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Prodigal Son 

by Michael Bowen


Being the son of a famous man can't be easy. Yet Franklin Graham says repeatedly in his autobiography, Rebel with a Cause, that he didn't know any different while growing up. He assumed, in the manner of many children, that whatever happens within one's family is the norm. Aren't most daddies gone for months at a time? And what's the big deal with attending presidential inaugurations? Anyway, it's more fun to take the dogs out huntin' in the western North Carolina woods, to sneak a smoke, do a little drinking, slide through a few prep school classes and to indulge oneself, as Franklin repeatedly says, in anything that "makes noise, goes fast and blows smoke."


Reading Rebel, one gets the sense that it was the high-revvin' machines that nudged Franklin toward piety. Asked to help out at a mission in the Middle East, he jumped at the chance to drive a Land Rover all the way from England to Jordan. He flew to New Guinea. He criss-crossed America on his bike (emphatically, the motorized kind) in support of his father's crusades and rallies. Then the rebel found a purpose: In 1974, after years of resistance and rebellion, 22 years old and alone in a hotel room in Rome, Franklin decided to enter into a personal relationship with Christ. Just five years later, in Juneau, Alaska, he would find himself preaching publicly for the first time, issuing "the invitation" to a gathering of alcoholics and prostitutes -- and watching as 40 of them came down the aisles, answering his call.


While known in the States primarily as a preacher, Franklin in fact devotes only 10 percent of his time to evangelizing; most of his focus is on charitable efforts worldwide. Samaritan's Purse, which he heads, supports victims of war, natural disasters and HIV/AIDS and other diseases all over the world. Having overcome board members' initial doubts at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Franklin is obviously a capable philanthropist: With a projected income for 2002 of $154 million, Samaritan's Purse has been termed by SmartMoney magazine the most efficient religious charity in the U.S. In 2001-02, Graham has headlined five festivals in Latin America, two in Florida, and one each in Texas and South Carolina. The Spokane festival is his first in the U.S. outside the South in two years.


In the past year, Graham has made headlines more than ever. He was credited with nudging the Bush administration into increasing its funding in the fight against AIDS in Africa. But he was criticized by some right after 9/11 for calling Islam a "very evil and wicked" religion -- a statement he has not backtracked from. Prior to his visit to Spokane, we had a chance to catch up with Graham by phone from Dallas, and he minces few words. He says gays are sinners, but that they can be saved; he says he takes the Bible literally, and he hopes to convince others to do the same; and he says young people are especially at risk because they are inundated with "garbage" in the form of ads, movies and music. His straight-talk message is clearly resonating: More than 60,000 are expected to join him at Joe Albi Stadium over the three-day weekend.





The Inlander: What needs to happen here for you to consider the Spokane Festival a success?





Franklin Graham: Well, if just one person turns their life around and comes to Christ, then to me it's a success. The fact that churches are coming together and working together -- it's already been a success. You see churches come together that normally wouldn't pull together like this. So it's been a great success in that way already.





The public tends to associate your father and you with crusades and festivals. But 90 percent of your time has been with Samaritan's Purse, obviously a very successful ministry. For you personally, what are some of the most meaningful events or personal contacts that you have made through Samaritan's Purse?





It's not so much the people; it's the work you're able to do for poor people. I've worked in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch; I've been down to El Salvador as a result of the earthquakes. We've rebuilt literally thousands and thousands of homes and given people a chance, and given them hope again. I think of the work we've been able to accomplish just this past year in Afghanistan. We have a hospital in the northern part of that country. I have done work in the Sudan, even in the middle of a civil war. We've had great opportunity to help people and to treat hundreds of thousands of people. It's a great -- I shouldn't say satisfaction, but it is to a degree, you know, you take satisfaction, and it has been a great team effort. God has given us a wonderful team of men and women.





Do you think that the fact that you went through a rebellious period resonates with some of the people, especially the young people, who are in the audiences at your festivals?





I think there's certainly parallels with a lot of people. Yet I don't see my life while growing up as much different from a lot of people today. You know, people are searching, they're looking for happiness, they're looking for something to believe in, they're looking for meaning to their life, but they don't find it. And they try drugs, hopin' to find it there, or they try alcohol, or sexual relationships, thinking that the answer is there. And it's not. So there's this emptiness, and it's a vacuum and a void that alcohol and drugs and fame and fortune don't fill. And it's because it's a vacuum that can only be filled by God Himself, and that's through a personal relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ.





Are teens and young people your target audience for the festivals?





