Sunday Night Journal, February 25, 2018
Billy Graham's brand of Christianity was not mine; it never has been. Even apart from the vast doctrinal distance between his evangelical Protestantism and my Catholicism, simply as a matter of what you might call style or culture, it was not for me. There was a time when I more or less despised him as a representation of American civil religion. That was the case when I was a non-believer and a political leftist, because his public image was so strongly associated in my mind with the confused and unhealthy mixture of Christianity and Americanism that's so common here. I started to say "common in some brands of Protestantism," which it is of course, but there are Catholic strains, too.
But that was a long time ago, and I think the picture of Graham that I had in the '60s became less accurate over the years. Maybe it never was really accurate, but, rightly or wrongly, the mention of his name had always conjured up an image of the American flag, or the American eagle, alongside his face.
My impression of him became more positive over the years, though. That had something to do, of course, with my becoming a Christian and sharing his most fundamental beliefs. But it also had to do with the fact that he seemed to remain the same as American culture declined around him, making him look better in comparison. I used to read his "My Answer" advice column in the newspaper: someone would write in with problems and questions of one sort or another, and Graham's answers were always solidly Christian. (I wonder if he actually wrote them himself, but whether he did or not, they appeared under his name and presumably reflected his views.) On the same page I read Ann Landers and/or Dear Abby, and their advice, though it was often shrewd, changed with the cultural winds in ways that were often amusing. Not Graham's. He tried to be sympathetic and generous but he didn't compromise.
It wasn't only the secular culture that was declining, either. The kind of mass-appeal non-denominational evangelicalism he proclaimed was changed very much for the worse by glitzy stars of dubious honesty like Jim Bakker. But Graham seemed to stick to his original Christ-centered style and mission and in the process became the sort of American character who is also an institution, like Jimmy Stewart, or Johnny Cash. You don't have to view them as the brightest stars in the firmament of Western civilization to appreciate them for what they were, and to recognize that part of what made them so appealing was the insistent, if not consistent, integrity they seemed to represent, even if or when they failed to exemplify it.
And so I'm sorry to see Graham go. As characters in The Lord of the Rings say more than once, "the world is changing." As always, it is changing simultaneously for better and for worse. But I can't see America producing another like him, or Jimmy Stewart, or Johnny Cash.
In spite of what I just said about the mixed nature of change, the truth is that sometimes it's all I can do not to turn this journal into a continual jeremiad about the deterioration of our culture and our nation, and prophecies of the doom toward which we're heading. That impulse is encouraged by something you may have read about: the writer for Teen Vogue who expressed the belief that Billy Graham is in hell, and, when challenged on that remark, dug in her heels and called him, with the grace that is so characteristic of the contemporary left, "an evil piece of s**t." The sheer hatred is like an icy wind blowing over a garbage dump, and of course there's a lot of that around. But perhaps more significant--I hope more significant--is the fact that she seems to think that there should be a hell. I remember when Jerry Falwell died reading similar sentiments from people who despised Christianity, no doubt for, among other reasons, its teaching that unrepentant sinners go to hell. Could it be that a need to believe in some sort of ultimate justice is part of our nature?
Teen Vogue, you might think, would be a fluffy magazine about clothes and makeup. Teen Vogue, you may have heard, ran a piece a few months ago instructing its audience of teenaged girls in techniques for anal sex. It's difficult to imagine that a culture which regularly produces such monstrosities, and is very proud of them, can endure for very long. Whether it is accurate to see the producers of such stuff as being part of the same culture as those who are appalled by it as being part of "a culture" is another matter.
Here are two obituaries for Billy Graham that I found worth reading. One, in Commonweal, is a fair-minded overview of his career. The other, at the blog of the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society, is a reflection on his influence by someone who was a part of the evangelical world and is now Catholic. It gives us a picture of what went on behind the scenes in preparation for one of Graham's missions. Early in his career he seems to have been conventionally anti-Catholic, but by the time this writer was involved, at least, he seems to have changed his mind. RIP.
Turning from the foulness of our culture war as conducted on the internet (especially on Twitter, which I'm inclined to think is a force for evil) to The Lord of the Rings is like walking out of a gas station toilet that hasn't been cleaned for a couple of weeks into a cool meadow high in the Rockies. I'm about halfway through the last volume now, taking it still at my leisurely pace of a chapter or two a day, lingering over every page, reading it more closely than I have in the past. It has not diminished at all in my estimation; quite the contrary in fact. Since I was twenty or so I've considered myself to be a fairly good judge of literature. If this is not a great work, I'm no judge at all.
Eowyn: "...may I not spend my life as I will?"
Aragorn: "Few may do that with honor."
How many of us today can feel those words? How many can even understand them?
A misty moisty morning.