Billy and the anti-Billy

The Rev. Billy Graham doesn't have to worry about his legacy.

For millions, he remains the dignified evangelist who stood tall in the pulpit, offering his open Bible to the world as a bridge between an awesome God and lost sinners. Graham has preached in person to more people than anyone in history and has, for half a century, been one of America's most admired leaders.

This weekend, his third conference for itinerant evangelists will draw 10,000 men and women from 190 countries to Amsterdam. Many will come from the Third World's rapidly growing churches, which have been a major focus of Graham's work in the past three decades.

Graham is man of integrity who has touched many lives. But, ultimately, he is a pathetic figure, an unimpressive shepherd with an irrelevant, dying faith. It's sad that there are millions of sheep that flock to hear his simplistic answers to complex questions.

Wait a minute. Who would dare to say that?

The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, that's who.

America's most famous Episcopal bishop is a radically different kind of preacher from North Carolina and he all but calls himself the anti-Billy. As a boy, Spong used to deliver the Charlotte Observer to the Graham family's dairy. Today, he is the rare liberal Christian who openly says he believes Graham and his disciples are ancient history.

"Billy Graham possessed the enormous power present in the conviction, or the delusion, that he had in his possession the ultimate truth of God, enabling him to assume the reality of that ultimate divide between the saved and the unsaved," said Spong, in a recent Diocese of Newark newspaper column.

"I am confident both that he was sincere in these convictions and that this is the kind of pre-modern, religious conviction that will never carry the day in this world. Modern hearts cannot worship that which modern minds reject and I do not believe it is possible for an educated person to accept the Bible today as the literal word of God. Even if I did, I could never worship the God who is defined by many of those literal words."

Spong is no longer a diocesan bishop, but he remains busy in academia, talk shows and publishing. He also has explored cyberspace by writing about spirituality for and sexuality for, a soft-core sex site. Critics note that membership declined 38 percent in his churches during his 24-year episcopate.

Meanwhile, the 81-year-old Graham continues to wrestle with Parkinson's disease and other problems that have put him in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., since early June. While doctors are evaluating his condition on a day-to-day basis, the evangelist's staff has prepared for him to reach Amsterdam 2000 through a satellite-television connection. One way or another, Graham will speak in the finale on Aug. 6.

"I am disappointed at this turn of events, but I have great peace that this is God's plan for me and for the Amsterdam 2000 conference," he told the media.

That spiritual equation perfectly symbolizes what someone like Graham believes and what someone like Spong does not.

Spong attacks Graham and those who "envision God as a supernatural parent" who plans lives and heeds prayers. The bishop has said: "Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way." He rejects the virgin birth, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as historical events. Third World Christians? Most are locked in superstition.

"I do not believe that God is a Being sitting above the clouds pulling strings. ... I do not believe that human beings are born evil and that only those who come to God through the 'blood of Jesus' will be saved," concludes Spong. "If Christianity is to survive ... it will have to evolve radically beyond the images employed by Billy Graham. It will be forced to become something new and different. It will have to surrender its claims to miracle, magic and exclusiveness."

Graham obviously disagrees. And while some may dismiss him, he is ready to pass his torch to evangelists in the Third World -- or die trying to do so.