I watched Billy: The Early Years, which was a 2008 movie about the early years of renowned evangelist Billy Graham.
The character in the movie who tells the story about Billy Graham’s early years is Charles Templeton, whose older self is played by Martin Landau. I knew the name “Charles Templeton” on account of a documentary that I saw a while back that was hosted by Christian apologist Lee Strobel, who interviewed him. Essentially, Templeton was a Christian evangelist and close friend to Billy Graham, but he lost his Christian faith. I was hoping that Billy: The Early Years would get into that topic, since I am interested in the stories of people who gain, lose, or change their beliefs about religion.
Templeton is an old man on his hospital bed, and he is being interviewed by a reporter, who is played by Lindsay Wagner. Templeton vacillates between rants and charming coherence, and I did not understand why exactly the movie was portraying him in that way, for he came across as low-key and reasonable on the Lee Strobel documentary that I watched. Was the movie suggesting that Templeton went off the deep end or opened himself up to demons because he left the Christian faith? The thing is, while the movie portrayed him as rather arrogant about his preaching abilities and in-your-face with his unbelief, it did not depict him as one who left Christianity due to a moral or spiritual flaw that he personally had, as a number of Christians see those who leave the faith. Rather, in the movie, Templeton’s reasons for leaving Christianity were intellectual, and maybe even understandable: he wondered how a good God could permit the Holocaust, he found biblical stories (Jonah and the sun standing still in the time of Joshua) to be unscientific and hard to believe, he thought that the Bible contained lacunae and contradictions, he speculated that the biblical authors were regular people trying to find answers in life, he acknowledged other beliefs out there besides Christianity, and he felt that Christianity was too simplistic in light of an increasingly complex world. In the movie, Billy publicly praises Templeton for his integrity in resigning the ministry rather than preaching a faith that he did not accept.
Templeton goes back to Billy’s youth, when Billy was working on his father’s dairy farm. Billy’s parents were religious, but Billy was not. When a traveling evangelist, Mordecai Ham, was coming to town for a revival, Billy mocks him as just another preacher wanting to fleece the flock. But Billy’s father encourages him to go hear the preacher for himself rather than basing his opinions on what others tell him. So Billy goes to the revival, and Dr. Ham starts to preach directly at Billy. He says that Billy has an emptiness in his life that girls and fancy cars cannot fill. He says that there are times when Billy’s heart is full of love, but other times when his heart is dark. The evangelist says that Billy, and everyone else, is a sinner who needs Jesus. Billy wonders how the evangelist knew all those things about him, and he accepts Christ.
Billy goes to Bible colleges, but he is not exactly a resounding success. He is not that good of a preacher, and he is told that explicitly. He is bumbling and socially awkward, especially around the ladies. A girlfriend of his, Emily, breaks up with him to marry a Harvard man because she doubts that Billy will amount to much. In a touching scene, however, Billy does encourage an African-American man who is discouraged because he feels that nobody cares about him or wants to be around him, and he asks Billy if he can help him. Billy shares with him the Gospel of God’s love. As the African-American man weeps in Billy’s arms, Billy says that this moment was planned by God thousands of years ago.
Billy gains his preaching voice when he teams up with successful evangelist Charles Templeton. Billy also hears George Beverly Shea singing on the radio, likes his voice, and travels to Moody without making an appointment to invite Shea to come with him. In the course of all this, Charles Templeton begins expressing to Billy his doubts about the Christian faith, and Templeton resigns the ministry. Later, when Billy sees Templeton at a respectable get-together, Templeton publicly dresses down Billy for believing in Christianity. Billy is shaken by that, and a kindly intellectual (whom Templeton praised for his dissertation about Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy) asked Billy if he was all right. Billy called his Mom, who told him that he has to decide what his calling is: Is it to answer everything about the Bible, or is it to open people’s hearts to the love of God in Christ? Billy has a crisis of faith, but he decides to accept the infallibility of the Bible. At the end of the movie, Billy is powerfully preaching about the Gospel and racial equality. Billy mentions his atheist friend, who acknowledges that Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived, and that tells Billy that there was something special (even authoritative and divine) about Jesus.
The movie was weird in places, but it was an excellent exploration of issues surrounding faith and doubt (despite the depiction of Templeton as a bit crazy near the end of his life). I myself acknowledge that Christianity has insights. I agree with Mordecai Ham that there are times when I am filled with love, and there are times when darkness fills my soul. I also believe that there is value in opening oneself up to the love of God, even if one cannot answer everything about the Bible. I would like to believe that my life has significance and value, and I want to feel at peace, as Templeton said he felt when he converted to Christianity. Yet, like Templeton, I have intellectual doubts about Christianity, and I also desire more intellectual meat than Billy Graham usually provides in his sermons. What is interesting to me is that Billy Graham himself in his later years expressed openness to different ideas: he was more inclusivist in his understanding of salvation, and he stated that he did not believe that evolution was inconsistent with the Christian faith. He still believes that Jesus Christ died for us on the cross, but he does not seem to embrace a Christianity that writes off all of the non-Christians in the world or ignores scientific evidence.
Something else to note is Billy Graham’s humility. In the movie, Templeton was enamored by his own ability as an evangelist to hold people in the palms of his hands, and he was thrilled that thousands of people came to see him. In one scene, however, Billy as a student is asking his professor what it takes to be an evangelist, and the professor responds that an evangelist should not be in evangelism for the fame, but rather to serve Christ, who died for him. That is my impression of Billy Graham: he is famous and world-renowned, but he never let that go to his head. Rather, his focus is on Jesus Christ.
It was interesting to read about Mordecai Ham, the evangelist who brought Billy to Christ. Apparently, Ham was anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic (see here). Even people who preach the message can have both light and darkness in their souls!
I was surprised that the movie did not go into the role of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in making Graham famous. The movie did well, however, to focus on Graham’s growth as a preacher, and issues surrounding faith and doubt.