There was a Billy Graham special on NBC tonight that featured highlights from his 1975 crusade message. Casting Crowns and Third Day gave performances. There were no commercials, just commercial-like slots with people sharing stories about their life changing experience with Jesus. Stories about overcoming obstacles, addiction, accidents, depression, crisis and social pressures. They were people of status and no status. They reflected how terrible and unmanageable their lives were and how happy they are now. I can relate, I have one of those stories from despair to hope and freedom.
I love Billy. He has faithfully preached the word of God for
100 150 years and lived a life above reproach. The Lord has used him to reach many who are now leaders and pastors and teachers to many Christians. He has been a model for many and inspired many toward hope. Watching him preach the message of Jesus clearly and simply with Bible in hand unapologetically was cool. Then something dawned on me. I started to ask questions. Here’s why.
I have been on a journey for the last few years. This journey has included conversations with some pretty neat people who I feel have taught me a lot about the gospel, life, Church, Jesus. People like our lead pastor Cameron, his father Bob, and uncle Alan Roxburgh. There have been others like Rodney Clapp, Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosh, Darryl Guder, NT Wright, Henri Nouwen, Walter Brueggemann and a hosts more that I’ve conversed with through their books. They have all profoundly shaped my understanding of the gospel and these new resolves I’ve encountered led me to make some observations about the show I saw tonight. Let me cover these observations under the headings below…
Note: This is not a critique of Billy Graham…just wrestling through some thoughts here. Remember, I like Billy…
Television as Medium:
Although I didn’t mention Neil Postman above as one of the heroes of my journey, he did ruin television for me. In Amusing Ourselves to Death he argues that all serious public discourse (politics, news, education, & religion) delivered through the medium of television is in essence entertainment. Riding on the saddle of Marshal Mcluhan’s term "The medium is the message", Postman gives a compelling argument for this. That what I watched tonight was is some form entertainment is where I am landing with all this stuff. Another thing to note is that the presentation of the gospel was such that it offered a way to improve one’s life by alleviating burdens. That the gospel improves lives is without question; it improved mine (not in ways I thought, however). My point is that I think delivering or presenting the gospel through the most pervasive medium for consumptive messaging is dangerously mingling the gospel with the consumptive message of everything else that is spewed through television. I may be mad…but thinking about this stuff has been a fruitful exercise in understanding cultural formation.
I don’t doubt I heard the gospel tonight…at least part of it. That Jesus came, died for our sins, paid the penalty for us to justify us before God. That we will have eternal life with Jesus in heaven and that the Spirit helps us in this life was clearly communicated. Here’s my dilemma. When I read scripture, understand the story of Israel, and learn what Jesus was all about in his ministry, I can’t help but ask where the Church fits into all this? The message (every time Billy said "YOU") was directed to individuals and integration into the Church for the sake of the world to be God’s chosen people, Royal Priesthood (1 Pet 2:9-11) was absent. It was as if salvation was a separate element to becoming ingrained, adopted, integrated into the family of Church, which Jesus challenged us is thicker relation than blood. Now some might argue that they are separate. I would disagree on the grounds that God is not about saving individual souls, but redeeming all of creation and saving a people for his glory. So does the biblical pattern of salvation emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus as something separate from participation in the Church? I guess I’m just curious why too often evangelical soteriology only emphasizes the personal aspect and neglects the corporate when the biblical image sees no separation.
Heaven and Values
In my journey I’ve come to realize a thing or two about heaven. Namely, that it’s God’s desire for this time space continuum to reflect Heaven. Jesus said it in His prayer…"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven". I’ve learned that, contrary to much of the message tonight, heaven is not just some place that is out there in some disembodied state, it is breaking in here and now, in Jesus. Kind of like already, but not yet. It seems so much of the gospel is focused on this pitch for eternity with Jesus as if it were somewhere other than this earth. My take on this is that God is renewing the whole earth, that creation is affirmed, and that through the church the values of the Kingdom (Sermon on the Mount) are lived in a way that demonstrates the remarkable vision that John had on Patmos about a new heaven and new earth. It’s kind of like we are a people living with the end in mind, slowly moving toward the consummation of everything by God as we enact and create the new realities expressed in John’s revelation (ch21).
I’m coming to learn that the demonstration of heaven happens when the values of heaven are lived. Jesus embodied those values fully. Throughout the whole Bible we see God emphasizing his values and longing (commanding) his people to align themselves with his guidance. It’s so important that the framework for this was covenant. God covenanting with His people to protect them, be among them, and provide for their every need if only they would abide in him and follow His lead to make them a glorious people that reflect His image for the sake of drawing the world to Himself. What are those values? Justice, mercy, compassion, generosity, mission, community, preach the good news, free the captives, care for the oppressed…it’s the Isaiah 61 stuff. It is every attribute of the Trinity. This is why the Spirit led Church is the hope of the world now.
Where am I going with this? The messaging I saw was such that it spoke to the individual, through the medium of consumer marketing and entertainment, and was offered as a life enhancement program to aid in the fulfillment of the North American dream. Strong words, I know, but hear me out. Because the the gospel is presented in a fashion that omits what I mentioned about God’s plan for the whole earth (not just for your life), the deep seated values that drive people largely remain unchanged and unchallenged. What often results is people receiving a gospel that alleviates worry of afterlife despair and limits it’s manifestation in one’s life at surface piety, if that. People become members of high energy churches that are pressured to constantly offer the best religious goods and services to avoid losing market share. These Churches become sharp marketers and invest tons into meeting the felt needs of individuals that have little sense of sacrificial community and servant hood for the Kingdom. The values of consumerism, materialism, individualism, comfort and affluence still steer peoples lives and Jesus is used as means to satisfy those needs. This post is too long. Let me summarize:
I watched Billy Graham tonight and I like him and I had some observations about the gospel I wanted to share.