The Long Run
When I was a Christian fundamentalist, I believed that Church history consisted of two eras. First came the time of Jesus and the Apostles. Then came the second half of the 20th century. What had happened between those two eras concerned me not one bit.
Growing up, I remember watching Billy Graham whenever he was on TV. As the man who seemed to deserve much credit for jump-starting a revival of “true Christianity” for our era, he represented everything that was right about preaching the Gospel with vigor and directness. Then, in 1992, I finally attended a Billy Graham Crusade in person. (Believing myself already secure within the “saved” camp, I did not go forward for the altar call.)
Looking back today as a Catholic, I believe there is much to admire and respect about Billy Graham, whose June revival in New York City was probably his last. In his prime he was a riveting and dynamic orator, but his great strength is that he knows who he is and what he does well. He usually avoided complex theological problems and thorny denominational issues, preaching instead a simple Gospel message.
If C.S. Lewis is known for “mere Christianity,” Graham might be known for “mere Evangelism” — proclaiming an unadorned, to-the-heart message about man's sin, the Father's mercy, Christ's death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit's invitation for man to accept the free gift of salvation.
But Graham's strength, I've come to see, is also a weakness. While he apparently transcends many denominational lines, it is at the expense of a substantial ecclesiology. Graham undoubtedly has introduced thousands of people to Jesus Christ. But his is a Jesus who does not have a Church. Or a Jesus whose Church is vaguely defined and not concrete. Or, just as bad, a Jesus with thousands of competing and contradicting churches.
Randall Balmer, professor of American religion at Barnard College in New York, recently said of Graham: “The reach of his preaching — nobody has ever come close, and I suspect no one else ever will. His people claim that he has preached to more people than anyone else in history, and I don't know anyone who would seriously dispute that claim.”
It can be seriously disputed. Graham has had 417 crusades, dating back to 1947, and an estimated 83 million people have seen him preach in person, with many more having watched on television. That's very impressive, But Pope John Paul II rivaled those numbers, especially taking into account he was on the world stage for 26 years, compared to more than 50 years for Graham.
How many millions watched the Jubilee? Christmas Mass every year? How many have read one or more of his 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 45 apostolic letters and various books of essays, audiences, poems and prayers?
Of course, it's not a contest. Both men benefited from modern technology and knew how to utilize it. Both men proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord. Both men were great Christian leaders. But only one was the vicar of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
So I am Catholic. And I appreciate more than ever the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding his Church not through two eras but 20 centuries — each and every one of them.
Carl E. Olson is editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
- August 14-20, 2005