Next week audiences will see Jennifer Lawrence in her first role since last fall’s infamous-for-all-sorts-of-reasonsmother!Depending on each person’s individual appetite for the type of psychological horror she and Darren Aronofsky wrought — and whether they decided to subject themselves to it at all — those audiences will either recognize yet another step in the actress’ move toward more controversial roles or find themselves awash in a brand new J.Law. This is a J.Law who tortures people with her bare hands, a J.Law who gets tortured with other people’s bare hands, a J.Law who does a Russian accent, a J.Law who does nude scenes.
That’s because Lawrence, who — it should be noted simply for the sake of it, is widely agreed upon as one of Hollywood’s biggest talents — has stepped even further away from her Silver Linings Playbook past for the spy thriller Red Sparrow. Much like her highly-anticipated September indie, Red Sparrow (and Lawrence’s participation in it) is not for the faint of heart. She plays Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina and former star dancer in the Bolshoi who, after a series of unfortunate events including but not limited to beating up her arch-nemesis with a pair of crutches, is forced into joining the SVR (that’s Russian for Foreign Intelligence Service). She winds up as a sparrow (that’s Russian for sex spy) and thus how we collectively arrive at the aforementioned torturing.
But before Red Sparrow was a big screen blockbuster it was, like many of Hollywood’s most anticipated movies, a best-selling novel first.
And in fact it’s part of a trilogy — the third and final edition of the Dominika Egorova novels hit bookshelves last week just in time for the live-action adaptation. The books are written by Jason Matthews, who was a spy himself for 33 years, although his tenure took place within the Central Intelligence Agency, not the SVR. (And he definitely wasn’t a sparrow). Matthews spoke to EW about the long career that led to the much-loved novels, and eventually the film, and it turns out it was all a total (happy) accident.
“I got a master’s degree in journalism and I headed to Washington, D.C. to find what I hoped would be a writing job,” he explains to EW. “I had no idea what I was going to do but I ended up interviewing with the State Department, with Interior and then one very gray day I interviewed with a very gray man from the CIA.”
What followed was 18 months of exhaustive background checks and polygraph tests, but he was eventually offered a job in the clandestine services and sent off to The Farm (what members of The Biz call the CIA academy) for basic training. The gig took him all over the world — mostly to places he’s not at liberty to mention — and after retirement, he realized he had amassed so many anecdotes that they were just begging to be told.
“My career was so experiential and 24/7 that I started writing down everything I did, basically for therapy,” Matthews reveals. “The books are informed by my career, but they’re fictionalized — they’re a mosaic of the people I know and the things we used to do.”
The first novel, which was adapted into the movie version, follows Egorova as she is tasked with tracking down CIA agent Nate Nash, who she eventually falls in love with — and who eventually recruits her to be a double agent, passing Russian state secrets back to the Americans. The resulting action scenes, both on the page and on screen, are infused with all sorts of industry-favorite spy tactics like surveillance detection runs (what The Biz calls SDRs) to escape enemy tails, dead drops to pass documents back and forth, and of course all the aforementioned torture-by-hand.
“I had to fictionalize what I did during my spying to basically take the teeth out of it,” Matthews says of the writing process. “The agency helped, too, because I had to get every manuscript approved by a review board at Langley to make sure I didn’t inadvertently reveal sources and methods.”
The CIA-approved novel that hit bookshelves in 2013 was so popular that Hollywood quickly came calling — 20th Century Fox bought the rights to Red Sparrow, and Francis Lawrence, who was responsible for the last three Hunger Games installments, signed on to direct. The first thing Matthews did was brace himself.
“When we sold the rights my literary agent warned me,” the author laughs. “He said selling your rights to Hollywood is like dropping your kid off at college: Keep the motor running and don’t look back.”
But his initial caution would prove to be mostly unnecessary — the on screen version is, for all intents and purposes, very similar to the literary version (Revolutionary Roadand Snitch screenwriter Justin Haythe penned the script). Due to time restrictions, (Francis) Lawrence chose to alter the book’s format of jumping back-and-forth between narrators (it tells the story from the point of view of both Dominika and Nate, as well as Dominika’s uncle, who recruited her into the SVR) and focus almost entirely on (Jennifer) Lawrence’s character — Matthews notes he was both taken with the pathos of Dominika’s story and with the idea of putting the blockbuster into the A-list actress’ hands.