No, my target audience is everyone. I mean, you want to try to get kids today, and you certainly want to do all you can to reach 'em. Because that's our next generation -- that's our future as a nation. And young people today are getting so much garbage. They're being told by television and Hollywood and entertainment that sex is the answer: If you want to be happy, be sexually active. If you want to be happy, drink responsible, and get a designated driver. But, you know, we throw advertising at our kids -- tobacco, and alcohol, and explicit sex -- it's a wonder our kids even have a chance.





The young people who come to your festivals who are some of the very people who are clearly facing some of the garbage that you've referred to and some of the deep emptiness. I think, and I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I certainly think that young people are among those who are most susceptible to peer pressure. How would you respond to someone who says that when you issue the invitation and people walk down the aisles, that really what is at work is a kind of mob mentality, or emotionalism, more than faith in Christ? How would you respond to somebody who says, Oh, that's just a lot of peer pressure at work?





Well, I don't know how it's peer pressure to get up and walk down that aisle in front of thousands of people. So if someone says that's peer pressure -- boy, I don't know.





You see it as really standing up?





Well, I tell ya, when you tell someone, I want you to get up out of your seat and stand here and say to God, "I've sinned, and I'm sorry," and ask Him for forgiveness, and I'm gonna lead you in a prayer in just a few moments to invite Jesus Christ to come into your heart and into your life, but you've got to publicly come and stand right here and publicly -- peer pressure? Uh-uh. That ain't peer pressure. Peer pressure would be just to sit there with the majority of everybody else.





Are you disappointed at all in those who do remain in their seats?





No, not at all. I don't want somebody to be a hypocrite, not if they don't mean it. But, you know, we're thankful for the ones that come, not for the ones that don't come. We're thankful for the ones that take that step.





What do you have to say to all those teens who think that being Christian is just uncool?





Well, it's not a question of bein' cool. I'm forgiven. I've never tried to be cool. I just wanna know that I'm saved. And you know, the Christian faith will never be accepted by this world. It will always be rejected.





We're in it but not of it.





That's exactly right. So the world will always say that Christians are the troublemakers, they're the ones who are always telling us, don't do this and don't do that, let's just get rid of the Christians, and somehow we'll have a better world.





Another question about your own personal relationship with Christ. Why is Romans 8:1 ["There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus"] so meaningful for you?





Now, I think that I was reading the Scripture, searching, and this was a passage that God used to spark an interest in my life. And sometimes there's little sparks -- you know, sometimes as you are reading the Scripture, there are verses for a particular time or a place or an instance that God uses to ignite something in our hearts and in our lives. You know, when I was 22, I was reading one night, and the Lord used that just to be a kind of spark. But you know, as we look through life, the importance of having a spiritual life, and letting God talk to us -- and as we read the Bible, God speaks to us, He speaks to our hearts, He challenges us, He convicts us, He leads us, He directs us.





For longtime Christians, for new Christians, and for those who are thinking of making the commitment, what will they get from attending the festival that they would not get from going to their neighborhood church?





For the non-believer: Many people will come to the stadium who would never go to a church. They'd be scared to death to go to a church. They're afraid that, well, if I go to a church, they're gonna hit me over the head with a Bible. But if they're invited to Joe Albi Stadium, they think, well, I've been there for a game, or for some other event, I know where the exits are -- if I don't like it, I'll leave. For them, this gives them an opportunity to come, to be a part of something that they normally would not be a part of. For a Christian who came for one night, for them to witness God at work through evangelism will make an impression upon them that they'll never forget. They'll see the Holy Spirit of God touchin' the hearts and lives of thousands of people this week. And the particular night there, it'll be in the hundreds. And they'll sit there and they'll see hundreds of people get up and say to God "I've sinned and I'm sorry." They'll never forget it.





I can hear the passion and the intensity in your voice, even when you're talking about those who were already Christians.





It's gonna energize them; it's gonna electrify 'em.





About those believers: As you know, Christians are divided on issues like homosexuality and abortion and the role of women. But it struck me that maybe Christians ought to spend some time pondering the essentials of our faith, the things we can all agree on.





First of all, do we believe the Bible or not? Do we accept the Bible to be God's word? And if we accept the Bible as God's word, literally, from cover to cover, then homosexuality is not an issue. We know it's a sin. Any type of sexual relationship outside of the marriage relationship, we see as a sin. Jesus Christ came for sinners. That's why He came -- He came to die for sin. Abortion: If we really believe that life is precious, we don't even have to debate the abortion issue. Abortion is wrong; it's a sin; it's murder; it's taking life. You know, God is willing to forgive murder. He is willing to forgive sexual sins. He's willing to forgive liars and thieves. He's the God of the second chance, and He wants to set us free.





Your statements are based on believing in the Bible, as you say, from cover to cover. You do believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, is that correct?





