Thursday, February 12, 2015

Billy and Chuck: a Tale of Two Evangelists

In the middle of the twentieth century, two men shared a deep friendship, based on their mutual love of Christ and belief in the Scriptures:  Charles (Chuck) Templeton, and Billy Graham.  Odds are you have heard of the latter; probably not the former.
            Chuck Templeton was nonetheless someone to whom the young Billy Graham looked up (as Billy admits in his autobiography Just As I Am).  They shared rooms together as well as their dedication to Jesus and their determination to preach the Gospel.  Together Billy and Chuck worked with the early “Youth for Christ” movement, and when Billy was about to go on stage to preach the Gospel to 20,000 teens in a Youth for Christ rally in the Chicago Stadium in 1945, he leaned over to Chuck saying to his buddy, “Pray for me Chuck; I’m scared to death.”  Chuck did.
            
Nonetheless, Chuck and Billy eventually chose very different roads.  Chuck attended Princeton Theological Seminary, and was exposed there to the biblical liberalism then sweeping through the theological colleges of America.  For him, the supposed conflict between Science and Religion loomed very large.  The front line then was the account of creation in the Book of Genesis and its supposed incompatibility with Science.  Chuck remonstrated with his old friend, “Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe the biblical account of creation.  The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years.  It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.”  In his autobiography, Graham recounted that he honestly struggled with the arguments of his friend, finally resolving the conflict by simply taking the historical reliability of the Genesis account, as he says, “on faith”.
            Billy Graham never looked back, which is in part why we all recognize his name.  It was otherwise with Chuck.  His studies at Princeton, coming after his fundamentalist upbringing, led him inescapably to the conclusion that the Bible was wrong.   Being a man of integrity he resigned his evangelistic ministry, and began a new life and job in the secular world.  He became famous in that world as a broadcaster with Pierre Burton on CFRB radio in Toronto, and published a book outlining his life story, entitled appropriately enough Farewell to God.  After a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease he died in 2001, after confiding in a journalist, “I miss Jesus.”
            Standing at a distance from both men, I think I can see both what they shared in common as well as the matters in which they differed.  As men born and bred in Protestant fundamentalism, both equated “truth” with “historical truth as currently defined by historians”.  That is, the Bible story about (for example) Jonah was true, and therefore the story about Jonah must be historically true in the sense that present day historians define historical truth.  The story of Jonah cannot be historical fiction, or allegory, or parable, or anything other than a recounting of historical events according to the present journalistic canons for accurate reporting, otherwise it would not be true.   Both men applied this understanding of truth in their interpretation of the entire Bible, including the creation accounts of Genesis.  Billy looked at these Genesis accounts and the differences from them in the accounts of modern science, saw the discrepancies, and rejected “on faith” the conclusions of modern science.  Chuck saw the same differences and the same discrepancies, and rejected the Bible in the name of modern science.  Neither man was prepared to question their equation of “truth” with “historical history as defined by modern historians”.  And that is too bad.   Resisting the equation might have secured a greater measure of credibility for Billy.  And it might have allowed Chuck to retain a belief in the authority of the Bible, and to remain in the Christian Faith.  Maybe Chuck needn’t have missed Jesus after all.
            The tale of the two evangelists is a cautionary tale.  Perhaps confession of the Bible as the authoritative and infallible Word of God doesn’t necessarily commit one to belief in the creation of the earth “over a period of days a few thousand years ago” after all.  Chuck probably would have said that he left the Christian faith because he didn’t want to become a victim of fundamentalism.  The irony is that in his rejection of the Faith he was a victim of such a fundamentalism after all.  


           




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