An HIstoric Event V

Thanks to Terrie Aamodt for correcting my information on Joan Hedrik in the previous blog. Hedrik is not a professor at the University of Southern Maine. Rather she is the Charles A. Dana Professor of History at Trinity College.

Grant Wacker is a major figure in church history studies. He was trained at Stanford and Harvard. He is Professor of Christian History at Duke University. He is president of the American Society of Church History. For eight years he served as the senior editor of the scholarly journal Church History. He is currently working on a cultural biography of the evangelist Billy Graham. To have him involved in the Ellen White biography project (he is writing the introduction to the projected volume) is a major asset. On Friday night the 23rd of October, he gave a lecture entitled “Billy Graham and the Challenge of Biographical Research” at the First Unitarian Church of Portland, one of the few downtown buildings to remain from the time of Ellen White’s childhood. In what I write below I am attempting to share what Wacker said that night, rather than my own views.

Billy Graham is still alive, 91 years of age, and lives alone with a nurse. It is estimated that Graham has spoken to some 215,000,000 people face to face. But in spite of that a large portion of the younger generation doesn’t know him anymore, so this is the golden time and the last chance to do a living biography right.

The working title of the biography is Billy Graham’s America. There are already some 40 biographies of Graham. What do you do when there are already a lot of books on the landscape? You hope to fill in parts of the story that haven’t been covered. You ask about the larger significance of the story. Why does Billy Graham’s life matter?

Wacker reviewed a number of key differences between Billy Graham and Ellen White. They lived in different centuries. Had he lived in the 19th Century Graham couldn’t have traveled the way he did and had the world impact he has had today. Obviously Graham was male and Ellen White was female. As a white male he was a recipient of “unearned favor” in the larger society. He certainly was born with a remarkable voice. By contrast, we don’t know much about what White’s voice sounded like. White had visions. Graham claimed no visions or healings. Ellen White was a revealer, Billy Graham was an expositor.

The first step in writing a biography is determining the role of the author. In a way, the author needs to find his or her own voice in writing about another person. As an evangelical Christian, Wacker approaches Graham from the perspective of an “insider.” He has some automatic knowledge of the nuances that make evangelicals unique. But the problem with “insiders” is that they have a tendency to varnish the story. The “hagiographers” do more damage to the subject than the detractors do. Hagiography damages the author with the audience and robs the subject of their human nobility, the nobility of the human struggle, of learning how to be who they are. Graham often made mistakes and had to say he was sorry.

Another option is for the biographer to deliberately write as an “outsider,” using the language and tools of academia. As an outsider, you immerse yourself in the available materials until you know the subject better than the subject knows himself or herself. You study the person until you know the difference between a twitch and a wink. But you don’t go so deep that you lose your own perspective on the subject. The ideal biography is suspended somewhere between the insider and the outsider perspective.

The outsider must strive to be fair. Wacker believes it is important that you can “look the subject in the eye” when you’re finished. The subject needs to be able to recognize themselves in the portrait. Fairness is also needed toward the critics of the subject. In biography there are often non-negotiable divides. For example, either God was working in a given situation or it was coincidental. Either Ellen White’s visions came from God or they did not. You can call it “plagiarism” or you can call it “insufficient attestation.” There is a certain pretentiousness in an ordinary person sitting around and evaluating someone who changed the world. The responsibilities of Graham and White were much greater than that of their biographer’s. The responsibility of speaking to thousands (in Graham’s case 50,000 to 100,000) of people at a time. It is draining when you know how many people are listening to or reading your material.

Sometimes when you are writing a biography there is too little evidence, it is just too sparse. But at other times the evidence is just too vast. That is the problem with both Graham and White. It is the problem of selection. Which statement is normative? Which statement tells us who the person really is. It is an issue of low priority versus high priority. Which are more important, considered comments or off the cuff comments? When is a subject intentionally not talking? There is also the problem of protection. The “handlers” are usually more protective of the subject than the subject is himself. So the biographer needs to develop a relationship with the handlers in order to be successful. On the other hand, the lieutenants (in Graham’s case musicians, organizers, tech people) rarely receive their due, so their sensitivity is understandable.

In the end, the biographer has to decide which Graham to choose. Is it the one who could be very sensitive or the one with the thick skin? Is it the one who was extraordinarily humble in his self-descriptions or the one who was constantly dropping names of the people he met and worked with? Is it the one who was naive or the one who was politically astute? His multiple personalities were and are mediated by the organization that represents him. And these are often barriers to the evidence. Who is the subject? Is a person like Graham best understood as a celebrity, a hero, a leader, simply interesting, a receptacle of others’ values, someone who was influential, a legend in his or her time, or a “sower of winter wheat” (someone who’s greatest influence may be after death)?

A biographer needs to evaluate but not to judge. A biographer needs to lay out the correspondence between the subject’s best intentions and their actions. There needs to be a hermeneutic of charity. Sometimes there is an isolated comment or a single event that is totally out of character with everything else the person stands for. Critics will want to judge the entire person on the basis of those isolated occurrences. On the other hand, hagiographers prefer to hide the evidence. The biographer needs to find a fair and appropriate balance.

Wacker offered a striking conclusion. All good biography enables us to live the present in the light of the past. The task for the biographer is not so much to evaluate the subject but to stand back and let the subject evaluate us.

This concludes my five-part review of the Ellen White Conference in Portland, Maine that took place from October 22-25, 2009. I hope this review has been helpful.


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  • 11/16/2009 9:14 AM Kevin Wells wrote:
    Dr. Paulien,
    Your observation concerning the pretentiousness of an ordinary person evaluating someone with the impact of Dr. Graham or Ellen White serves as a wise word of counsel to those of us who have not had such great responsibility placed upon our shoulders. Many times we are quick to judge them and their motives as though the only burden they had to bare was to convince someone to change their favorite ice cream rather than gamble that Christ is the only way to life eternal. A tremendous burden indeed! I hope that out of the conference a fuller picture of Ellen White and her contribution not only to Adventism will emerge but to the broader community of believers as well.
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