GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

Web sites, TV, films, books and the search for meaning.

Billy Graham also made his mark in media and technology

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Many people think of the Rev. Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21 at the age of 99, more as a preacher than a master of media technology. But his work in TV, film, radio, publishing and the Internet form part of his legacy as much as large-scale evangelism.

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Billy Graham in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

He and his staff even occasionally set the pace for innovation. Their satellite-assisted telecrusades in 1995 and 1996 reached hundreds of millions of listeners in more than 200 countries, with live translation into 50 languages.

World Wide Pictures, founded by Graham, has turned out more than 125 feature films — sports, comedy, adventure, even a Latin America soap — all with an evangelistic purpose. Among the most notable was The Hiding Place in 1975, a moody, gritty look at the Dutch effort to rescue Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Graham’s two dozen books sold millions of copies in 38 languages. His 1975 book Angels: God’s Secret Agents sold a million copies within 90 days, according to his organization. The Jesus Generation sold 200,000 copies in two weeks of 1971. And the autobiography Just As I Am in 1997 appeared on three best-seller lists in one week — a “triple crown,” his group called it.

The Hour of Decision radio program has aired Sundays for more than 50 years. He also helped launch two magazines: Decision, for evangelism and inspiration; and Christianity Today, examining social and theological issues.

 — Jim Davis


Written by Jim Davis

February 23, 2018 at 5:35 pm

For Billy Graham, Florida was a home away from home

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The Rev. Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21, bore twin imprints: both an urbane, globetrotting evangelist and a son of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. But my home state of Florida was a frequent stop for Graham — from his first sermons to alligators, to visits with close relatives.

Over the years, Graham preached in 15 Florida cities from Miami to Jacksonville to Tallahassee to St. Petersburg. He also comforted victims of Hurricane Andrew, praying publicly along with a rabbi, an archbishop and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.


Billy Graham in an undated photo. Courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

As he often did, he urged his listeners to look beyond immediate circumstances.

“If you lost your house here, you have another house,” Graham preached in Homestead in September 1992. “And it is a far more beautiful house that God is building.”

He returned to Homestead that November, helping son Franklin and others hand out 750 Thanksgiving dinners and Bibles.

He often picked Fort Lauderdale for board meetings of his evangelistic association, piggybacking visits with his daughter, inspirational writer Gigi Graham Tchividjian, in Coral Springs, and her seven children.

“We always knew we had a famous grandfather; we’d see Daddy Bill on TV,” said the Rev. Stephan Tchividjian Jr., president of the board for the National Christian Foundation of South Florida. “He was never the usual kind of grandfather that you’d go fishing with. But we could call him any time, and he often took us to his crusades.”

While attending Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, Graham said he preached as often as seven times on a Sunday on a street corner and saloons. In 1937, he practiced preaching to birds and alligators on an island in the Hillsborough River.

“If they would not listen, there was always a congregation of cypress stumps that could neither slither nor fly away,” he wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am.

The young minister gave his first church sermons in 1937 in Bostwick, near St. Augustine — so nervously that he rushed through four sermons in eight minutes.

He was more seasoned by the time he gave dedication speeches at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in 1974, and Boca Raton Community Church in 1981. At the latter speech, he adeptly worked in a reference to the space shuttle Columbia, making its maiden flight at Cape Canaveral the same day.

It was a Florida senator, George Smathers, who introduced Graham to John F. Kennedy just after the 1960 presidential election. The evangelist gleefully accepted, according to his autobiography – but only after checking with another friend, Richard Nixon, who lost the election.

South Florida Christians saw firsthand Graham’s ability to bring people together. At Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium, he held an eight-day crusade in 1985, with support from 420 churches and total audience of 166,500 people.

“We wondered if [the crusade] would be 15 minutes of excitement, then vanish,” said Lutheran Pastor Darrell Stuehrenberg, who chaired the church committee for the crusade. “But it got us out of our own little worlds. It was well worth the energy and effort.”

While visiting South Florida, Graham often wore a baseball hat to hide his leonine mane — but not always. “Sometimes he didn’t want to be noticed; other times he liked it,” Tchividjian Jr. said, adding with a smile: “… just like the rest of us.”


— James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

February 23, 2018 at 3:52 pm

Billy Graham was the face of evangelicalism for two generations

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Image courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

I wrote an obituary for Billy Graham while I was religion editor at a daily newspaper. The paper has given me permission to run the story here.

Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21 at the age of 99, was the face and voice of evangelical Christianity for two generations.

He was believed to have preached to more people than anyone else — nearly 215 million in 185 nations and territories. Hundreds of millions more saw him on TV and online, heard him via radio, read his newspaper column, and saw him in movies produced by his film outfit.

