Billy Graham & the End of the Evangelical Age

I heard the news via Twitter, I think, the other day, that Billy Graham had died.  I admit I have never been terribly interested either in the man or his crusades, but have admired him from a distance, if not terribly intensely.  However, news of his passing affected me more than I would have anticipated.  I supposed older journalists probably had pieces written in their drawers for when this day would come, but I never gave it much thought.   It is pretty obvious to most that with his death, an era is coming to an end or has already done so; it is difficult to tell, in the moment.  Only with time will that become clear.  But the reasons I care are more personal.

A few years ago, I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, and I recall being spectacularly bored by it.  She is a fine writer, but seems allergic to storytelling, mainly, or so it appeared to me, because any hint of excitement or pleasure for the reader would undermine the intellectual integrity of her work.  Better to be boring and retain your reputation for seriousness, I guess.  But part of the reason I couldn’t get into the novel was because it was a eulogy for the religious world of liberal Protestantism in the 1950s–intellectual, dedicated to the socially moderate, sensible, at home-in-the-world sort of Calvinist Protestantism that Robinson adheres to.  I don’t share that nostalgia because, frankly, I don’t think much of value is lost by its passing.

With Billy Graham, it is much different.  To me, he may be the last representative of the English speaking, Free Church tradition as it descended from the 18th century–from German Pietism, the Wesleys and Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakenings in America, all those circuit riding Methodist preachers and Baptists revivalists from the 19th century–that Evangelical empire that reshaped the face of the country following the passing of the Revolutionary generation, and which did so much to perpetuate the free-spiritedness (for good and ill) that has made America unique, culturally and religiously speaking.  Perhaps their heirs will persist, but it will never again command the allegiance it once did.  And this, in contrast to the world that Robinson laments, seems a loss to me.

Independence of mind is not an absolute virtue, and in the spiritual life, it can be deadly.  Obedience is the greater part of holiness.  But it is something that one needs, to enter into that higher phase of spiritual growth.   We start with evil dependence, grow into independence from it, then onto the higher dependence upon Jesus Christ.  It seems to me that this was the great contribution of Evangelicalism at its height:  its rejection of any central church authority necessarily made it less theologically toxic than say the more traditional Protestant bodies, and focused more narrowly on the lives of individual baptized, and therefore, on personal holiness.  At least to a Catholic, this seems more spiritually fruitful, and is perhaps why so many converts (joyful, faithful, and holy) I have known have come from one of those traditions.

When I was deciding where I should find my spiritual home, after abandoning atheism, I never seriously considered any of the bodies associated with this tradition.  This was partly, I realize now, a cultural and social decision, rather than a theological one.  I knew that the theology of most Evangelical churches was pretty thin, but that wasn’t the primary reason.  Part of it was Evangelicals were seen as anti-intellectual, and I was in graduate school, so it didn’t fit with my aspirations at the time.  Moreover, where I grew up, in the South, it was the predominant religious affiliation, and this would have made it suspect in my mind.  I partly found my way into the Catholic Church because it seemed foreign, strange; I think I blamed my society in some way for allowing me to fall into atheism in the first place, and so I was looking for something as alien to it as possible.  Something in Evangelicalism had not allowed me to embrace it, and that was enough for me.  I had always felt there was something artificial, something inauthentic about it.

I realize better now, having been a Catholic for almost fifteen years, that the opposite was the case:  truth invites counterfeits, as I have learned only too well in the Catholic Church.  And it is likely that counterfeiters are better at advertising themselves than are the real thing.  No, the problem with the Evangelical movement is its incompleteness, its lack of truth, lack of connection to the mystical body of Christ.  But there was less in the way of embracing what it did not lack, at least for individual believers, than in other Protestant traditions, I think.  And what it produced, it produced in abundance.  Billy Graham was living proof of that.  I lament that those good, decent souls remain outside the Church, and deny themselves the grace of the sacraments.  I pray for their entrance into it, and for Billy Graham, and though I think its demise was inevitable, the society that produced such fruits is deserving of being remembered, even if they were the product of severed communion.

Billy Graham, 1919-2018:  Memory Eternal



~ by Alypius on February 23, 2018.

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