Wonder how it feels to be treated like a historical figure while you’re still alive.
President Barack Obama and his living predecessors could tell us. And civil rights legend John Lewis could, too. Ditto, Mikhail Gorbachev, the final Soviet ruler.
It’s a pretty exclusive club. And it’s clear, as his 95th birthday approaches, that Charlotte-born Billy Graham is a member.
Who else but ex-White House occupants have anything like the Billy Graham Library – a presidential-style museum filled with mementos of his decades-long career?
And this week, Wheaton College in Illinois has been hosting a four-day conference on its most famous alumnus, with speeches, roundtable discussions, and even a Billy Graham Film Festival featuring clips from some of his more famous crusades.
Other recent signs that Graham, who will celebrate another birthday Nov. 7, has achieved larger-than-life status: Popular Christian singer Michael W. Smith has written a song, “Take Me Home,” about Graham’s longing for heaven. And grade-schoolers can now dip into a new biography of Graham that’s tailored to young readers, 9 to 12.
The lasting influence of Graham – pastor to presidents, America’s evangelist-in-chief and preacher to millions around the globe – was the theme of many of the scheduled Wheaton lectures from scholars around the country.
Grant Wacker, a professor at Duke Divinity School, was to speak about “Billy Graham and American History.”
“Billy Graham and the Enigma of the Modern South” was the theme from Webster University’s Steven Miller, who authored a well-reviewed book about Graham’s role in the rise of the Republican Party in the Bible Belt.
One scholar’s focus was Graham’s visits to the Soviet Union – controversial at the time, but now considered part of the bigger story of communism’s collapse.
Also on the agenda: Graham’s relationship with race. He promoted integration and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s, but kept his distance from the civil rights marches in the 1960s.
And a panel scheduled for Saturday was to include not only Charlotte evangelist Leighton Ford and wife Jean Ford, Graham’s sole surviving sibling, but also Martin Marty, perhaps the country’s leading expert on American religion.
Meanwhile, Smith’s song will be out soon. It’s a conversation Graham might have with Jesus when he gets to heaven. “Hello, old friend,” it begins. “You’ve walked beside me all these miles.”
Graham’s take on his fame and his hopes for heaven are covered on the final page of the new biography for kids – “Prophet with Honor,” Christian publisher Zondervan’s adaptation of William Martin’s definitive biography.
“I want to hear one person say something nice about me, and that’s the Lord, when I face him,” Graham says on page 144. “I want him to say to me, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”
-- Tim Funk