Before shooting began the filmmaking team brought on Matthews as a technical advisor, in charge of reading through the script to make sure it held up to real-life spy situations (“I was not bashful in telling them that we wouldn’t do this or say that,” he admitted). Matthews also met with Joel Edgerton, who plays Nate Nash, the American spy who is also J.Law’s love interest, to help the actor get inside the character’s head. “He was very inquisitive,” says the author. “He wanted to understand what the challenges are and how a person lives that spy lifestyle.”
Matthews also visited the Budapest set to observe the filming process — he points out he was most struck by how slow-paced and detailed something as simple as a five-minute scene can be — and to offer clues about how to make the tradecraft more authentic and in line with the vibe of the Cold War. It’s in these moments that the movie feels most different from the novel: While the book doesn’t shy away from the realities (and the violence) that come with stealing Russian state secrets, seeing intimidation tactics and murder-by-cold-blooded-assassins on the big screenm — with all the sights and sounds and blood that comes along with it — can feel very jarring at times. (Again, we can’t mention the torture enough.)
EW’s Leah Greenblatt called it “brutal” and it seems that’s exactly what the team was going for: Matthews noted that the director wanted the shock value and set out to be fairly explicit during the fight scenes. While each viewer will have their own emotional journey during Red Sparrow — especially when it comes to a very specific cheese grater-weapon scenario — it’s worth pointing out that those who are squeamish will feel much more comfortable with the on-paper trilogy.
While the movie ends on what can be described as a twist-meets-cliffhanger, the ensuing novels pick up right where Jennifer Lawrence leaves off. Palace of Treasonfollows Dominika as she continues to work as a double agent and Nate as he continues to try to bring down the Russians. The Kremlin’s Candidate, which debuted last week, takes the narrative even further; this time around the SVR has its own double agent planted in the States, who is poised to take over the job of CIA Director.
While there’s no official word yet whether the team will be reprising their work for an on-screen franchise, Matthews, for his part, hasn’t ruled it out. (The final decision will, of course, hinge on both next weekend’s box office results and Lawrence’s willingness to jump back into the dark role…and another franchise.) If it does happen, here’s hoping they leave the cheese grater at home.
“The America that emerged from World War II and the Great Depression was exceptionally unified and cohesive, and possessed of an unusual confidence in large institutions,” Yuval Levin wrote in his 2016 book, “The Fractured Republic.”
“But almost immediately after the war, [America] began a long process of unwinding and fragmenting,” Levin wrote.
And so, the fact that American Christianity hasn’t given rise to a leader like Graham over the last two or three decades isn’t just a result of the fracturing of evangelicalism into different factions — the slick prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen, the strident right-wing triumphalism of Graham’s son Franklin and the theologically precise new Calvinists, to name just a few.
It’s also a story about the fragmentation of American life — arguably a reversion to the norm in American history rather than a departure from it.
The culture of mid-20th-century America was unusually cohesive and uniform. The mindset of most Americans was oriented toward joining groups and being part of something bigger. World War II also produced an increase in religiosity in general among Americans. “There was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals,” historian George Marsden said. “Especially in the late 1940s, even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western Civilization were to recover from its recent debacle.”
But as that cultural consensus gave way to the iconoclastic 1960s and 70s, America became more individualistic, less inclined to trust institutions. The Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, even the shock of the gasoline shortages all played a role.
Ward mentions that Evangelicalism — of which Graham was the most important standard-bearer — were theologically conservative low-church Protestants who rejected fundamentalism’s separatist thrust in favor of engagement with public life. This is a point not understood or appreciated by most people outside of Evangelicalism, including other Christians. To expand on Ward’s basic point in the Graham piece, I think it’s enormously important for contemporary Evangelicals to consider whether it is still possible for them to hold on to their theological conservatism while engaging with the fragmented post-Graham world.
The culture that produced Billy Graham and responded to his message was not only more unified, as Ward asserts, but it was also more Christian. The mainstream to which Graham and the Evangelicals of his day spoke to were more reachablebecause they shared a common culture, with a more or less common set of assumptions. Graham’s message echoed in the hearts and minds of Americans who heard it, even if they rejected it. You may not have responded favorably to Graham’s appeal, but you knew what he was talking about.
Today, not so much. Moreover, theological conservatism is highly contested even within Evangelicalism. On the one hand, among many, it has become thoroughly entwined with political conservatism, in a way that makes it toxic to many. Billy Graham avoided the Falwell-Robertson kind of political engagement, and after having been burned by his close association with Richard Nixon, made a special point of staying clear from politics. Today, though, it’s hard to disassociate the Evangelical “brand” from hardcore GOP activism.