Though the media varied, his message stayed the same: Give your life to Christ and become a new person.

“Jesus said it’s possible to start life all over again,” he said at his 2005 farewell crusade in New York City — his 417th, since his first in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1947. “That’s why he said you must be born again.”

Despite a few image flaps — a very few, considering his six decades in the public eye — he remained among the most admired men, as revealed by numerous Gallup polls starting in 1948.

“He stands out above other evangelists,” said sociologist William Martin of Rice University, author of the Graham biography A Prophet With Honor.

Martin called the Rev. Graham the individual most responsible for the growth of modern evangelicalism, a vigorous conservative Christianity that emphasizes Bible truths, individual salvation and spreading the message to others.

“He made evangelicals aware of being a movement of consequence,” Martin said. “He brought people together and showed them what they have in common.”

Billy Graham is probably the individual most responsible for the growth of modern evangelicalism, a vigorous conservative Christianity that emphasizes Bible truths, individual salvation and spreading the message to others.

He seemed born to make an arresting public presence: 6-foot-2 tall, with sharp nose, square jaw, swept-back hair, intense blue eyes casting a hooded, piercing gaze.

He developed a preaching style to match: pacing a stage, clutching a leatherback Bible in one hand, pointing or chopping with the other, baritone voice booming his message. In face-to-face talks, however, he presented a humble, engaging side that often won over skeptical journalists.

Born Nov. 7, 1918, William Franklin Graham Jr. was the oldest of four children in a dairy farming family near Charlotte, N.C. He became a believer at a revival in Charlotte in 1934, a service that featured the hymn Just As I Am. He later made it a standard invitation hymn at his crusades.

Although he never styled himself an intellectual, he attended three schools: Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tenn.; Florida Bible Institute (now Trinity College) near Tampa, and Wheaton College in Illinois. At Wheaton, he earned a degree in anthropology, an unusual field for a minister. He was ordained a Southern Baptist clergyman in 1939.

Also at Wheaton, he met Ruth Bell, the daughter of a missionary to China. They married in 1943, a bond that would last nearly 64 years and produce five children. She died in 2007.

In 1945, Graham became vice president of the fledgling Youth For Christ. His boss, Torrey Johnson, later pastored what is now Boca Raton Community Church and hosted a speech by Graham there in 1981. Johnson passed away in 2002.

Under YFC, Graham held youth rallies across the U.S., Canada and Europe. Although he said God gave him success, he acknowledged it was jump-started by media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

In 1949, goes an oft-told story, Hearst was impressed by the young evangelist — and when Graham planned a three-week crusade in Los Angeles, Hearst telegrammed two words to his newspapers: “PUFF GRAHAM.” The crusade stretched more than seven weeks.

Graham won another ally during a crusade in Columbia, S.C. The audience included publisher Henry Luce, who then had articles written on him in Time and Life magazines. The evangelist formed his own Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950 in Minneapolis, when he was president of Northwestern Christian Schools there.

Dubbed by many “the nation’s pastor,” Graham often stood with leaders during public tragedies. He prayed in Oklahoma City with families of victims after a terrorist bombing. He joined President Bush, plus other religious leaders, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to mourn the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Graham was also there to console victims of natural disasters. He and son Franklin gave spiritual and material aid in South Florida after Hurricane Andrew. They also visited New Orleans neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

At first, Graham voiced a fierce conservative mindset. During the 1950s and 1960s he called communism “anti-God, anti-Christ and anti-American,” according to biographer William Martin. Starting in the 1970s, however, he mellowed and put the gospel ahead of the Cold War, speaking in communist Hungary, then the Soviet Union and China.

“Nowhere … did Christ command us to go only into the western or capitalist world,” Graham said. “Nowhere did he say to exclude the communist world.”

He pled for the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to eliminate nuclear, biochemical and laser weapons. “We should seek the good of the whole human race, and not just the good of any one nation or race,” he said, according to Martin.

Graham insisted on integrating crusade crowds, even during the segregation era. In 1953 in Chattanooga, Tenn., he personally pulled down ropes separating white from black sections. The head usher resigned in protest.

Graham preached in places shunned by other conservative Christians as bastions of evil – such as New York, where he held six crusades between 1957 and 2005. His worldwide crusade trek reached Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. The German press in 1954 called him “God’s machine gun” for his rapid-fire delivery. At a rally in 1973, he addressed 1.1 million people in Seoul.

He often took chances for the gospel, even appearing on TV shows like Laugh-In and The Tonight Show. Fundamentalist Christians sometimes accused him of compromising the message.

Some observers also saw a naivete, as in his 1982 Soviet Union visit, when he said he saw no direct evidence of repression there. He befriended every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama — although the welcome was often warmer from Republican presidents than Democrats.

