Splashing around in theology.

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Location: Ottawa, Canada

I read lots. I have a cat. I drink coffee. Therefore, I am.

Friday, August 11, 2006


The latest issue of Newsweek magazine features legendary evangelist Billy Graham, as their exclusive cover story.
The subject line reads, Billy Graham: In Twilight. His New Thinking on Politics, The Bible & The Prospect of Death.
So I picked the thing up, and read the article.
I must admit that I have always liked Billy Graham, and still do. I even attended one of his gi-normously stadium-packed meetings, a number of years ago.
Of all of the famous television evangelists out there, he has always seemed to me to be the least “nutty” of them all. Down-to-earth [so to say], respectable, trustworthy, sincere, calm. ← These are all words I would use to describe Billy Graham.
However, the great majority of other television preachers conjure an entirely opposite grouping of adjectives in my mind. Words like → shyster, crazy, greedy, prejudiced, ignorant, and severely unintelligent, would top the listing.
Sad, but true.

Billy Graham, ordained in 1939, has preached the Gospel to more human beings than anyone in history. He is now 87 years old. Earlier this summer, upon awaking in the night, Graham tried to recite the 23rd Psalm, and found that he lost his train of thought after the very first line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Speaking of it later, he said, “I missed a sequence, and that disturbed me.”
Clearly, the years, the decades of ceaseless traveling, are taking their toll. He has undergone several brain operations and must rely upon shunts to fight hydrocephalus. He has had a broken hip and a broken pelvis, and is now suffering from prostate cancer.
I will not recount all that this article covered here, but I do recommend it to anyone interested in the current state of Mr. Graham.
[In fact, the article is available, here]!
However, I read the piece because the subtitle seemed to promise a bit of a glimpse into some specific theological areas where Mr. Graham may have somewhat changed his perspective [his viewpoint or conclusions] over the years.
That is to say, what interested me most in the cover headline was the mention of His New Thinking on…. → The Bible.

Here are a few pertinent extracts [quotes].

“There are many things that I don’t understand. Sincere Christians can disagree about the details of Scripture and theology – absolutely.”

“I’m not a literalist [about the Bible] in that every jot and tittle is from the Lord. This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.”

“It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be [in heaven] and who won’t… I don’t want to speculate on all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

To me, these are very significant statements, [the last one, especially so] and reflect a more rational, mature approach to Scripture than is often represented by fundamentalist types that are too often ranting on our airwaves… be it on television, radio, or in person!
I am speculating here, but Graham’s second statement seems to suggest that an earlier [younger] Graham would have been more hard-line on the 100% 24-hour-a-day literal interpretation of Scripture.

The article is clear to point out that in no way do these above concessions imply that Mr. Graham is questioning the fundamentals of his faith.
Jon Meacham [the author of the article] states that Graham “is not saying that Jesus is just another lifestyle choice, nor is he backtracking on essentials such as the Incarnation or the Atonement. But he is arguing that the Bible is open to interpretation, and fair-minded Christians may disagree or come to different conclusions about specific points. Like Saint Paul, he believes human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much. ‘Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror,’ Paul wrote, ‘then we shall see face to face.’ Then believers shall see: not now, but then.”
I would point out that even this latter statement, however, [this reference to the original verse found in 1 Corinthians 13:12 and the subsequent interpretation one attaches to it], is, in itself, the result of a literal rendering of the figurative illustration originally presented. [ie., images in a mirror].
In other words, it becomes a literal expectation of a future event, that “event” being the believer’s future state of near-omniscience!
And so it is that I am reminded of the arbitrariness with which we [all of us] approach our understanding of Scripture and/or sacred texts.

For instance, Billy Graham accepts [in the article] that the exact meaning of the word “day” in the creation account of Genesis is figurative. Yet, on the other hand, he believes that Jonah was swallowed by an actual whale.
With all due respect, the decision to NOT see the story of Jonah as equally symbolic or metaphorical seems arbitrary, to me.

In a similar example, one may [choose to] believe that the creation account does not refer to a literal Adam and Eve [ie., to the idea of the procreation of the entire human race as being generated from these two prototypical people]… and yet believe that the account of Jesus walking on the water refers to an actual literal space-time historical event!
But what would one be basing this [seemingly, to me] arbitrary distinction upon?
Mere preference? Some sort of inner acceptance valve?
Of course, some things [even etymologically so] are more obviously figurative than others. For instance, when the Gospel writers have Jesus claim that he is “the bread of life”, they do not mean to imply that at some point in actual history, Jesus thought that he was an actual [literal] loaf of bread.
It is symbolic.
But that’s just it. That’s my point. What is symbolic [metaphorical] and what isn’t?

I am not meaning to criticise Billy Graham’s insistence upon believing that Jonah was swallowed by a real large fish… but what I am emphasizing is that even after nearly a CENTURY of his study of the Bible, there is no consistent way of PROVING [once and for all] the difference between literal and figurative.
How do I know this?
→ → I know it by simply acknowledging that there are theologians who have written BOOKS in the defense of the argument that the “days” in the creation account of Genesis are referring to LITERAL 24-hour long DAYS!
In other words, they would argue that Billy Graham….. BILLY GRAHAM…. the man who has spoken about the Bible to more people than anyone else in history…. is WRONG on this particular point!
Isn’t that mind-boggling?


Anyone who thinks I am dissing Mr. Graham here, is missing my point, and missing it entirely!
I have nothing but respect and admiration for the man.

By the way, he faltered a bit with the 23rd Psalm, but, according to the article, in the end, the last line did come back to him…
“Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

And thus relieved, he drifted back to sleep.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised to see there aren't more posts on this site. You pose some very intriguing questions and raise some nicely controversial points.
Isn't it Billy Graham who has been from time to time considered to be the "antiChrist" figure by certain evangelical groups?

He wasn't radical or literal enough for them, I guess.

I enjoy reading you here and at your Bookpuddle site.

8/15/2006 9:09 PM  

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