Billy Graham’s message was so simple it’s hard to imagine his own personal history could have tinged it. In a nation where Christianity is sectarian and splintered, Billy Graham has largely been accepted by Christians from all sorts of theological backgrounds. Undoubtedly he is firmly evangelical and has certain ways of reading scripture. Nonetheless, his call for salvation seems to have been taken straight from the pages of the Bible, and if his own history had an influence on the message he preached, one would assume that other theological leaders of the time would have noticed it.
Billy Graham’s father, William Franklin Graham, Sr., was not abusive, and in fact was far from it. Accounts of Graham’s early life indicate that his father was loving and engaged. Young Billy was a handful, and some think he would’ve been diagnosed with ADHD had he been born a century later. Billy’s father was strict but fair, and required both of his sons to work with him on the dairy farm. When prohibition ended, he provided Billy and his younger sister each a bottle of beer, which he ordered them to drink the entirety of. In his autobiography, Graham expresses gratitude for that experience which set him on a lifelong course of abstaining from alcohol. His father was loving and no-nonsense, and seemed to be what any child could expect from a father in 1920s rural American society.
Repent and Return to Your Sin
Graham’s engaged but strict father shows up in nuanced aspects of the gospel he preached. In his book A Gentler God, Doug Frank has examined the personal lives of many evangelical leaders of the twentieth century, including Billy Graham. He retells an allegorical story that Graham used to illustrate the gospel: The story begins when a father asked his son to get some wood from the shed for their stove. The son, whose nose is in a book, doesn’t respond. The father becomes enraged at his son’s actions, giving an ultimatum that his son can either obey or leave the house. The son chooses the latter, slamming the door on his way out. A fortnight later the son returns, pleading to be forgiven. The father “softened for a moment. Then grew stern and, pointing to the woodshed, said, Son, that same stick is in the woodshed. Get it, bring it in, put it on the fire, and you can come in.”
Frank points out that Jesus told a similar, yet different story about a father and son—the well-known prodigal son parable. He suggests that Graham’s own history impacts the way he talks about God.
Graham’s no-nonsense father God is distinctively different from the father in Jesus’s story. The father in Jesus’s parable throws dignity to the wind as he runs toward his son before there is even a chance to beg for forgiveness, not to mention he never asked the son to leave in the first place. With attention to this dynamic, Graham has always put emphasis on the requirement of obedience for salvation, with a call to ensure that Jesus is “Lord of your life,” requiring one to “change your whole lifestyle to make him Lord and master.” Undeniably, obedience is part of Christian life, and yet throughout his career, Graham has implicated that it’s part of and prior to our reconciliation with God, shown in fullest relief in the above sermon illustration.
Graham also believed, “We cannot ask forgiveness over and over again for our sins and then return to those sins, expecting God to forgive us” which makes sense—after all, if you’re truly sorry, you change your behavior. Yet, Graham’s teaching contrasts with Jesus’s command in Luke 17 to be ever forgiving, “even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” Graham picture of God the father is a father who is fair, but avoids being merciful to a fault.
When Graham was ten years old, John B. Watson published his book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, in which he warned parents about being too affectionate with their children, advising parents to “shake hands,” rather than hug or kiss them. Babies’ cries were not to be responded to, lest it encourage more crying. The strict parenting Billy Graham experienced was a product of its time.
Furthermore, Graham was born in 1918, the year the First World War ended. While his father never served, both world wars impacted American life, as nearly five million people served worldwide. Many returned home traumatized by combat and with “shellshock,” a version of what we now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most returning soldiers strived to separate their time at war from their domestic lives, holding inside experiences they couldn’t share with their families upon their return. Haunted by the echoes of war, they felt both distant from and irritable with their families. It’s not surprising that the nuances of Billy Graham’s loving yet authoritarian God was received so well. It spoke directly to the earliest relational experiences of so many.
All these conversion stories, including many at Billy Graham crusades, are centered on the way the gospel touches on something deep within us. Yet often, when a message resonates so deeply within us, we believe it to be from God without questioning it at all. But what if part of the reception of Graham’s message was not only truth, but also successful contextualization?
Throughout our lives, most of us have times where a particular concept just makes sense. How can we tell the difference between spiritual authenticity and what simply appeals to our current sensibilities? How can we separate truth from the zeitgeist of generation?
Though many of us have heard the parable of the prodigal son often enough to become familiar, Jesus’s original audience would’ve been shocked by it. In that culture, running would have been an undignified act, as would unconditional forgiveness, but Jesus presented a father whose love was greater than the systems of the day. My mother-in-law tells me that she discerns spiritual truths by whether they or not they clash with current culture. Jesus’s parable is a great example of how he very often clashed with culture. But in our current pluralistic culture that has a variety of conflicting values, this becomes a difficult litmus test. Whose culture and values should spiritual truth clash with?
To complicate the issue further, while Jesus often clashed with the values of his day, he also he spoke truths that have resonated with hearts for over two thousand years. His teaching of forgiveness both assaults our sense of fairness, and impacts us with the beauty of mercy. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman states that even within scripture there is an ongoing tension between God’s holiness and God’s desire for inclusion. This can often leave readers out of balance, as we try to make sense of these different messages.
At the end of his life, Graham said one of his greatest regrets was not studying the Bible more. He said, "I wish I had studied more and preached less." Billy Graham is only one example of our persistent fallibility in reading and interpreting the Bible. A quick survey of the American church’s record on racial justice provides a glaring example of how we can deem something “clearly biblical,” realizing our hermeneutical failings much too late, with devastating consequences. As Christianity moves on from crusades and revivals into new approaches to evangelism and theology, we continue to wrestle through what is clear from the Bible, between that tension of God’s holiness and his inclusion.
There are ways to reduce our misunderstandings of God, but no way to guarantee it. Jewish tradition provided room for a discussion of what the Torah might mean—as readers argue over interpretations while remaining in community with one another. They rejected the idea that there was one single meaning, and instead believed that as different people engaged with the text, there was always something new to learn. And even though evangelical churches tend to self-segregate, the key to a better interpretation of scripture is to interpret it in a diverse community. As we approach scripture, we need diversity because we can only have a full view of God by making room for every experience at the table.