Monday, August 1, 2011

The Obscene & Inspiring Billy Graham Library

My family and I visited the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, NC today. Upon arriving at the front gate, we are not charged to park or visit, but are greeted warmly and asked if it is our first time. The parking pass we're given doubles as a evangelistic tract. We pull into the lot and see the main building: a large barn-shaped structure with an enormous cross-shaped window on its front with entry doors at its foot. There is also a mock-grain silo.

The interior of the main hall is nostalgically synthetic. Perfectly trim "rustic" wood lines the walls and ceiling, vintage Sears & Roebuck signs are hung, and there is a fake barn to the right with--I kid you not--an animatronic cow which begins the library tour. Beyond the front desk are a small cafeteria and a book/trinket store, rounding out the theme park vibe. It's Graham by way of Disney.

Bessie, said cow, begins the tour with tales of Graham's early life on the farm near Charlotte, milking at the crack of dawn and eventually practicing sermons while he does his chores. The barn set has nice detail touches (further evoking Disney) like a fore-fronted, gently slumbering cat with subtle movements and a dimly-lit barn constructed with forced-perspective to create the illusion that it extends further than it does. The other "cows"'s rear ends and twitching tales are visible, growing smaller as they recede into the background. I told my groaning mom and sister that it would be more realistic if they had included animatronic defecation and the synthetic yet pungent replication of its odor.

We are ushered along to the first of several seating areas with screens detailing moments and highlights from Graham's life. These are interesting enough, but retain the kitschy quality of the Biff Tannen museum from Back to the Future II. I feared, at first, that the experience would not transcend the carefully-mannered elements of the production, but it eventually won me over through faithfulness to its raison d'etre: Graham's articulate and impassioned proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The man's preaching covers a multitude of aesthetic sins. The desperation of his soul for others to come to Christ is present in each word, each turn of phrase bursting with urgency for the redemption of humanity.

We were ushered through other exhibits and scenes: a mock-revival tent, a mock-radio station, a mock-main street with storefront and (the highlight) a mock-Berlin Wall and guard station replete with rubble, graffiti, barbed wire, and a search light. This room interwove details about the persecution of Christianity behind the iron curtain and Graham's evangelistic exploits in Eastern Europe and Russia during those years. All of these extensively utilized visual media and scenery to tell the story of Graham as a global evangelist, collectively taking on a Gump-ish quality by showing how one man carried his personality and pursuits through so many late twentieth century highlights. They also point to Graham as a man of God who harnessed the power of communications and transportation technology to become the most widely heard evangelist in world history.

It was in the next room after the Berlin Wall that I broke down. A 2005 letter to Graham from the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Australia described his Graham-led conversion experience in detail. He added that it was rare for him to ask a church in his diocese whether any in the room had been converted at the 1959 Sydney crusade and not at least see a few hands. This one particular letter momentarily stood in for Graham's global impact, implying that all over the world pockets of the faithful live indebted to the life and ministry of Billy Graham. I was deeply touched by the concern for and success with bringing the gospel to the nations, and had to sit down and cry it out.

I usually don't respond when people talk about their heroes of the faith from church history or contemporary life, but Billy Graham always commands my attention. His life and manner inspire me and reach me--probably in no small part due to his accessibility through visual media. I left the tour feeling encouraged in my faith and strengthened with desire to pursue God and his calling for my life. The synthesis of decades worth of sermons and interviews revealed a man who lived with a passionate dedication to the gospel--with integrity--consistently demonstrating a focus on Jesus and moral confidence whether he preached to a crowd or was being interviewed by Woody Allen. The transformed life of the man outdid the oppressive corniness of the library's presentation about him. (Apparently Graham himself was embarrassed after visiting the library for the first time; he wished it wasn't so exclusively focused on himself)

In an interview towards the end of the tour, given quite recently it would seem, Graham conceded that his one regret was that he didn't spend more time in prayer, meditation and study. He said he would have done the same number of evangelistic rallies, but many fewer non-evangelistic speaking engagements. This thought made an impression upon me. I was also struck by Graham's eschatological optimism: whereas many other Evangelicals think of transforming society and hoping for Christ's return as opposites, Graham remains optimistic that Christ's pending return does not mean things have to keep getting worse until he does. And that's good news I can believe in.

No comments: