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Sunny Side Up

JUST AS I AM The Autobiography of Billy Graham By Billy Graham, Harper San Francisco/Zondervan: 760 pp., $28.50

June 22, 1997|BENJAMIN SCHWARZ | Benjamin Schwarz is executive editor of World Policy Journal and a contributing editor of Atlantic Monthly

To some readers of Billy Graham's autobiography, its title, "Just As I Am," will seem disingenuous. This is, at one level, a curiously unrevealing book. From Augustine to John Henry Newman to Peter Cartwright, the great Christian memoirists have been intensely reflective as they have probed their doubts and anguish, their conversions and their subsequent relationships with God. Graham's autobiography, however, is nearly all on the surface. Of course, no one would be surprised if one of America's most influential public figures chose to shroud the personal, and potentially embarrassing, details of his life, but this is not the case with Graham. His examination of his life is as guileless as it is unpenetrating, and in this way, his autobiography does present him just as he is.

Graham has been the subject of two lengthy, perceptive and largely sympathetic biographies, Marshall Frady's "Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness" and William Martin's "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story." Although Graham's "Just As I Am" fails to reveal anything of consequence that eluded Frady and Martin, it bears out their portraits of him as the Eagle Scout of American evangelicalism. "Just As I Am" overflows with earnest goodwill, gee-whiz enthusiasm and unfailingly flattering and superficial descriptions of his famous friends and acquaintances (of his incongruous encounter with a very different Christian figure, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Graham recalls only that "we had good conversation together"). For better and worse, Graham's ingenuousness can't help but confirm the verdict of his former friend, Canadian intellectual Charles Templeton, who characterized him as "an almost genetically nice guy. ... There isn't a mean ... or subtle ... bone in his body."

As for the worse, Graham's ingratiating manner and sunny, simple outlook have always been at variance with the faith he professes. The "Second Birth," the defining moment in an evangelical's life, in which he or she accepts God's grace, is a deeply personal spiritual awakening and is often a story of despair, redemption and unspeakable joy. For Graham, whose honesty would not permit him to embellish his conversion, "no bells went off inside me." He felt, he prosaically recalls, "happy and peaceful." His call to preach was similarly unmomentous. Unhappy after being rejected by his college sweetheart, Graham dedicated his life to the ministry on the 18th green of a Florida golf course.

At the heart of evangelicalism is the stark yet ultimately hopeful belief that man is wretched and powerless to effect his own redemption but that with God, all things are possible. But through the years, Graham's utterances and guidance ("in golf, you cope with the same troubles you do in life"; "for the best blueprint of government or business ethics, go to your New Testament ... call it how you will, a divine policy paper, a memo from the Big Boss, a heaven-sent management manual") have often rung hollow and sounded trite in relation to the message of his faith.

The variance between the medium and the message is the most troublesome aspect of Graham's ministry. His spreading of the Gospel was from the start inextricably bound up with the most sophisticated public relations and media hype. He was, after all, just an obscure preacher who had come to Los Angeles in 1949 to lead a crusade, which had already fizzled out when William Randolph Hearst unaccountably issued a two-word injunction to his newspapers that forever changed the course of evangelicalism and the relationship between religion and politics in America: "Puff Graham." Hearst's publicity machine made Graham, literally, an overnight sensation. Once conjured by Hearst, Graham's fame was sustained and increased by his own charm and promotional ability. In the best sense of the term, Graham is--as is made clear in his fond description of his student days as a Fuller Brush man--a natural salesman. Open and affable, unabashedly proclaiming a product in which he sincerely believes, Graham, as God's messenger, has always been selling himself, as much as he has been selling the word of God.

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