More Than A Singing Cow

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It’s not often I ask someone to pray for me before going to a museum or library. But last year I did ask that of my brother-in-law because going into the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte N.C. was a test of my skeptical nature.

Growing up in the middle of the post-WWII evangelical culture, I was exposed to some of the giants of that era: Bill Bright, Elton Trueblood, Billy Graham, Ray Stedman, and others. They were men and women of great faith and vision living in a time of extraordinary expansion of the parachurch movement, seminaries, megachurches, and global ministries. Sadly, many of us carried along in that stream were all too familiar with the dark side of the other leaders and their organizations. Continent-size egos; the corrupting influences of wealth, power, and acclaim; and the inevitable accumulation of an admiring bureaucracy took much of the gleam off.

Today we call those who are disappointed with organized religion the “nones.” We were simply disillusioned and cynical. Too young to have any genuine perspective, we saw up close and clearly the soft white underbelly of American evangelicalism – and we left. Some of us returned to our roots and discovered what T.S. Eliot said is true: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

So, I prayed I would be kind as we walked in the front door of the Billy Graham Library. I knew the now infamous talking and singing cow that greets every visitor at the beginning of the tour was going to be difficult to ignore – and it was. Franklin Graham’s explanation that it will teach children what he sees as the central message of his father’s life: that God can do mighty works with anyone who submits to him even a poor farm boy, is a stretch.

However, once past that the Library is neither the shrine I expected nor the $27-million monument to an individual who was so often reported along with stories of discord and rifts within the Graham family. Yes, Billy Graham’s response after his first tour was “Too much Billy Graham ” and maybe he’s right. However, the team of designers and curators has, with only a few exceptions, managed to create an experience that honors his ministry without manufacturing a myth.

Yes, there are areas of his life and ministry that have been glossed and buffed but it is hard to imagine anyone being put off by what is so obvious: Billy Graham has been a man of extraordinary integrity faith commitment, innovative energy, and humility. His own professed and public self-doubts have distinguished him from many of the overly confident and driven leaders so anxious to accumulate followers and fame.

As a seminary student at Harvard Divinity in 1975, I wrote a paper on the faith development of Billy Graham. My professor and fellow students saw him as part of a larger religious sideshow. In fact, when it was proposed that Graham come and speak to the student body, he was voted down loudly. No one wanted someone of such questionable theological sophistication on the campus.

Two decades later, Billy Graham was invited to speak at the chapel of the Kennedy School of Government and what follows is part of the introduction given by the campus chaplain, Peter Gomes:

“I invited the Reverend Graham to preach because he was an outstanding spokesman for the Christian faith and I wanted to give him the chance to be heard more widely and especially at Harvard University”.

Gomes said that in the past two decades Graham’s stature had risen and he was thrilled that the invitation to speak next month was accepted.“This is an occasion of recognition and honor to one of the great figures of the 20th century.”

I encourage you to visit the Library and witness not a memorial or shrine but a testament to a life of integrity, honesty, and calling.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before joining Leadership Network, where he served as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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