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norman rockwell meets Jesus
mail-851 from United States
18 October 2008
There is a certain grace and tranquility to the North Carolina accent
that is like no other. You can hear it when Billy Graham speaks, though
not quite as much when he preaches or gets excited. It is with such
grace and tranquility that Armie Hammer embodies the character of the
young Billy Graham.
Was there a snowball's chance of a biographical movie about an
evangelist even getting a sniff by the Academy, Hammer would be
nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. I do not say that lightly. This is
not simply the reflection of a Christian who wishes attention and
adulation for an uplifting and God-honoring movie. Content and
subject-matter aside, Hammer is that good.
Billy: The Early Years follows Graham from high school through his
first major crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. It is told via the
modern-day recollections of an elderly Charles Templeton (Martin
Landau), a friend and mentor of Graham in his early days.
Growing out of a high-school skepticism for evangelists ("they all just
fleece the flock") and to an extent faith in general, Graham senses
the call by God to serve Him while attending a tent-revival meeting,
which he goes to more on a dare than for any other reason.
He starts by attending (what was then called) Bob Jones Academy. His
tenure there was short-lived, culminating (in the movie, at least) with
a meeting with Jones (Sr) himself. Graham had some legitimate questions
about faith, but Jones countered that he (Jones) already had all the
answers, and had already made all the mistakes so that Graham wouldn't
have to. I don't know if such a display of epistemological arrogance
was actually ever held by Jones, but it is in keeping with several BJU
graduates that I have known in my life. (And alternatively, I know
other BJU graduates who are not of such a persuasion.) Graham
transferred to Florida Bible Institute and then later attended Wheaton
College (where he met his wife, Ruth Bell). It is at Wheaton that
Graham has his first attempt at preaching. Suffice it to say that it
doesn't go well. However, his professor says to him, "I look forward to
what God is going to do with you." Billy nervously asks, "In a good
way?", and his professor affirms this.
As he recalls Graham, Templeton states that Graham grew up in a Norman
Rockwell painting. And such is the feel of these early days. There is a
gentleness and calmness infused both in the movie and in Graham's very
being. And, I believe that these qualities are part of what God uses to
help him through the harder issues that arise.
Similarly, the first hour or so of the movie is infused with light
humor that brings humanity back to a man who has preached before
millions. Whether it's Graham's school-boy-like crush on Bell, his
early fumbling practices in preaching (which often seem like a wild
caricature of Graham's actual style), or his fainting spell at the
birth of his first daughter, the humor helps us identify with him such
that, when those harder issues arise, we go along with him into them.
Having finally gotten his preaching chops down, Graham is recruited to
go on a preaching tour with well-known evangelist Charles Templeton.
The two men become close friends, with the seasoned Templeton mentoring
Graham on occasion. But as time passes, Templeton begins having a
crisis of faith, largely under the age-old argument of "how can there
be a loving God when there is so much suffering in the world?" These
doubts grow in Templeton's mind after the preaching tour, and he
eventually leaves his pastorate, accepting a position at Princeton.
At the time, Graham praises Templeton's integrity (of not preaching
what he doesn't believe) and declares that he will not judge his
friend, nor stand with those that do, but admonishes others to pray for
Templeton. One can sense a belief and hope in Graham that Templeton
will return to the fold. This makes it even harder when Graham
encounters Templeton later, and Templeton lambastes him, showing not a
questioning soul, but an utter rejection of the Christian faith.
Herein lies another scene showing Hammer's acting performance. In three
minutes of Templeton's tirade, Hammer has 2 lines. But we see his face
transition from shock at how his friend is talking to him, to horror
and disbelief at what he is hearing, to anger not at Templeton, but
at the way in which the enemy has blinded his friend.
Having to be honest with himself, Graham has a bit of a faith crisis,
too, because of Templeton's statements. But in a time of prayer,
seeking answers from God, Graham comes to the conclusion that he must
believe what the Bible says and trust God to carry him through the
issues where human doubt arises. This can be a tough pill to swallow,
but Hammer pulls off Graham's encounter with this issue quite
Theologically, this movie pulls extremely few punches. The s-word (no,
not that one, I mean "sin") is used liberally in the preaching scenes,
and man's need for Jesus (yes, the J-word is used often, too) is
re-iterated several times. Conversely, Templeton's later statements
(portrayed clearly as being wrong) sound like a modern-day tract for
universalism, including allusions to multiple paths to God and the
belief that Jesus was not the Son of God. By citing both what is right
and what is wrong, the screenwriters make it very clear where they (and
by proxy, Graham) stand.
While this clarity renders a movie that is ultimately devoid of warm
fuzzies, it is still a feel-good movie, at least if you know the One
who loved us so much that He died for us, and gave us servants like
Billy Graham to spread that good news.
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