On the other hand, theological liberals like Rachel Held Evans are pioneering an Evangelicalism that is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as practiced by angry and emotive liberals. If Falwell Jr. and his followers are the Republican Party’s Aging Religious Auxiliary, then RHE’s people are Woke Low-Church Progressives At Prayer.
I find myself thinking about that meeting of Catholic conservative thinkers and academics at which I was present a few years back — in particular the stark differences between the world that older Catholics see, and younger ones see. The older ones were working from a cultural framework that presumed a certain commonality, and the efficaciousness of rationality within that shared set of assumptions. The younger ones kept pointing out that that world is gone. What (in my view) they were talking about is two very different Catholic churches, though the division isn’t precisely like that of Evangelicals. The Catholic “conservatives” (a more precise term: the orthodox) still believe in the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The contemporary Catholic progressives believe in the primacy of their own consciences — and in their right to baptize as “Catholic” whatever they happen to believe.
How a church like that holds together, I don’t know. I bring it up here simply to point out that American popular culture strongly catechizes contemporary Americans toward the progressivist way of thinking. If you are going to be a theologically orthodox Catholic, you are going to have to be consciously and forcefully countercultural in all things.
Evangelicalism, like Protestantism in general, has always been fissiparous, but as Ward says, it emerged within a more unified and cohesive American culture. Now that that American culture is gone, and there are no guardrails left, how will they hold it together? Can they? Billy Graham has been retired from public life for some time now, but I believe that his death will be seen as a true milestone in American religious history.
To repeat my question: how will conservative Evangelicals hold on to their theological conservatism in a liberal, post-Christian culture? Whatever the answer, it will depend on jettisoning the categories that made sense in the life and times of Billy Graham.
When I read Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s new book, "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos," last fall, it read like a bestseller-to-be. Well-written, insightful, and best of all, practical.
Since its release in January, it has sat atop the Amazon bestseller chart. And thank God.
Peterson’s book occupied my mind for weeks after I finished it. His points, or “rules,” of personal conduct — surround yourself with people who want the best for you; pursue meaning, not expedience; speak precisely and deliberately — are universally invaluable.
It re-entered my consciousness following the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students, teachers, coaches — murdered. Fourteen others wounded — a word that insufficiently captures the horror of a bullet fired out of a rifle pulverizing whatever tissue or bone or organ it strikes.
All because of one loser who this publication will, appropriately, not name. One 19-year-old nothing who, in seven minutes, destroyed 17 worlds and permanently damaged countless more.
He, like every one of America’s other young, school shooters since Columbine, is male. And like many, he grew up without a father present, is not socialized, is a loner, is not religious, sees himself as a victim, is angry and depressed, wants to get even, is attracted to violence, and meticulously planned his final, redemptive, act of chaos.
Peterson shows how the prototypical school shooter’s contempt of existence itself — and thus, logically, of humans — is illustrated well by Cain. The firstborn man was so angry at God for not accepting his sacrifice, so resentful toward Abel for receiving God’s favor, that he murdered his own brother and sneered at God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Parkland killer, just like the one at Columbine and Newtown and Virginia Tech, and Cain, is not a coward. A villain, yes. Evil, certainly. But not a coward.
“He was a powerful, consistent, fearless actor,” Peterson writes of Carl Panzram, an early 20th century serial killer and rapist who was institutionalized and brutalized as a delinquent juvenile. “He had the courage of his convictions. How could someone like him be expected to forgive and forget, given what had happened to him?”
Peterson recounts how author Leo Tolstoy, at the apex of his career, questioned “the value of human existence.”
In Tolstoy’s mind, life was too painful to justify rationally. And faith, which can justify suffering, denied reason.
“The people in this category know that death is better than life,” Tolstoy said, discussing suicide. “Only unusually strong and logically consistent people act in this manner.”
But, of course, if death is better than life, murder, mass murder, is even better than suicide. In the mass killer’s world, bad is good.
“Everyone says, ‘We don’t understand,’” Peterson writes. “How can we still pretend that? Tolstoy understood, more than a century ago. The ancient authors of the biblical story of Cain and Abel understood, as well, more than twenty centuries ago … murder done consciously to spite the creator of the universe. Today’s killers tell us the same thing, in their own words.”
Of course we understand why the Parkland killer did it. Man’s heart is filled with evil. And this man didn’t have a conscience standing in evil’s way.
America is in the midst of a well-documented crisis of young males.
