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Just As I Am

| 27.6.02
Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham

Billy Graham is a man who has impressed me (both positively and negatively) for quite some time, and Just As I Am is an equally impressive treatment of his life and ministry. Overly long in parts, the book nonetheless gives a fascinating look into his ministry, family life, personal convictions, and interactions with many famous political figures. While Graham's evangelically focused message of faith and repentance may be simple, Just As I Am shows us the complexity of the man himself, and the surpassingly open-minded way in which he reacts and interacts with those who hold differing theological views than himself.

One of the things the book does best is show how Billy Graham has evolved over the years. Recounting his first meetings with a United States president, Graham candidly admits to country-bumpkin manners and overly flashy showmanship (including an impromptu prayer on the White House lawn while photographers' cameras flash) after a private audience with President Johnson. Learning from these mistakes, however, Graham proceeds to become the "pastor to the presidents," having been a personal friend of Richard Nixon and Ronald and Nancy Reagan, as well as being in amazingly close contact with presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.

Just As I Am lays out Billy Graham's theological convictions shortly and simply as that of response to Christ's sacrifice on the cross by accepting responsibility for one's sins, recognizing Jesus as God on earth who died to pay the price for those sins, and (through God's help) a life in which one seeks a personal relationship with Jesus, giving God power and "lordship" and attempting to live according to God's will. This is the process that Graham believes Jesus teaches in the New Testament as being "born again." It is the type of conversion experience that Graham experienced personally as a teenager, and is fairly standard evangelical theology.

While his theology may be evangelically orthodox, however, Graham was not and is not a standard evangelical. While so much of evangelical Christianity today has gravitated towards a right-wing political agenda, Graham has been painstaking about not becoming involved in partisan politics. Although raised a Southern Democrat, and despite his deep personal friendship with Richard Nixon, Graham has explicitly refused to publicly endorse any presidential or any other political candidates, recognizing that there are sincere Christians in both major political parties. This is an attitude I think many evangelical and fundamentalist leaders would do well to adopt today, where political powder kegs such as abortion and school prayer become de facto litmus tests for acceptance in some churches, and partisan jokes and comments are commonly preached from the pulpit. Graham recognizes these attitudes as diluting the effect of the gospel message that he has devoted his life to preaching.

Another area in which Graham deviated from the conventional thought of his heyday was the issue of segregation. Believing that such racist attitudes were contrary to the Bible, Graham insisted on non-segregated seating for Crusades, and actually refused to bring his organization to South Africa because of the apartheid government there, long before such sanctions were fashionable. This alienated him from more socially conservative Christians, as well as opening the issue with more liberal groups because he didn't get directly involved in the civil rights movement of the 60s.

The cord that ties all these views together is Graham's understanding of the Bible. The main theme that runs through Just As I Am is Graham's willingness to confront any obstacle, use any technology, and sacrifice as needed in order to spread his understanding of the Christian Gospel. To Graham the gospel message is paramount, and where evangelical mores or fundamentalist norms hindered the clear articulation of that message, he innovated. Graham recognized that times change, cultures change, and preaching techniques change as circumstances warrant. However, to Graham the gospel message is timeless and personal. Graham is always quick to say that he has accomplished nothing without the support and prayers of family and friends, and has done nothing but be a willing servant of God. While containing some regrets and counting the cost of being an itinerant evangelist; on the road most of the time and away from his family, Just As I Am is generally just that; a down to earth account of an extraordinary man and what he has accomplished.

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins; ISBN: 0061010839; (March 1998)

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