Necessary, but Not Sufficient

September 1998By Paul Koenen

Paul Koenen is a convert to Catholicism from evangelical Christianity. He is married and has five children, and lives in Hingham, Massachusetts, where he is employed in the computer industry.

Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham.  By Billy Graham. HarperCollins Worldwide. 760 pages. $28.50.



Reading Billy Graham’s autobiography, I was reminded of the computer software salesman who is great at getting customers to buy a new product, but is a mixed blessing for the service technicians who have to install the product and answer the customers’ practical questions about how to use it. Did the salesman promise too much? Or make it look too easy? Billy Graham tells in detail how he made the sale — how he introduced people to Jesus Christ — but is regrettably vague on the follow-up.

Graham is a superb evangelist, with a basic Gospel message acceptable to Protestants and Catholics alike. He doesn’t water down the teachings on Hell and judgment, and he properly emphasizes the great sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the Cross. But his book, like his ministry, avoids the hard questions: What church should I attend, now that I have committed my life to following Jesus? Why are Christians so divided? What do Christians believe regarding the difficult issues of our day?

What does Billy Graham tell us about his beliefs? We hear that he has been a strong opponent of Communism. He championed civil rights for African-Americans, and he writes about his friendship and occasional collaboration with Martin Luther King Jr. But to hear about anti-Communism and civil rights advocacy today is not remarkable stuff. How about the current issues? There is a short sentence mentioning in an off-hand way his opposition to abortion. But he does not elaborate. One’s stance on abortion always requires a bit of explanation. A “prochoice” person might say, “I’m against abortion, but for a woman’s choice.” Where does Billy Graham stand?

Because Graham focuses so much on the introduction to Christ, we rarely learn what he thinks about the vexing, “What next?” We are led through crusade after crusade: the preparations, the numbers of people who come forward, his joy at the response, and the compliments he receives. We also get his up-close views of every American President from Truman through Clinton and his encounters with many other world leaders. But meaty discussions of issues or theology are far rarer than are the names of celebrities.

You have to wonder why he tells us such things as how many times Frank Sinatra said “Amen” while Graham prayed with Nancy Reagan, the Sinatras, and others after President Reagan was shot. Graham pauses now and then to tell us he really is more concerned with the common folk than with the glamorous and notable. He then returns to yet more stories of encounters with the rich and famous and his speaking engagements before crowds of tens of thousands.

The endless references to famous people and stupendous crowds might be worthwhile if these encounters had depth. Yet often they go nowhere. For example, recalling his trip to the Soviet Union in 1988, Graham writes, “I remember sitting on the floor talking with Cardinal John O’Connor of New York about the way Protestant-Roman Catholic relations had changed.” But just as we are asking, “What was it that you and the Cardinal said?” he briskly moves on to give us more attendance statistics and aimless anecdotes.

The question, “What does Billy Graham think of the Catholic Church?” is of special interest to me. I grew up in the Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Evangelicals love Billy Graham for the most part, and I was among the thousands who attended a Billy Graham crusade at the state fairgrounds in St. Paul in 1973. Fifteen years after that, however, I converted to the Catholic faith. I still have a warm spot in my heart for Billy and the work he does. He also appears to be well liked by prominent Catholics, including Cardinal O’Connor. Graham writes about his friendships with Cardinal Cushing of Boston and Bishop Fulton Sheen. Joseph Kennedy (John F. Kennedy’s father) reported that Pope Pius XII “said he wished he had a dozen such evangelists [like Graham] in our Church.” Graham recounts a 1964 conversation with Rose Kennedy that gives the reader a glimpse into what Graham thinks of Protestant/Catholic relations. “‘You know, I often listen to you,’ she said. ‘Even though we are Catholic, I have never heard you say anything we don’t agree with in the Bible.’” Graham then writes, “The only hope for finding common ground among Christians of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints” is “to focus on the Word of God, the ultimate authority for our faith.”

It is in this statement that we see both the common ground and the great divide. Catholics and Graham agree that “the Word of God” is of ultimate importance, but they interpret “the Word” in drastically different ways. Does Billy Graham see this? Graham interprets the Word of God to be the Bible, the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. Catholics believe that the Word existed in the beginning, that the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, and that the Word, through the work of the Holy Spirit, guides us through Scripture (including the Deuterocanonical books), Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church. This Catholic version is nowhere near the sola scriptura of Martin Luther and Billy Graham. Exploring these differences might have been interesting, but Graham instead offers us banal observations on the order of “Can’t we all just get along?”

Graham recounts a conversation with President Lyndon Johnson in which Graham asked the President directly, “have you ever personally, definitely received Jesus Christ as your Savior?” The President replied somewhat haltingly that he thought he had done so several times. Graham reports that he “carefully” suggested to the President that several times was too many. “‘It’s a once-for-all transaction,’ I said.”

Something about Graham’s formulation suggests to me — as a former Evangelical turned Catholic — why Graham spends so little time talking about the life of a Christian after the decision for Christ. The Catholic pattern of continual recommitment, of the life of the sacraments, of Confession and Communion — of being “born again” frequently, if you will — is in sharp contrast to Graham’s “once-for-all transaction.” If that transaction seals your fate, how important is what comes afterward?

I do not intend to be stinting in praise of a man who has introduced so many people to Christ. Yet the reasons for my disappointment with his book reflect what seem to me the shortcomings of his message. The Gospel is more than an invitation to meet Jesus. There is the matter of taking up one’s cross — daily. Our decision to follow Christ is more than a once-for-all transaction. It marks the beginning of a great journey to which we must recommit ourselves frequently. Billy Graham does a good job of making the initial sale, but he has little to offer for the follow-up.



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