Many, especially those without a father present, feel lost, aimless, isolated. For some, this can lead to envy and resentment. Hopelessness and depression can follow. Maybe it stops there. Or maybe not. Maybe desperation and anger come next, with fantasies of violence and revenge. And then, well . . .
Most lost and angry men don’t become criminals, or murderers, or school shooters. But most criminals, murderers, and school shooters are lost and angry men. So, anything that can make lost and angry men less lost and angry is a good thing.
Enter Peterson’s “antidote to chaos.”
His cerebral, sober, and darkly humorous style has struck a chord with his growing audience. Many of his fans are, like me, young men. Many of his fans, like me, appreciate his paternal qualities in a culture with few male public figures who are also admirable role models.
Peterson’s advice, if acted upon, will save some young readers from the “chaos” of the “underworld,” where everything is “uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing,” Peterson writes.
Everyone has been to the underworld at some point. Some live in it.
How to avoid it? How to live with “one foot in what you have mastered and understood” — order — “and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering” — chaos?
First, have something to aim at. All forward movement comes from having a target. Growth is the pursuit of that target, whether or not it is reached.
“Ask yourself: Is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could, and would, set straight?” Peterson writes. “Five hundred small decisions, five hundred tiny actions, compose your day, today, and every day. Could you aim one or two of these at a better result?”
And the aim of your life, Peterson argues, should not be happiness.
He does not belittle it as a worthy pursuit among many, but “in a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual.”
Instead, he says, be more concerned with “developing character in the face of suffering.” A feat that, no doubt, would improve the odds of personal happiness, anyways.
But how to develop character?
“Toughen up, you weasel.”
“Clean up your life.”
“Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong.”
“Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is.”
Recognize and explore your own resentments, which, if left unattended, will devour you, and maybe those around you, too. Maybe violently, especially if you’re male, which means you have “the capacity for mayhem and destruction” and “the seeds of evil and monstrosity” that can transform resentment “into the most destructive of wishes.”
“If you think tough men are dangerous,” Peterson warns, “Wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”
“Boys are suffering in the modern world,” Peterson writes.
Competition, disobedience, disagreeableness, pushing limits. When harnessed and integrated, these traits are to our benefit. See Elon Musk.
But to those who control the language of our culture, these distinctly male traits are to our detriment.
Thus “toxic masculinity.”
“When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues,” Peterson says, “hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination.”
One of his rules, “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” is as much parenting advice as a note of caution.
Do not make boys ashamed of their masculinity.
Do not push them to feminize, lest they push back and become machismo.
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding, or else . . .
“When the boys were spinning donuts, they were also testing the limits of their cars, their ability as drivers, and their capacity for control, in an out-of-control situation,” Peterson recounts of his childhood in rural, frigid, Fairview, Alberta. “When they told off the teachers, they were pushing against authority, to see if there was any real authority there — the kind that could be relied on, in principle, in a crisis.”
But what should adults do when boys cross the line? Surely there is a limit to “let boys be boys.”
It’s called parenting.
“Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them,” reads Peterson’s fifth rule.
Because if you dislike them, just imagine how much strangers — who don’t love your children — will dislike them. How much society will punish their misbehavior.
“The vital process of socialization prevents much harm and fosters much good,” Peterson writes. “Children must be shaped and informed, or they cannot thrive.”
Socialization begins in the home. Children act, and by observing their parents reactions, learn which behaviors are desirable, and which are unacceptable.
Parents who properly employ discipline act as loving “proxies for the real world.”
They “use threat and punishment when necessary to eliminate behaviors that will lead to misery and failure.”
But not too much threat and punishment. Limit the rules, Peterson says, and use “minimum necessary force.”
This is tricky business. Many parents, therefore, neglect it. Easier, they believe, naively, to give their child full autonomy, absent consequences — a false reality that vanishes when their little monster walks out the front door.
“Modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason,” Peterson says. “They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents—if that.”
The combination of a toxic culture and broken homes has produced millions of anxious, confused, and even angry, teenage and young adult males.
A miniscule, statistically-near-zero percentage of these men are responsible for Columbine and Newtown and Parkland.
Maybe would-be mass shooters can’t be helped. Or maybe some can. Maybe all we can do is deter them, or remove them from society, or make guns so hard to obtain that these young men’s violent outbursts would have limited consequences. Or maybe we should have more armed security.
There isn’t one answer. It’s complex.
But for all the lost, young men who can be helped — and that’s most of them — “12 Rules for Life” is a handy compass.
