Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Why Did Graham Preach Sinners?

There has been a really wonderful response to our online exhibit about Billy Graham's preaching of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Looking at this week's cover of Time magazine, it seems clear that now is the time to be thinking about the man who was not only the 20th century's more popular evangelist but also the presidential pastor-in-residence.

As such, I'd like to highlight a question that remains in my mind at fifty years distance from Graham's preaching of Sinners: Why did he choose to preach it?

  • Was he out of sermon ideas?
  • Did Sinners simply interest him?
  • Was he trying to get a reaction from a complacent crowd using a surefire rhetorical tactic that he would later regret, as a couple of biographers have noted?
  • Or was there something more going on, some kind of theological alignment in which Graham showed himself to bear the colors of traditional American theological orthodoxy while modifying it slightly for the sake of his national political context?

This is a question that Andrew Finstuen takes up in his very fine article found on our website as part of the Graham/Sinners exhibit.

Here's a lengthy quote from Andrew's paper:

"...If Graham’s reassurances were ultimately inconsequential to the larger theme of the sermon, his moral gloss on behavioral sins, although brief, was an important departure from the original text. At a point where Edwards commented upon the “torments of hell” that resided in “the very nature of carnal men,” Graham decried the sins of “the people on the Sunset Strip” and of “the people in the gambling dens of iniquity tonight in Los Angeles.” Whereas Edwards was in this passage more alert to sin as a state of being, Graham remarked upon particular sins, such as those of the Sunset Strip—likely a reference to sex and alcohol—and those of the gambling den.

This moralistic tendency was a signature aspect of Graham’s ministry. Both at the Los Angeles Crusade and in his subsequent campaigns and books he often discussed sin as a matter of bad behavior rather than as a constitutive aspect of human character. Sex and alcohol were some of his favorite targets for his diatribes against particular “sins.” For example, sex—which Graham called “America’s greatest sin” in 1955—threatened “the very structure of our society!” Evidence of licentiousness was everywhere. The “outward signs of inward impurity” included “the shifty eye” and the “lewd stare.” Such alarmist comments became less frequent as Graham matured theologically, though he never completely eliminated such hyperbole from his sermons and books. As late as 1965, for example, he warned that immorality would be the undoing of western civilization, observing that the decadent “moral binge” of mid-century superseded even the excesses of pagan Rome.
Graham’s admittedly embellished denunciations of the poor state of American morality masked his concern for the larger problem of concupiscence, the theological term for the sin of unlimited desire. Graham, to be sure, did not provide a full account of this deeper interpretation of desire in 1949. But as his career advanced into the next decade he developed this aspect of his theology of sin. For Graham, the void present among Christians and non-Christians who lacked a personal relationship with Jesus Christ drove them to “search for something” that might give life meaning, peace, and happiness. This search sent humans in all directions, and many Americans, Graham asserted, preferred the “altars of appetite and desire” to the wisdom of God. The outcome of these searches was always the same: emptiness and misery.

Graham did not, however, indict worldly pleasures as such, but the flagrant abuse of pleasure. For example, even sex was not sinful in itself, but rather it was the misuse of sex that concerned Graham. His emphasis on such particular sins likewise veiled his insistence that “right living” had nothing to do with salvation. Although he often appeared to preach a gospel of good behavior, Graham insisted throughout his career, just as Edwards had done in his warning against the morally calculated life, that that no one earned, by behavior or otherwise, the blessing of God. As he definitively stated in his best selling Peace With God in 1953, Christians could not “worship, or moralize [their] way to God.” These subtleties, though, were often lost amidst his own moral jeremiads and the prejudices of his many critics.

Apart from Graham’s condemnation of the Sunset Strip, the second noteworthy departure form “Sinners” was his decision to stop preaching well short of Edwards’s original conclusion...."

Click here to download Finstuen's paper


Blogger SB said...

I don't know if I completely agree with the emphasis you placed Finstuen comments-it's true that there was a moralisitic/simplistic/arminian view of sin but he still saw sin as important to preach against and he still saw Christ as victor over sin-you could argue against the fruit of those crusades but I believe Southern California still has a bible belt as a result of those months of preaching. A Harvest was reaped.

I still think the Billy Graham/Sinner's exhibit is a blessing

7:28 am  

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