Grant Wacker, author of America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap, 2014) and Professor Emeritus of Christian History at Duke Divinity School, has taken a new direction in writing about the world-renown evangelist in his forthcoming book. One Soul at a Time (Eerdmans, Nov. 7) “is the first time he has brought Grant the storyteller together with Grant the scholar to tell a narrative about a widely beloved man who called evangelicalism to its best self,” says David Bratt, the acquiring editor for Eerdmans. Here, Wacker discusses the new book as well as Graham, the man and the visionary.
(This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)
America’s Pastor examined Graham’s impact on faith, culture and politics. How is One Soul different?
I try to tell the story the way I think he would do it, to show the world as I think he saw it. Now and then, I do bring my own voice in — both positively and negatively. Billy was a modest man. There were things he wouldn’t think to tell us. And, being human, he is going to gloss over some of his shortcomings, such as his love of the limelight and his habit of namedropping celebrities.
Is there a question you still wish you had asked him?
I would have tried to probe his inner life. There wasn’t an introspective bone in his body. He was not a poet. I would be very surprised if he ever quoted a poet. He was very good at chitchat-small-talk and asking people about their personal lives. But when it came to the big issues, he did not have a deep curiosity. He never asked someone, ‘Why do you see the world the way you do?’”
Graham always said he would have many questions for God. What do you think he would ask?
He wasn’t a theologian or a deep thinker. He was an effective thinker – what works to bring people to Christ. Theodicy would have been the first question: ‘Why did you allow pain and suffering? And the second question might have been, ‘Why me?’ He never thought God chose him for exceptional ability or piety. But he knew God worked through human hands.
Now, his son Franklin controls the presentation of Billy’s legacy. How will he shape it?
I am a card-carrying evangelical of the Billy stripe and that will influence my answer. I think Billy’s legacy of hope and inclusiveness will triumph but it is going through a rough patch. Billy always said you don’t want to antagonize people before you tell them the Gospel. But Franklin is a cultural warrior. And that is the last thing Billy was at the end. Still, Billy choose Franklin [founder of international relief agency Samaritan’s Purse] to be his successor. If Franklin would forget politics, he would go down in history as one of the great humanitarians.
What’s next for you?
I want to write about humility, how we claim to esteem humility but we really don’t. You could even argue that a powerful achievement is essential to humility; you need something to be humble about. I am looking through a frame of American historical figures such as Dorothy Day, who gave up everything to be who she was, and some athletes such as Tom Brady, who said God could not care less who won the Super Bowl. Brady said, “I have some hand-eye coordination, and I can throw the ball. I don't think that matters to God."