to be lost. People came to hear Dr Graham, and their hearts were melted by the Holy Spirit because he continued the project started in the incarnation – bringing the living Jesus to the human heart.
His life ought to remind the Church that the struggle we are in is not intellectual, social, psychological or political, but as Jesus exemplified and taught, spiritual and metaphysical.
His life ought to remind the Church that the focus of its ambitions on God’s behalf is the capture of the human heart, its liberation from the presence of evil, and its recreation in the image of Christ.
His life ought to remind the Church that a broken and wounded humanity, periodically tormented to the point of despair, longs to hear a message of hope, and will respond to a message which brings freedom and forgiveness.
The sheer numbers of the millions who both wanted to hear and were willing to respond to the Good News through the faithful and energetic uncompromising witness of Graham the evangelist, ought to act as a reminder to us that we are called to a pneumatic not a political Christianity.