Billy Graham, the Charlotte-born preacher whose pioneering talent for combining old-time religion and modern media made him the most famous evangelist in American history, died Wednesday at his home in Montreat.
Son Franklin Graham, in a memo to the staff at the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), said the elder Graham, who was 99, died at 7:46 a.m. “due to complications of his advanced age.”
In the memo, Franklin Graham, who now heads the BGEA, also said that his father’s death “signals the passing of an era. But because of his faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s blessing upon the BGEA’s commitment to preach the Word in season and out of season, our worldwide evangelistic ministry continues around the world.”
And he announced in the memo the Bible verse the ministry will use for Billy Graham’s services is Revelation 14:13: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, that they may rest from their labors and their works follow them.”
Growing up on a dairy farm near what is now Park Road Shopping Center, Billy Graham’s first idea of heaven was playing baseball and courting girls. But after answering the altar call at a revival during the Depression, he went on to become a pastor to U.S. presidents and a globe-trotting preacher whose crusades altered lives.
In a career spanning more than 60 years, he took his simple Christian message to more than 84 million people in almost 60 countries – including multitudes of spiritually starved believers behind the communist Iron Curtain. Add those who heard him live, via satellite, and the numbers jump to 210 million people in 185 countries.
Always Billy, never the Rev. Graham, the humble but media-savvy Southern Baptist minister had little use for clerical garb or heavy theology. He even bypassed churches, preferring to deliver his spellbinding sermons in stadiums packed with people hungry to hear how much God loves them and how that very night they were being called to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ.
Over the decades, Graham also became the unofficial White House chaplain, participating in nine presidential inaugurations between 1965 and 2005 and offering spiritual guidance – and occasionally political advice – to Republican and Democratic presidents.
Mindful of Graham’s popularity, they often sought his blessing for their sometimes controversial decisions. This coziness with power brought Graham criticism in the 1960s and ’70s, when he refused to challenge President Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam and defended President Richard Nixon throughout the Watergate scandal.
Even into his 90s, when Graham rarely strayed from his mountaintop home in Montreat, presidents and presidential candidates came to him for prayer time and a photo opportunity. President Barack Obama visited in 2010. Two years later, Mitt Romney, then Obama’s GOP challenger, showed up, coming away with a virtual endorsement – a public sign to evangelical voters that it was OK to vote for a Mormon.
Also in 2012, a picture of Graham and words attributed to him were prominently featured in newspaper ads urging voters to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Some Graham scholars at the time accused Graham’s son, Franklin, of using his father’s image to boost his own conservative causes and favored GOP candidates. But the younger Graham, who had by then inherited the leadership of the BGEA, disputed that, saying “Nobody kidnaps my Daddy.”
America’s religious revival
Graham made his first national splash on the eve of the 1950s, a decade in which America – then fighting a Cold War against atheistic communism – added “under God” to its Pledge of Allegiance and started printing “In God We Trust” on its paper currency.
The preacher who came to be called “America’s pastor” thrived in this climate of religious revival: His image showed up on magazine covers and in living rooms via the infant medium of television.
Evangelical Christians who had been ridiculed since the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s for believing in the literal truth of the Scriptures suddenly saw Graham – one of their own – reading the Bible in the White House with President Dwight Eisenhower.
But if Graham’s charisma and friends in high places made him seem as contemporary as Elvis or “I Love Lucy,” his message to the masses was as old as the call to conversion in the letters of that other famous evangelist, Paul.
Jesus died on the cross for your sins, Graham told his audiences. Now it was decision time: Will you repent, turn your life over to Jesus and be saved?
“Time is running out!” he’d insist in that courtly Southern accent, holding the Bible open with one hand and chopping the air with the other. Graham would then issue his altar call, inviting those in attendance to come forward and commit their lives to Jesus.
“Don’t worry, they’ll wait for you,” he’d say as hundreds, even thousands, made their way down from the upper decks as the choir sang “Just As I Am” – a 19th-century English hymn that became part of the soundtrack for his crusades.
His style and plain Gospel message put off some intellectuals and theologians. But Graham never deviated from his approach. As he got older and times changed, though, his style softened. He went from a fiery by-the-Book conservative Protestant to a friend of other faiths, from a hawk on the Vietnam War to an advocate of nuclear disarmament, and from a finger-pointing voice-of-doom preacher to a gentle grandfather-figure who emphasized God’s love.
