I love biographies that do more than chronicle a man’s life. I want to know the facts, but I also appreciate some interpretation. Which is why I found Grant Wacker’s new book on Billy Graham so satisfying. The entire book is sprinkled with interesting anecdotes and points of application, but the last chapter is particularly useful, for here Wacker provides an evaluation of Graham’s strengths and weaknesses.
Cracks in the Marble
“In the glow of nostalgia,” Wacker writes, “it is easy to forget that Graham, like all great leaders, made serious mistakes” (291). Among the more minor offenses, Wackers notes that Graham was a “notorious apple-polisher,” an “egregious namedropp[er],” and had a penchant for hyperbole (291-292).
More seriously, Wacker details four major problems that damaged the effectiveness of his ministry.
1. Graham struggled to stay out of partisan politics. Not only was Graham burned by his friendship with Nixon, he often tried to pretend he wasn’t taking a stand on partisan issues, when he would have been better to forthrightly show his cards and not try to have it both ways.
2. Graham was perceived as being too close to the power Establishment. His cozying up to Presidents seemed, well, too cozy. He did not understand social dissidents. He was often charged with being the “high priest of America’s civil religion.”
3. Graham was prone to go along to get along. He could be overly concerned with currying favor with his audience and hoisting his sails to the prevailing wind.
4. Graham did not bother with ambiguity, irony, paradox, or complexity. He seemed naive (or studied to be naive?) about theological differences, academic problems, and political dynamics (especially overseas).
As a historian, Wacker did not focus on theological weaknesses, but one can see from this problem areas how Graham could be overly accommodating to aberrant theological views.
Contours in the Marble
Despite these cracks, Wacker sees much in Graham’s life that is praiseworthy and genuinely inspirational.
1. Character. The list of virtues is long: Graham possessed a default preference for looking outward instead of inward. He was marked by an “extrospective cheerfulness,” what Wacker later describes as “an irenic disposition blended with an irrepressible sense of humor.” Millions of people all over the world simply liked Billy Graham. He was not timid–he would talk to anyone and go anywhere.
Most of all, Graham’s character shone “in the integrity of his personal life: financial probity, marital fidelity, devotional regularity, and recreational prudence.” When you think about it, it really is remarkable that someone of Graham’s power and fame never fell prey to the familiar sins of financial impropriety and sexual infidelity.
2. Mind. Not normally reputed for his intellect, Graham had a gifted mind in ways that are easy to miss. He was savvy. He spotted good talent and kept them around. He possessed common sense and a keen understanding of what resonated with ordinary people. He was comfortable in his own (mental) skin, never trying to be intellectually what he wasn’t.
Above all he had what historians call “intellectual virtue.” Wacker’s summary is well put: “That virtue traded on curiosity, engagement, agility, common sense, and deep insight. Billy Graham was no Karl Barth. But then, Karl Barth was no Billy Graham.”
3. Charisma. Graham was winsome, easy-going, quick-witted, good looking, affable, and an instinctive communicator. He spoke the language of everyday folks, without ever seeming to talk down to them in the process. He was expansionist, bold, and visionary in a way that Americans especially appreciated. Throughout his ministry, he remained confident and future-oriented.
And not to be overlooked, Graham’s personal humility allowed people to excuse the excesses of namedropping and self-promotion. “People who encountered him, personally or through film archives, including critics, almost always spoke of his humility, or at least his likeability.” He was critical of himself and sincerely interested in others.
The lesson I come back to after all good biographies is the same: our greatest strengths are bound to be our greatest weaknesses. We can see how inattention to nuance and ambiguity go along with self-confidence and visionary plans, just like “going along to get along” is the underbelly of being a profoundly likeable person.
So I end up wanting to pray two things: Lord, make me aware of my weaknesses, especially as they relate to my strengths. And let me not dismiss the heroes of the faith just because their marble was full of cracks.