Posted by: Dan | September 17, 2005

A response from Stackhouse

I recently submitted a revised edition of my earlier post on Billy Graham to a student published paper at my school. This is the revised version:

One of the regular critiques of Medieval Christendom highlights the way in which infant baptism became the method by which entire societies and whole nations of people were made Christian. There was little focus on discipleship or the formation of a Christian identity that posed any sort of challenge to the reigning powers. Within Christendom one was simply born into both the Church and the state and one revealed oneself to be a model Christian by living as a model citizen. Naturally those of us who live after Christendom have good reason to question such an understanding of Christian identity.

However, what we tend to overlook is that this is essentially what Billy Graham did to American Christianity in the twentieth century. Only Reverend Graham made it even easier. No ritual was required – all that one had to do was ask Jesus into one’s heart in order to be a born again Christian. Once more being a good Christian was equated with being a good citizen. Christians were those committed to the morals and values of America. With such an understanding of Christianity there was little need for any sort of ongoing discipleship, identity formation, or the practice of the disciplines that build Christian virtues. Billy could just travel from arena to arena and soon America was (yet again?) a Christian nation.

The result of this was churches closely linked to social and political power full of people who didn’t have a clue about what it meant to live as a part of the people of God. Consequently, as the Christian gloss over the practice of socio-political power has become increasingly unnecessary these churches have discovered themselves to be impotent, uninteresting, and empty. Essentially Reverend Graham built God’s house on the sand. But, as Jesus said, such houses will not stand when the storm comes. The storm has come and the house that Billy built has collapsed.

After Christendom’s history of false baptisms the Church needs to return to a truer understanding of this sacrament. After all, one becomes a Christian not by having Christ “in me” but by being in Christ. Graham proclaimed a gospel that placed Jesus in my heart and thereby made me, the individual, the body of Christ. Yet St. Paul is clear that what matters is not having Jesus in my heart but being in Christ – and this is what baptism is all about. One is baptized into Christ and into Christ’s body, the Church. We, the Church (not I, the individual) are the body of Christ.

Therefore, baptism rightly understood is seen as the act by which one becomes committed to the discipleship, the formation, and the discipline of the Church. Of course this is much more demanding than simply asking Jesus into one’s heart, and I suspect that it is the demands of discipleship (disguised as an aversion to ritual?) that have caused baptism to lose its significance in the contemporary Church. However, it is crucial that we recover the centrality of baptism. For since it links the individual believer to the body of Christ it is a genuinely salvific act.

It should be emphasized that those who undergo this baptism cannot remain on intimate or comfortable terms with socio-political powers. In baptism one becomes crucified with Christ – and Christ was crucified by the socio-political powers. Therefore, to try and wield such power is a (literally) violent contradiction of Christian identity.

Once again Graham’s (per)version of the gospel misses this central point. Billy takes the gospel of the New Testament – the good news of Jesus’ Lordship – and turns it into a message that offers individual souls a way to get into heaven when the body dies. Such an individualistic, disembodied, and otherworldly gospel means that Billy has no problem being connected to socio-political powers. Yet when one understands the gospel as the proclamation of Jesus’ Lordship one cannot help but be drawn into conflict with state powers. It is baptism into the communal practice of cruciformity that is the true foundation of God’s House.

Interestingly enough Dr. John Stackhouse wrote a response that will be printed in this week's paper. For those who are curious, here it is:

I write in regard to Dan’s piece, “Jesus in My Heart: How Billy Graham Built God’s House on Sand.” I am dismayed by it.

To be sure, I am not against vigorous, opinionated journalism. (The record shows that I have undertaken a bit of it myself.) Nor am I against criticism of the North American evangelical movement. (Ditto.)

I want to say, furthermore, that I like Dan personally, I have enjoyed having him in my courses, and I respect his commitment especially to the poor. He is a zealous Christian.

Alas, this article shows some of his zeal, at least, to be “without knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). As one who has published scholarly research on Billy Graham, I can categorically say that Dan does not understand Brother Graham either historically or theologically.

Historically, Billy Graham has not played the role Dan ascribes to him in the development of either evangelicalism or American culture. The tensions in American culture that trouble Dan about religion and society go back to the Puritans of America’s founding. There is no big change with Graham in these tensions, and it is wildly inaccurate, not to say libelous, to lay these issues at his door.

Theologically, Billy Graham simply does not say what Dan thinks he says. Having myself listened to dozens of Graham’s sermons and read hundreds of pages of his writing and of his biographers’, I wonder on what basis Dan presumes to characterize Billy Graham’s message. Graham has always emphasized holiness of life and the importance of church membership, and his organization has worked hard in both publications and in programs to link those who sign “decision cards” at rallies with local churches to avoid exactly the kind of cheap conversion against which Dan inveighs.

Others in our community likely will want to take issue with Dan”s soteriological and ecclesiological musings, including his highly selective reading of the New Testament, in which he privileges the language of “in Christ” while ignoring even denigrating–the multiple uses of Christ in us (e.g., John 15:1-10; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27).

For now, I will simply point out that Dan has built his criticism of Billy Graham not on the rock of serious scholarship, but on the sand of journalistic impression. Such a criticism cannot be allowed to stand, and it will not.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture

Yowza!

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