In the 1950s, Graham charged that Satan was the mastermind behind communism; in the 1980s, he defied many of his fellow evangelicals by traveling to Moscow to preach and attend a Soviet-approved peace conference.
“Here’s a man who’s never stopped growing,” observed Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a left-leaning evangelical journal. “He listens. He’s changed and been touched by the people he’s preached to.”
Sticking with Nixon
On two of the major issues of his time, though, many say Graham changed too slowly. Even those who came to admire the evangelist said he was too timid on civil rights for African-Americans in the 1960s and too loyal, in the 1970s, to Nixon. Graham repeatedly held up the Republican president as a man of God, while behind the scenes Nixon was compiling an enemies list, engineering the Watergate cover-up and uttering profane expletives and anti-Semitic remarks in the Oval Office.
In fact, during a 1972 meeting with Nixon, Graham, sounding eager to please, joined in on the anti-Jewish talk. He apologized in 2002, when the White House tapes were made public.
“With Nixon, he should have been more like Nathan the prophet, the outsider who pointed his finger at the king,” Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee once said. “Instead, Billy was inside the palace.”
On civil rights, the Graham of the 1950s refused to preach to segregated audiences. He insisted that God was color-blind, and befriended and promoted the young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But in the 1960s, when King and his followers began going to jail for their nonviolent resistance to racist laws, Graham kept his distance.
“He didn’t like the marches,” said William Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” the definitive biography. “He didn’t like the confrontational aspects of civil rights.”
Ruth and Billy Graham at their home in mountains of Buncombe County, North Carolina
A powerful teammate at home
Graham was never a one-man band.
He relied on an army of planners and promoters to arrange and publicize his crusades. Longtime associates Cliff Barrows, who directed the choirs, and George Beverly Shea, who sang the solos, were always there to offer the hymns that Graham’s fans came to expect.
And while Graham staged crusades around the world, his most important adviser – his wife, Ruth – stayed at home in the western North Carolina mountain town of Montreat. There, she raised their five children. She also clipped articles for him about the cities he’d next visit and studied the Bible that, according to Graham, she knew better than he did.
“Without her,” daughter Anne Graham Lotz once said, “Daddy’s ministry would not have been possible.”
Ruth Graham died in 2007, and Graham will be buried next to her, on the grounds of Charlotte’s Billy Graham Library. Like her, he will be laid to rest in a plywood coffin made by prison inmates.
Though Graham’s globe-trotting kept him away from his wife and children for months at a time, he always called North Carolina home. And he continued to return to Charlotte – the site of Graham crusades in 1947, 1958, 1972 and 1996.
A 2011 poll of Tar Heel residents proclaimed Graham the most popular person in the state, edging out longtime University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and actor Andy Griffith.
The BGEA moved its headquarters from Minneapolis to Charlotte in 2004. And on June 5, 2007, the $27 million Billy Graham Library opened, drawing past U.S. presidents, celebrities and thousands of tourists to a barn-shaped building. Inside, it’s filled with everything from Graham’s 1983 Presidential Medal of Freedom to the engagement ring he gave Ruth.
The road to the museum: Billy Graham Parkway, a 4.8-mile boulevard in Charlotte that was dedicated in 1983.
Early revival lit his fire
William Franklin Graham Jr. was born Nov. 7, 1918 – four days before the Armistice that ended World War I. In those days, babies were often delivered at home. And so it was with Frank and Morrow Graham’s firstborn.
One of the early passions of “Billy Frank,” as he was called, was baseball. He shook hands with Babe Ruth when the home run king came through Charlotte. And though he wasn’t a natural athlete, Graham’s first career goal was to play ball in the majors.
Those ambitions started to change in 1934, when Graham, then 16, went to a revival on Pecan Avenue, near the edge of town. The star evangelist that night: the fiery Mordecai Ham, who preached in a 5,000-seat tin-roof tabernacle. One night, convinced he was a sinner, he answered the altar call. When the choir sang the words “Almost persuaded. … Almost – but lost!” Graham and a friend walked forward.
New denomination, new love
After high school, there was a brief stint as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman – Graham was the top seller in his region. But he soon began pursuing his new dream: to be a preacher.
Graham got his bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College, an evangelical school outside Chicago. It was there that he met Ruth McCue Bell, a fellow student who grew up in China, the daughter of Presbyterian medical missionaries.
Their first date: a Sunday afternoon performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”
On Aug. 13, 1943, they were married at Montreat Presbyterian Church in the small Western North Carolina town where Billy and Ruth would eventually build a mountaintop home.
