Ambient cultural noise can distort how we assess someone’s significance. Billy Graham is a good example. I am writing this less than a week after the passing of the preeminent evangelist of the twentieth century. For most of the time I was growing up, he was also America’s pastor. The obits and essays have been substantial, nuanced, and well done, for the most part, focusing mostly on Graham’s global accomplishments and his sometimes too-close relationships with America’s presidents, beginning with Truman and hitting a bump with Nixon. Some have commented on how Graham did not go far enough on some justice issues, especially regarding his seemingly tepid support of Martin Luther King.
But I have also noted the many accomplishments less visible and just as important most of these remembrances have missed. HarperOne author John Shelby Spong once remarked how he would never criticize Graham. Considering how impatient Jack is with most conservative Christians (see his latest book Unbelievable), this comment surprised me and so I asked him why. “I grew up near where Billy was raised, and I know what it took for him to declare, in the 1950s, that he would not preach to segregated audiences, even in the South.” History has sided with Graham and so this early radical stand has receded from view a bit.
Many have commented on how Graham helped birth modern evangelicalism, which is true (see his autobiography Just as I Am, which we are re-releasing in a commemorative edition), but few note all that entailed at the time. Evangelicals like to see themselves as holding the line against liberal skepticism and hubris, but that was not the only dynamic at work. Graham was forced to vigorously reject the more conservative element in his coalition when they objected to his “liberal” decisions. They hated the fact that he invited, first, not just mainline Methodist and Presbyterian churches to participate in his crusades but, later, even Catholics. Despite the conservative faction declaring war, Graham moved on and moved the center of conservative Christianity to the left. Again, when President Reagan vigorously objected to Graham’s acceptance of an invitation to preach in the USSR, with the criticism strongly echoed by most political conservatives, Graham went anyway, because Gorbachev had promised Graham audiences to preach to. This habit of knowing his main mission and so being willing to frustrate friends on either the left or right is something I wish was celebrated more today. Since evangelicals have not put this into practice for a while, it is easy to forget Graham’s example.
If it is hard to get a good bead on Graham, it turns out to be even more difficult to get one on the Apostle Paul. Which is surprising, in a way, since it is hard to think of any other ancient writer who is as widely read today. But that is the problem. Since Paul’s writings are the earliest and most abundant portions of the New Testament, his words are pored over and his thoughts debated without much recourse to considering the life that made these possible.
Into this breach jumps New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who has spent a lifetime studying Paul and believes it is time to reveal the man behind the pen (well, behind the dictation, actually). In Paul: A Biography, Wright makes us see afresh how remarkable and how unlikely Paul’s achievements were.
Let’s set aside for now the fact that Paul began his career seeing Christians as heretics needing to be punished, and so frame what he was up against, according to Wright. Paul was a member of a tiny new movement of Jews who thought Jesus was the Messiah. And within this tiny movement, Paul felt a special mandate to take this message to non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire. Never mind that there was no precedent for a Jewish faction to proselytize or for any religious movement to cross cultures and languages and appeal directly to people to believe “good news.” Paul was pioneering something truly new.
Wright also allows us to appreciate Paul’s robust confidence and creative ability to think in new categories. How else can one explain the many obstacles Wright describes of what Paul had to overcome—stonings, arrests, imprisonments, shipwrecks, whippings (note the plurals)—to take on the most powerful empire of all time (to that point, anyway) and expect to win? It would be like a cultural critic from Estonia getting off the plane at JFK, taking the bus to Central Park, and then speaking to anyone who would listen that a minority faction in Estonia has all the truth and how everyone else was wrong. Now, imagine that the Estonian is not just ignored and arrested but actually convinces a number of people that he is right; and that these people will cherish the Estonian’s letters (because he moved on to Chicago and later to the ends of the earth—i.e., San Francisco) and eventually his teachings would become the corner stone for the new mainstream culture in America. No way, right? Well, tell that to Paul.
So why don’t we celebrate the life of Paul more, considering he is probably the most successful public intellectual of all time? According to Wright, it probably has something to do with Paul’s repeated refrain not to look to Paul but to Jesus. Still, if we want to read Paul’s letters afresh and get the right bead on this important figure, let’s try to get the full story of his life, which is what Wright generously offers us.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor