A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story,by William Martin (William Morrow, 735 pp.; $25.00, hardcover). Reviewed by John G. Stackhouse, Jr., who teaches modern Christianity in the Department of Religion of the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.

A life of Billy Graham, to be properly matched to its subject, would have to be large. After all, Graham has commanded public attention in America for more than 40 years. He has toured five continents, speaking in huge churches and stadiums to record audiences. He penetrated the Iron Curtain before it was torn in the late 1980s, thus adding the Second World to his itinerary, which had included most of the First and Third Worlds already. And, through his adroit use of the most modern communication technology, he has multiplied his audience into the hundreds of millions, easily making him the most famous speaker in history.

William Martin, professor of sociology at Houston’s Rice University, has written a biography on this appropriately large scale. With more than 600 pages of text and almost 100 pages of notes, approaching 400,000 words in all, this survey of Graham’s life is as big as it has to be.

Not a page is badly spent. One of the most noteworthy features of this biography is its location of Graham in the history of American revivalism. It starts with a brief but useful survey of Graham’s predecessors, and it sustains this comparison at key junctures throughout the story that follows.

American Symbol

Each phase of Graham’s life receives attention, from his early formation in the hills of North Carolina, to his education in Tennessee, Florida, and Illinois, to his early career with Youth for Christ, to his ever-expanding independent career in the decades that followed. The milestones are duly acknowledged: “hitting the sawdust trail” as a teenager; meeting and marrying Ruth Bell; signing on with Youth for Christ and the Northwestern Schools in Minneapolis; preaching the Los Angeles crusade and forming the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; triumphing at Harringay in London and Madison Square Garden in New York; developing new programs of crusade planning, promotion, and follow-up; exploiting new technologies, from radio and television programs to his newspaper column, Decision magazine, books, and World Wide Pictures; promoting international conferences at Berlin, Lausanne, and Amsterdam; and, of course, proclaiming the gospel before crowds around the world.

Each of these milestones Martin relates to Graham’s growing and changing stature as representative of three interlocking sets of symbols; “traditional” American values, America itself, and the “new evangelicalism” that emerged after World War II. Martin properly does not preoccupy himself with the first two as did Marshall Frady in his Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness (1979). He does remark upon them, however, as he also quotes Graham’s mature reflections on the ambivalencies of his public identity through the years.

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More disappointingly, Martin’s notes do not indicate much reading in the emerging plethora of literature about the “new evangelicalism,” so that Graham’s relationship to this community is not fully explored. Graham has represented a moderate and yet progressive evangelicalism on a wide range of issues, from ecumenical relations to behavioral mores. Not all evangelicals have agreed or do agree with him, even though the majority seem to follow his lead. So he has both symbolized and helped to shape the future as well as the past of American evangelicalism.

Martin does, though, recognize Graham’s importance as both a spokesman for this movement and as initiator or prominent leader in various of its key institutions: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, and others. And almost everything he does say about evangelicalism is admirably accurate.

The very expansiveness of the book thus makes any underexamined area more obvious. Another of these few areas is Graham’s involvement in American politics since Watergate. Up to that point, Martin’s narrative is thorough, but with Carter’s presidency, the information almost completely dries up—just as the New Christian Right emerges into prominence. Martin may well have had more limited access to governmental materials for these more recent years, but the reader wants to know more about how Graham adjusted to the shock of Watergate, and wonders whether his political activity thereafter really was as sparse as Martin’s account of it.

From Tree Stumps To Stadiums

Indeed, mention of Watergate points to the second quality of Graham shared by this biography of him: they are both fascinating. In the public sphere, the ironic spectacles are many. The farmer’s son speaking before heads of state, the country boy preaching in the world’s largest cities, the unmotivated high-school student initiating projects—from publishing to education to disaster relief to evangelism—of national and even international scope, the bachelor of arts addressing great universities, the white Southerner cautiously but definitely resisting segregation and apartheid, the boy who used to preach to tree stumps now amplified to address millions.

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The fascination continues, though, in Martin’s careful and restrained descriptions of Graham’s private life: his animated correspondence with severalpresidents and other politicians, his diplomatic lobbying in both the domestic and international arenas, his relationships with associates—some of whom go back with him 40 years and more.

Martin also takes time to sketch Graham’s family. Here again Martin eschews both sensationalism and glorification to portray a family trying to grow in extraordinary circumstances.

Unfortunately, Martin does not attempt much more than a reliable outline and fails to integrate this dimension fully into his interpretation. It will remain for other biographers, notably those more comfortable with psychology, to trace out the implications of intriguing items in Martin’s account. The Graham daughters, for instance, all married older men and all married young. And both sons came to faith only in adulthood and only after walking awhile on the wild side. Martin never suggests these children’s stories are linked to the long absences of their father from their lives.

Other biographers, furthermore, have looked at the childhoods of Ruth and Billy for clues to their later careers. As a college student, Ruth Bell wanted to spend her life as a spinster missionary in Tibet: Is this entirely unrelated to her actual career as a generally single parent in rural North Carolina? For his part, Billy Graham is described as extraordinarily concerned to please others and as disciplined, demanding, and ambitious: Is there nothing in “family systems” therapy, nothing about him being an almost textbook example of a “first-born,” to help us understand him? Martin furnishes the information to tantalize us, but he remains dissatisfyingly circumspect about what it all might mean.

Nixon And Graham

One of the most intriguing subplots of the book, and appropriately so, is Graham’s friendship with Richard Nixon. Martin soberly traces this from their first meeting as young men on the move in 1950s Washington, through the campaigns of the 1960s, to the debacle of Watergate and beyond.