Onto the national stage
The American mainstream began to embrace Graham in 1949. The place was Los Angeles. Graham had set up a giant tent for what he expected to be a three-week revival. But one night, Graham arrived to find the place hopping with reporters.
“You’ve been kissed by William Randolph Hearst,” one of them told Graham, referring to the media tycoon who owned a national chain of newspapers.
Hearst, who liked Graham’s strident anti-communism and religious zeal, had sent a memo to his minions, ordering them to build up the evangelist. His exact, now-famous words, which were printed on a Teletype and shown to Graham that night: “Puff Graham.”
With the press turning the spotlight his way, Graham’s revival drew 350,000 over eight weeks – and became the springboard for a lifetime of crusades.
In 1957, ABC offered Graham his first live TV exposure. The event: The “Gospel in Gotham,” Graham’s foray into New York City, where he conducted a 16-week crusade that drew 2.3 million people.
Graham’s fellow Bible believers, especially those in his native South, began to feel that Graham had ushered them out of the wilderness by giving their evangelical movement a public face and voice.
“He brought the evangelicals into the mainstream of American religion,” said Harvey Cox, former dean of Harvard Divinity School. “And he enabled a productive conversation between evangelicals and other streams of Christianity to flourish.”
Author Tony Campolo put it this way: “Billy Graham is the closest thing we evangelical Protestants have to a pope.”
But Graham wasn’t just a hit with evangelicals. In 1955, Americans named Graham one of the world’s 10 most admired men – the first of his record 61 mentions in the annual Gallup Poll list.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham
Facing racial divisions
By the late 1950s, Graham had developed a reputation for refusing to preach to racially segregated crowds. It was a decision that brought him death threats.
“Christianity is not a white man’s religion, and don’t let anybody tell you that it’s black and white,” Graham preached. “Christ belongs to all people.”
In 1957, he was among those urging Eisenhower to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to enforce desegregation of Central High School.
The same year, Graham also sent a letter to Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old black girl in Charlotte who was spit on and heckled by whites as she walked to class at previously all-white Harding High School. “Those cowardly whites against you will never prosper because they are un-American and unfit to lead,” Graham’s letter said.
But Graham’s support for blacks’ quest for equality began to cool in the 1960s as the civil rights movement, grew more confrontational with its marches and nonviolent resistance.
By the ’60s, he had become a friend to presidents and a member of the establishment. Instead of challenging authority, his style was to work his inside channels – at the White House and in corporate America.
“The irony is that Billy Graham was more involved in King’s early phase, when it took a lot of courage to have such contacts, than in the ’60s,” King biographer Taylor Branch once said. “In the ’60s, Billy Graham was sticking to his things.”
Graham later said that his friend King had advised him to stay in the stadiums and leave the protests to King.
But several of King’s associates – including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. – have lamented that Graham did not appear at the 1963 March on Washington, when King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.
With his white following, Graham “would have sent a most powerful message to this country” if he had been there to speak and pray, Lewis said later. “He would have moved us much faster.”
Johnny Cash and Billy Graham
A legacy of integrity
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which would grow to become a well-oiled organization, was born in 1950.
Graham and his inner circle decided early on that they needed to find ways to steer clear of the scandals that had undone other preachers. So in 1948, they began crafting guidelines to live and preach by during a meeting in Modesto, Calif.
Among the pillars of this “Modesto Manifesto”: Set up an independent board to handle the money and never be alone with a woman other than their wives.
By all accounts, Graham and the others stuck by these commandments – Graham even had hotel rooms checked before entering them – and steered clear of the sex and money scandals that would later ruin such televangelists as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.
To Randall Balmer, a professor of religious history at Dartmouth College, it’s this integrity that was Graham’s greatest legacy.
“He was in the public eye for well over a half-century,” Balmer said, “and nobody ever leveled serious charges of scandal against him.”
But Graham’s friendships with Presidents Johnson and Nixon in the 1960s and ’70s brought him criticism, with some dismissing the North Carolinian as a preacher for the powerful.
“If he (had) a failing, it was precisely that: He was drawn to power like a moth to a flame,” said Balmer, author of “God in the White House.”
He grew close to Johnson, a Democrat and fellow Southern farm boy, and offered strong support for LBJ’s increasingly divisive war in Vietnam.
But “perhaps the most controversial period in Graham’s career,” said Steven P. Miller, author of “Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South,” came with the election of Johnson’s GOP successor. “It’s his relationship with Nixon that still lingers in many memories.”
