CHARLOTTE, NC – Here in Charlotte, there’s a major stretch of asphalt known as the Billy Graham Parkway. This caught me by surprise, as I’m one of those people who thinks that major civic works should only be named after people after they’re dead.
Dr. William Franklin “Billy” Graham is still very much alive. He’ll be 93 come this November, and I was told by one of the guides at the Billy Graham Library that he spends much of his time in a wheelchair. But apparently his mind is still as sharp as ever, and for one of America’s premier evangelists, that’s pretty sharp indeed.
Actually, “library” is somewhat of a misnomer, because this isn’t chiefly a housing for books and research. It’s more like a repository for the documentation, ephemera and paraphernalia that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) has amassed over 60-plus years of preaching and crusading, with a public hall showcasing Dr. Graham’s life and career.
As you can see, the building design is pretty striking. The reason it resembles a barn is that Dr. Graham started out as a farmer’s son here in Charlotte. So here and there in the main hall and restaurant facility, the decor tends to the agricultural.
Now, I grant you, starting the Library visitor experience with an audio-animatronic cow is a bit tacky. But it is an attention-getter, a way to startle the visitor’s mind, and as a way to talk about Dr. Graham’s childhood (and get the Tour going), it works.
This is very much a sequential tour, with a definite story to tell on how Dr. Graham’s life unfolded: from Wheaton College graduate to radio broadcasts to the start of the Billy Graham Crusades. The sequences are more thematic than chronological, which is one of the reasons why it keeps the experience from being too egocentric or boring. (Though I’m not completely convinced that I’d want to take anyone under 10 through it, the cow notwithstanding.)
A good portion of the tour is also devoted to Dr. Graham’s late wife Ruth Bell Graham. This Chinese pagoda display highlights Mrs. Graham’s childhood as the daughter of missionary parents working in China in the early 20th century, and elsewhere there’s a display containing her engagement ring, as well as one with her wedding gown. It’s obvious that Dr. Graham’s most important relationship (apart from the one with The Big Guy) is the one with his wife, and given how long it lasted, it’s no wonder.
Now, any decent institution devoted to one person has to address controversy, and one thing about Dr. Graham’s career is that, apart from disputes with other theologians on the place of evangelism in Christianity proper, it was relatively free from it. Dr. Graham never endorsed any politician or political movement, because he feared it would deflect media attention away from his primary mission of preaching the Gospel. (One of the reasons he became so famous is that he learned, very quickly, the subtle art of press manipulation.) The closest you get to controversy are a couple of video clips of Dr. Graham conversing with Phil Donohue and Woody Allen, back when the film director was in his “urbane wit” phase. It’s a tribute to the Library’s sense of Dr. Graham’s humility that Mr. Allen comes off slightly better in their exchange.
The last room of the Tour is a contemplation area. Bear in mind that for Dr. Graham, the name of the game is preaching the Gospel, and the Library is no exception. After thinking about everything they’ve seen on the Tour, people are asked to fill out a card if they (a) want to become a Christian, (b) rededicate their lives to Christ, if they’re already Christians or (c) are in spiritual turmoil and want help. None of the staff exert pressure on visitors about these cards — peer pressure is apparently something Dr. Graham never believed in — so you can feel free to hang onto them or throw them away at the exit, if you’re not inclined to that kind of stuff. But the exit from the Tour is definitely something else, as you can see: the neon cross-outlined hall to the ending mural painting gives the impression of (for want of a better word) enlightenment, always an important part of the Christian relationship.
The building’s exterior features some nice paths and landscaping designed for personal contemplation: you walk around greenery while soft gospel music is gently piped around, increasing a sense of peace. Ruth Bell Graham is buried in a plot near one of the paths; I expect that, once Dr. Graham passes on, his remains will be buried here too.