Sunday, February 13, 2011

Billy Graham, His Life and Influence

By David Aikman, 339 pages, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Billy Graham transformed from a fire-breathing preacher who liked to describe heaven and warn of hell into someone admitting that Muslims, Jews, and even Roman Catholics might have a way to heaven. He in turn transformed American and world evangelical Protestantism, taking it into the mainstream and proving that an evangelical did not have to be a fundamentalist.

His amiable personality and energetic preaching style enabled him to change deeply the landscape of modern Christianity while he too evolved with the times. Much more open-minded in his middle and later years, he pushed for peace in the world. He preached in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and in non-aligned India before that.

Aikan describes Graham as something as a rebel, as many of these tours aggravated the State Department. His trip to Moscow at the height of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan was only accepted after Reagan himself personally encouraged the preacher to go. Graham's theological changes aggravated fundamentalist preachers of the Bob Jones variety, as they saw him selling out to the world and its trends. They kept on emphasizing the unique path of Christ to salvation.

Graham never denied that Christ was the savior. He simply broadened his view, paralleling Vatican II, that God could speak to Buddhists, Muslims, and others. Such people, if living their lives faithfully, could have a place in heaven. It was Christ who saved them, even if such believers didn't know that. The author is a good theologian, clearly distinguishing among the countless brands of American theology.

Aiken paints a fascinating portrait of Graham's relationships with the American presidents from Truman to Obama. Particularly close to Johnson and Nixon, the Watergate scandal devastated Graham, especially the manuscripts which portrayed a dirty-mouthed side of Nixon whom Graham had never seen before.

Nixon and Graham remained loyal friends to the end. In fact, Graham's loyalty and deep friendship with presidents and others would often lead him to say naive or unhelpful things, such as "forgiving" Bill Clinton for his sexual indiscretions with countless women. The media wondered who had given him the authority to forgive, and if Hillary and the president's sexual partners had also forgiven.

Billy Graham, His Life and Experience spends much time on the earlier, more magical moments of the preacher's life, in the 1950s when he began to storm the center-stage of American religious life.

Aikman argues convincingly that many foreign crusades, such as in Australia and England in that decade, while showing no long-term change to the general population of those counties, changed forever the composition of the mainline clergy of those countries. Anglican clergy in both countries started to become more evangelical. Many current Protestant and Anglican ministers consider conversions at Billy Graham Crusades as the foundation of their ministry.

Aiken quotes a well-known convert from a Graham Crusade, Sydney, Australia's Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, noted: "Has there ever been a voice like his? There was the utter sincerity of it. He was transparently sincere, personally attractive. He was a prince among God's people."

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