The coziness bred scandal in 2002, with the airing of a taped conversation three decades earlier. The tape had Graham agreeing with President Richard Nixon that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the media and were harming America.

The revelation drew a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, which had given him an interfaith award in 1969. In response, Graham said he didn’t remember saying such things, then apologized, saying that prejudice “has no place in the human mind or heart.” Abraham Foxman, then-president ADL, accepted the apology.

Martin suggested that the evangelist “got too close to rulers. It was one reason he didn’t get involved in the religious right. He said it was too easy for preachers to be used by people who don’t have their best interests at heart.”

Graham helped bring a blue-suit respectability to evangelicalism, by introducing professional accounting and management standards. He and his team also vowed never to be alone with any women but their wives.

The practices helped him avoid the scandals that tarnished some Christian leaders, such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. “Integrity means you’re the same on the inside as on the outside,” he told the National Religious Broadcasters in 1988, at the height of those scandals. “We cannot hide.”

The Charlotte Observer caused a minor flap in 1977 with news of a “secret” $23 million fund. But Graham explained that the fund supported causes like Campus Crusade and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Growing physical problems — including a pelvic fracture, macular degeneration, hearing impairment, and Parkinson’s-like tremors caused by fluid on the brain —  eventually forced the evangelist to curtail activities. In 2000 his eldest son, Franklin, took over as CEO of the Graham organization, then moved its headquarters to Charlotte, N.C., three years later.

After the final New York crusade, the elder Graham mainly worked on several books in his cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2006, he published The Journey, offering lessons on how to live as a Christian.

Besides Franklin, two other descendants have carried on Graham’s fervent evangelism: daughter Anne Graham Lotz, who heads a group called AnGel Ministries, and grandson William Franklin Graham IV, an associate evangelist with BGEA.

Among Billy Graham’s many awards were the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Southern Baptist Convention, of which he was a member, placed a 9-foot statue of him near its headquarters in Nashville. He was the namesake of a center for evangelism at Wheaton College, and a museum of his ministry and memorabilia in Charlotte. And the street in front of the museum was renamed Billy Graham Parkway.

Graham was even inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame ­­– the first non-musician there — because his crusades showcased the likes of Christian rockers Jars of Clay, jazz great Ethel Waters and country star Johnny Cash.

None of the accolades swayed Graham from his basic message — which he sounded in one of his last major public sermons, at a 2006 rally led by son Franklin in Baltimore.

“You’d better decide for Christ here and now, because you never know when your time is coming to leave this world,” he told more than 35,000 listeners, perhaps speaking of his own mortality as well. “Whoever you are, you come and say yes to Jesus. Let him bring his peace into your heart and give you a new start in your life.”

This report was supplemented with wire services and material from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

— Jim Davis 


Written by Jim Davis

February 23, 2018 at 2:17 am

Ash Wednesday starts the Lenten season today

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Ash Wednesday service

Lt. Donelson Thevenin, a Navy chaplain, distributes ashes on the forehead of a Marine on Ash Wednesday 2014 in the library of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer. (Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

Boisterous Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday celebrations give way today to Ash Wednesday, the start of six weeks of Lent. The season is a period of solemnity before Good Friday, the traditional observance of Jesus’ death, which will fall on March 30 this year.

Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes daubed on the faithful as a sign of penitence, with the traditional words, “Remember you are dust and will return to dust.”

Lent is a somber season marked by prayer, introspection and repentance. For Catholics, it also includes fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays for those 14 years and older.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

February 14, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication

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For Hanukkah, the menorah has two extra branches, for the eight days of the holiday. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com)

Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.

The founding events took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth, when Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.

The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but ound only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.

Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.

Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.

A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin. The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 12, 2017 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Advent, the season of Christmas

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Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.

Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.

Today starts Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse tree, often decorated by children in church schools. It’s is named for Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of King David, who was an ancestor of Jesus.

The Jesse tree, which doesn’t have to be a pine, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life. The tree therefore connects Christmas with centuries of scripture.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 3, 2017 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tongues of fire: Today is Pentecost Sunday for Christians

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Dove in a sunburst at St. Jude’s Church, Boca Raton, symbolizes the Holy Spirit. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Pentecost, the day that Christians say the Holy Spirit of God descended on the first believers, is celebrated in churches worldwide today. On this day, according to the New Testament, the apostles of Jesus saw the Spirit in the shape of “tongues of fire,” giving them power to preach and evangelize.

Taking its name from its timing, just short of 50 days after Easter Sunday, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the church.” It’s the Christian equivalent of Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of weeks, which fell this year on Tuesday, May 30. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrate Pentecost with bright red vestments and church trappings, symbolizing the flame of the Spirit.


Written by Jim Davis

June 4, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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