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Billy: The Early Years (2008)
norman rockwell meets Jesus
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 skillfully.
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.
no intelligence allowed, indeed
The movie is good. The firestorm around it is nothing short of amazing.
Unfortunately, I don't mean that latter statement in a good way.
Expelled examines the fact that much of science, academia, and the media do not stop short of simply dismissing the concepts of intelligent design (a.k.a. ID), but refuse to allow the topic to even be discussed. Hosted by Ben Stein, the movie starts with some examples of this issue. Stein admits to some early cynicism that this is all just over-blown hype.
If one is objective, this cynicism is understandable. Many proponents of ID claim the name of Christ, and (unfortunately) many Christians are alarmists, self-made martyrs, and conspiracy theorists that would put Oliver Stone to shame. But sometimes, when the boy cries "wolf", the sheep really are in danger. In the first 20 minutes or so, Expelled shows us:
* professors and research scientists whose "contracts were not renewed" by their university (read: fired) because they pursued ID theories * an established journalist who has many of her articles vetted before publication, because she once wrote about ID in a non-dismissive way * a scientist and journal editor who lost his job simply for publishing an article written by an ID proponent
Sadly, most of the reactions to the movie are the truly over-blown hype. Even more sadly, they're incredibly predictable.
The movie uses the metaphor of the Berlin Wall, its separation of people and ideas, and its shutting out of ideas. This metaphor gets jumped on mindlessly by the film's critics, somehow taking a metaphor and twisting it to declare that Stein sees an absolute moral equivalence between the hatred and malice that spawned the Wall and the issues that he is trying to discuss. It's called an illustration, people. You learn about it in the first month of the average high school public-speaking class.
While the film's main point is not to support ID nor defeat Darwinism, both topics are fairly unavoidable when discussing the latter's staunch hold and the shutting out of the former. As Stein notes, "In my experience, people who are confident in their ideas are not afraid of criticism." And so some of the film's scrutiny does, indeed, fall on Darwinism, and some of its suspect implications the criticism that Darwinists are allegedly unafraid of.
Expelled notes the fact that there are some parallels between Darwinism and Nazism, quoting some genuinely scary passages written by Charles Darwin and noting that Hitler attributed some of the theories in Mein Kampf to his reading of Darwin. Once again, the film's critics jump on the non-existent statement of moral equivalence, despite the fact that one of Stein's interviewees says point-blank that no one is saying that Darwinism leads to Nazism.
There is some levity, too, both in the movie and the issues surrounding it. In the interviews that Stein conducted, several Darwinists admitted that Darwinism only "begins" once the first cell has life, and that "no one knows" how that first cell came to life. One scientist (and I use that term loosely) posited the theory that life began on the backs of crystals, conjuring images of Abby O'Neil (Finkelstein) from Dharma & Greg.
Stein also conducted an extensive interview with Richard Dawkins, noted author and staunch atheist. When he wasn't fumbling for answers to fairly straightforward questions, Dawkins made several convoluted statements. Stein attempted to untangle these by asking, "So, you are willing for the theory to be disseminated that life possibly began by the 'seeding' of aliens, but you are unwilling to allow for the theory that life was first produced by a god of any nature?" Dawkins seriously affirmed Stein's summation.
(I'm sure that Robin Williams will be happy to know that Mork from Ork is what passes for serious science these days.)
Interestingly, Dawkins later claimed not to know who Stein was when he granted the interview, and has stated that he would not have done the interview had he known more about Stein and/or the nature of the film. What a shame that someone who has sold hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of books is too poor to hire a 10-year-old to do a Google search. He must have a really lousy contract with his publishers.
What I find even more fascinating is the criticism that this film has received from people who have not even seen it. And these are not just run-of-the-mill whack jobs blogging in their mom's basement. Whether it's the countless slam jobs that the film encountered before it was even shown in private screenings or even respected journalists writing in respected journals two weeks after the film's release that they haven't seen it and then go on to blather against it for pages the main point of the movie gets reinforced over and over again. Here is an issue that (theoretically) intelligent people are disinclined to discuss at all.