And it is this friendship that symbolizes one of the keenest tensions in Martin’s book. For someone who has professed political nonpartisanship for as long and as vehemently as has Billy Graham, he surely has been interested in and in contact with particular candidates, statesmen, and political agendas over the years.

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Describing this tension points up the third quality of the man and the story. Martin sets out both Graham’s statements and his actions, with only the occasional instructive nod to the reader to notice this or that, and lets the evidence speak. Martin helps us understand both Graham’s earnest desire for “Integrity! That’s what I’ve worked for all my life: integrity!” (p. 603), and the not-fully-integrated character of his career. In doing so, Martin presents with clarity and grace an honest man, a man of good will and transparent humility, who nonetheless manifests some of the inconsistency and failure his own sermons describe.

Indeed, a most remarkable instance of Graham’s and Martin’s symmetrical commitment to integrity is this book itself. Martin’s disarmingly candid introduction and later paragraphs in the narrative describe how he came to accept Graham’s invitation to write the book, how Graham throughout kept the project at arm’s length in order to let Martin come to his own conclusions, and how Graham reacted when Martin presented to him the sometimes disturbing nature of his findings. One comes away from this book, which so obviously takes pains to be fair to both reader and subject, with the sense that both Martin and Graham are determinedly honest men, telling the truth as fully and as clearly as they can, and that one generally can rely upon them, even if memory and documents cannot reconstruct every detail.

An Invitation

Homiletically sensitive readers will have noted that this review has now set out its three points. Such readers might expect an invitation to succeed them. So here it is, in honor of the book’s subject: I’m going to ask you, right now, to get up out of your seat, and make a decision. I’m going to ask thousands of you, as thousands have already done before, to go forward to your bookstore and buy a copy of this excellent volume. It is not the gospel, of course, but it is good news about a very good man. God bless you as you do.

Economic Faults
The Coming Economic Earthquake,by Larry Burkett (Moody Press, 230 pp.; $14.99, hardcover). Reviewed by Mark A. Horne, coauthor, with George Grant, of Unnatural Affections: The Impuritan Ethic of Homosexuality in the Modern Church (Legacy).

Larry Burkett has established a well-earned reputation as a Christian financial counselor who applies biblical principles to the personal, family, and business finances of believers. With the publication of The Coming Economic Earthquake, however, Burkett has moved to new ground.

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Instead of focusing on personal financial planning, Earthquake deals with the world economy. Burkett predicts we will probably experience a major economic upheaval around the turn of the century that will rival the Great Depression. He makes it very clear that he is not claiming any prophetic powers but is simply applying biblical insights to the state of the economy.

His analysis is straightforward: Americans have expected more and more services from their federal, state, and local governments—especially since the 1930s. Unfortunately, the only way the government can afford to meet these expectations is to go further and further into debt. Burkett points out that in 1984 a commission appointed by President Reagan predicted that the government would owe three trillion dollars by the end of the century. By 1991, however, it had already surpassed that. Now, he writes, “All realistic estimates place the potential debt at thirteen to twenty trillion dollars by the year 2000.”

We are coming to a point, maintains Burkett, where the government will either repudiate its loans, massively increase taxes and cut spending, or print more money with which to pay the national debt—causing inflation on a massive scale. Any one of these options could easily devastate the economy.

Burkett’s solution to the problem is to put pressure on the politicians in Washington to balance the budget by massive cuts in government spending. Doubtful his solution will be implemented, he exhorts Christians to protect themselves by—among other things—getting out of debt.

While Burkett’s overall thesis is sound and should be heeded by all, some aspects of his analysis are confusing. Part of his argument for an impending economic crash is the existence of “business cycles” (recessions) and “cycles of depression.” He claims these are an inevitable natural law that only becomes worse if delayed through government action.

This is a rather strange position for a self-professed advocate of the free market to take. The twentieth century’s best-kept secret in economics, the late Ludwig Von Mises—who is favorably cited early on in Earthquake—demonstrated in his massive The Theory of Money and Credit that recessions and depressions in the modern economy do not “just happen,” but are caused by government tampering with the money supply.

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When giving advice to Christians on how to invest wisely and survive the coming collapse, Burkett tells his readers not to follow the advice of “gold bugs” and invest in precious metals because “neither the United States nor any other economic power will return to the gold standard.” But in the context of preparing for hyperinflation, what does it matter what the economic powers do? If our government makes the dollar worthless, then the only wealth that will survive is the actual physical property people possess.

In one chapter where he writes a fictional account of what the coming crash might be like, the U.S. government adopts the European Community’s Eurodollar as the unit of currency and establishes a national, computer-driven, noncurrency system that allows every transaction to be monitored. The chapter further indicates that the move toward a cashless economy will be the result of a conspiracy.

There is no evidence or argument presented in Earthquake that explains why the coming crisis should result in a cashless system—it is simply asserted. Nor is any evidence provided for a conspiracy in the European Community. Burkett does not explain why the coming catastrophe will not devastate Europe as well.

The future he portrays is suspiciously similar to the scenario promoted by “end times” writers—complete with a cashless and intrusive economic system, a dominating European empire, and a secret conspiracy. This suspicion is confirmed not only by Earthquake’s bibliography, but by Burkett’s recently released novel, The Illuminati. The publisher’s catalogue describes it as an action-packed thriller, set in the year 2006 (39 years after the Six-Day War?), in which an economic collapse is used by “satanic politicians” to consolidate all financial power in one place through computer technology.

It is unfortunate that Burkett indulged in such speculation in a book that purports simply to be prognostication, not apocalypticism. Some may be tempted to dismiss the book because of this indulgence. That would be a mistake. Despite its faults, Earthquake delivers a valuable message that needs to be heeded: We cannot afford—either individually or collectively—to keep going deeper and deeper into debt. Eventually, we will have to suffer the consequences.

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