Yes.





What do you have to say then to Christians who do not, who believe that, in somewhat the same way that Christ is both divine and human, that the Bible is both divinely inspired and human-created, and may be fallible at least in its details?





Well, but how do you know what to believe? How do you know which portions of the Bible to accept and which ones not to accept? And then you just pick and choose, and then there's no absolutes. And I just have to by faith believe in the Bible. I'd never sleep at night if I was reading along and wondering, "Now, what is this passage -- is it true, or was it actually written by the author, and it wasn't really inspired by the Holy Spirit of God -- you know, I can't go through life -- I don't have time for that. I just accept it by faith.





It's a dramatic passage [in your autobiography] when your father confronts you and says, either you have to accept Christ or you have to reject Him, much as C.S. Lewis confronts us in that famous passage in Mere Christianity (which you quote): we either have to accept Him or reject Him. There's a kind of either/or approach there. It seems that your interpretation is also a kind of either/or: either it is literally true, or it isn't. Are you saying that a Christian has to accept it all or reject it all?





Well, I mean, what do you accept and what do you not accept? Then you can say, well, I accept everything in the Bible but I don't accept Jesus. I could actually take a Muslim view here: I think he was just a good man, and I don't actually see that he was divine, I don't agree that he was the son of God, and I don't see any need for him to die on a cross. But everything else in the Bible I accept. How do you pick and how do you choose? You can accept some things and rip out the ones you don't. You can say, I believe in Jesus, but I don't accept His virgin birth, or I don't accept His death on the cross, or I don't accept that He paid the debt of sin. It all comes down to, what do you accept and what do you reject?





You argue at length in The Name that Muslims are praying to a different God than Christians do. But aren't there virtuous Muslims? Aren't they people who, like us, are searching for truth and guidance and comfort and love?





I think all human beings are searching for those things, no matter what their religion. But are there good Muslims? Of course there are, absolutely. But their way to God is wrong. There's only one way to God, and that's through Christ. Now, that's the Christian faith; that's what we believe. Jesus says I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by Me. Now, there are all kinds of religions. Even in Jesus' time, there were all kinds of gods. The Romans, they had a god for everything. There are hundreds of thousands of gods in the Hindu religion. Are we to believe that all of them are right? Are all of them true? The Muslims are very intent that they are right, so much so that they will go to any measure to assure their salvation. And the only way they can be sure of going to heaven is by dying in a jihad. That's the only assurance that a Muslim has of going to heaven. They go through life never sure, never sure. We have that assurance.





In The Name, you contrast American democracy and belief in freedom of religion with all the Islamic dictatorships and state-mandated religion -- Turkey is the only Islamic democracy -- arguing that Christianity is a more tolerant religion. And yet clearly, there have been times in our past when we have not been tolerant of Jews, of Chinese Buddhists, of Native Americans.





But that intolerance was our own wickedness and our own greed. It was not coming from the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible did Jesus say, Do that to the Jews. Now, the Koran tells you that. Nowhere did Jesus go after any faith system. I mean, He never did, and the Romans had plenty for Him to go after. He never did. Now, He gives a parable, of the farmer who sowed good seed in his field. And of course, in the Bible, the field is a picture of the world and the seed is the word of God. And the enemy came and sowed weeds in the same field, and you can take that as a picture of false religions and other religions. And the servants came to the Master and asked, "What should we do? Should we pull up the weeds?" And Jesus said, "No, let them grow together." At the end of time when the harvest comes, He said, we will separate them at that time. But let them grow together, because if you pull one up now, you might uproot the other. So Jesus made it quite clear that He wasn't there to uproot or to take away or to denounce or to fight. Now, Jesus was the author of tolerance. The tolerance we get today, its roots are right in the tolerance of Christ.





Jesus is the author of tolerance, and yet your book decries the kind of tolerance and relativism of all ideas as equally valid, when you clearly think that they're not.





We've built up tolerance to where it's become one of our great virtues. But Jesus is the author of tolerance; He was the one who was tolerant. Look at what He did to women. He elevated women. The Koran certainly doesn't elevate women.





Christ practiced tolerance. But toleration today, or at least relativism, which you criticize --





-- what I criticize is that we pride ourselves on our tolerance, but yet Christians are not given the same tolerance. You use the name of Jesus Christ, and you are immediately attacked.





You don't minimize your rebel image at all. Is that by design, in the sense that the Prodigal Son theme helps in your own evangelical efforts?





I still see myself as a rebel. I don't just take everything just because someone says it. I question things. And I'm willing to speak out, even if it's not popular. I'm not afraid to -- if I think I'm right or I'm speaking the truth, I'll say it.
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