Republican Nixon, too, courted Graham. In 1970, at the height of protests against Nixon and the Vietnam War, the president appeared with Graham at a crusade in Knoxville. It was a move, Nixon adviser Charles Colson later said, “to get some of Graham’s charisma to rub off on us.” Graham privately offered to aid Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. And he stood by the embattled president during the worst days of Watergate.
When finally confronted with the transcripts of the Watergate tapes, with Nixon engaging not only in a coverup but in crude racial and religious stereotyping, Graham recoiled. “I was sick,” he said later. “It was a Nixon I didn’t know.”
From then on, Graham swore he’d never again throw partisan support to presidents or White House candidates.
Onto the international stage
For decades, Graham had had a yearning to preach the Bible in the Soviet Union and other countries under communist rule. And in 1977, Graham went to Hungary. In 1982, he accepted an invitation to go to Moscow for a “peace conference” approved by the Communist Party.
Graham’s connection to believers behind the Iron Curtain – some of whom ran to the altar when he gave the call – drew criticism from some of his longtime supporters. But Graham would later get some of the credit when Russians, Poles, and others rose up to end communism.
Over time, Graham’s travels and contacts also led him to temper his fire-and-brimstone religiosity and reach out to those in other religions, including Catholics.
“A lot of people saw Graham, but he also saw a lot of people,” said Grant Wacker, professor of Christian history at Duke University and author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” a cultural biography. “His core beliefs stayed the same, but … he changed, got more progressive.”
For his 417th – and final – crusade, Graham, 86, returned to New York City in 2005. His last message was about the love of God – the only balm, he said, for those who feel hurt.
“Your Holy Father hasn’t abandoned you,” Graham said, his voice weakened by age and illness, “and he never will.”
As Graham slowed down, he battled various ailments, including symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and his family became paramount. In 1995, he turned over the reins of the BGEA to son Franklin.
For his father’s 95th birthday party in November 2013, Franklin awarded prominent seats and roles in the program to Sarah Palin, Fox News personalities – and future President Donald Trump.
President Reagan Nancy Reagan and Billy Graham at the National Prayer Breakfast held at the Washington Hilton Hotel Feb. 5, 1981.
Influence, humility to the end
Americans never tired of Graham and came to expect his soothing words in times of national crisis. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, it was the white-haired Graham who gave the sermon at National Cathedral in Washington.
And scholars, whatever their criticisms of Graham, agree he had a profound, even historical, impact on religion and culture.
“He formed a towering redwood on the American religious landscape,” Wacker said. “We’ll hear the echoes of his ministering for generations.”
Beyond organizing crusades, Graham helped create today’s thriving evangelical Christian culture by birthing magazines (Christianity Today), co-founding seminaries (Gordon-Conwell) and calling international conferences to encourage grass-roots preachers (like the one in 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland).
Biographer Martin called Graham “one of the most influential religious figures of the 20th century – there’s Billy, a couple of popes and Martin Luther King. It’s a short list.”
And Bill Leonard, former dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University, goes even further: “the most enduring public evangelist in American history.”
But what was it about Graham that made him such an icon?
Not the profundity of his sermons, Graham watchers say. He wasn’t a religion scholar or a theologian.
Rather, he was an evangelist who was able to nimbly navigate the modern American cultural landscape. He preached to everybody from presidents to construction workers, golfed with Bob Hope, bantered with Woody Allen and Johnny Carson on TV, and – in 1989 – became the first member of the clergy to get a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Graham the personality exuded humility and sincerity and found new ways to connect with everyday people in language they understood.
“That was his genius,” Balmer said. “He was (modern) America’s first religious celebrity.”
Others, though, say Graham’s greatness was that he let God use him.
“People don’t ponder his sermons,” Campolo once said. “But when he gets up there, you sense a power go over the congregation in the stadium.”
And yet, said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, Graham never took credit for that power or let it go to his head:
“I think he’s the one man who could endure the amount of adulation that he has received and still say honestly and sincerely, ‘Why me?’” Land said. “It is his impenetrable humility that made it so that God could use him.”
“I have been asked: ‘What is the secret?’” Graham told interviewers. “‘Is it showmanship, organization or what?’
“The secret of my work is God. I would be nothing without him.”
But why had God chosen him, a farm boy from Charlotte?
Graham’s answer: “That’s one of the questions I’ll ask the Lord when I see him.”
FORMER OBSERVER RELIGION EDITOR KEN GARFIELD CONTRIBUTED.