Billy Graham a Model for Christian Biography, Says Biographer

How does an author tell the story of a cultural icon? That is the task of Grant Wacker, who will describe the process in a free public lecture, “Billy Graham and the Challenges of Cultural Biography,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, in the First Parish Church in Portland, Unitarian-Universalist, 425 Congress St.

The 215 million people Billy Graham addressed face-to-face is likely the largest audience of any speaker in history. He has been one of the most admired men in the world for 50 years. Yet, according to Wacker, a professor of Christian history at Duke University, what makes Graham most interesting is his humanity. Like a statue with feet of clay, he has had his share of flaws. While writing a cultural biography of Graham, forthcoming from Harvard University Press and tentatively titled, Billy Graham’s America, Wacker observed that Graham understands his shortcomings and has maintained a lifelong sense of humility about them. “I know of no one who has more consistently shown rock-ribbed integrity in their personal and professional lives,” said Wacker.

Grant Wacker has co-edited or authored six books, including Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture, and numerous articles in academic journals and popular magazines. A winner of two distinguished teaching awards, he served as president of the American Society of Church History in 2008. He also served as a senior editor of the quarterly journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture from 1998-2005.

Professor Wacker’s visit to Portland coincides with a scholarly workshop that is sponsoring his lecture. Workshop participants are examining the life of Ellen Harmon White, a native of the Portland area and eventual cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. They are preparing a biographical introduction to her life and times for submission to Oxford University Press. This group of 65 scholars is studying the task of biography as well as the life of one nineteenth century woman. Like Professor Wacker, they seek to understand the life of a complex individual who commanded a large public audience. In the lecture and in the discussion afterwards, conference participants and community members will be able to explore Professor Wacker’s knowledge of the biographical craft, American religion, and the art of telling a complex story faithfully and well.

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