December 5, 2020

Another Look: A Path to Wonder

Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham and George Beverly Shea singing together in 1984

Note from CM: The death of Billy Graham, the face of U.S. evangelicalism in the 20th century, made me a bit nostalgic and reflective of my own journey through that world he helped create. Tomorrow, we will have a special Saturday Brunch dedicated to Graham and his legacy, but for today, walk with me through a review of the path I took, which often intersected with Graham’s evangelicalism.

• • •

I have spent my adult life primarily in Bible-believing, non-denominational church settings.

I experienced a spiritual awakening during the “Jesus Movement” of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

I went forward during an invitation in a Southern Baptist church. Got dunked.

Our youth group was serious about Bible study.

We attended Bill Gothard’s “Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts” seminars.

I still remember listening to the first Maranatha “Praise” album. On vinyl. Simple and sweet.

I myself wrote testimonial songs about Jesus and sang them with my guitar.

I once sang in meetings for an evangelist who wore a white belt and shoes.

I wore a wooden cross around my neck.

I cut my hair so I could go to Bible college.

We studied dispensationalism there and read the Bible through that grid.

We suspected that Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College might be liberal — neo-evangelical we called them.

We certainly did not trust the amillennialists. They spiritualized the Scriptures!

No way would we approve of baptizing babies.

Or wearing robes in the pulpit.

Or using the RSV.

Or, heaven forbid! the Good News Bible!

Roman Catholicism? We quietly considered it a cult.

I never even heard of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Some of our professors thought Francis Schaeffer was off his rocker.

The “Church Fathers” to us were Lewis Sperry Chafer and C. I. Scofield.

Calvin and Luther were OK, as long as you stuck with, “The just shall live by faith.” They were awfully weak in their ecclesiology and eschatology, however.

Billy Graham allowed liberals on his platform. A definite no-no.

And we mocked when evangelists like him sang too many verses of “Just As I Am” until they got a response.

In fact, our pastoral studies department frowned on public invitations. Too much appeal to the emotions. Just teach the Word!

Charismatics were deluded. Maybe not even Christians.

Denominations were apostate.

Women preachers? What are you, crazy?

We were forbidden to listen to anything that might be interpreted as “rock” music.

I think we were “soft” fundamentalists though. A pastor once turned his back on me at the table when he found out where I went to school. He was from Bob Jones University. He considered our school, and therefore me by association, compromised.

All I wanted to do was teach the Bible.

I carried all this into my first church at the wise old age of 22.

Kyrie eleison!

I preached expository Bible messages.

We sang hymns and choruses. With organ, piano, sometimes guitar.

We baptized those who got saved.

I visited the shut-ins, led the youth group, held “sword drill” with the kids, separated myself from the sinners, performed a lot of funerals, tried to dry all that wetness behind my ears.

We had a baby.

I was ready for seminary. We moved back to Chicago.

In my heart, I was moving away from fundamentalism, but I had no conception of leaving the Bible-believing nondenominational way of life and church.

I found I couldn’t subscribe to dispensationalism anymore. At least not the pre-trib variety.

I liked rock music too much.

I was ready to think for myself a little bit.

We settled in an independent fundamentalist church anyway.

We thought Willow Creek was liberal, maybe even heretical.

And so it continued…

…it took a long time to break free.

I’m still breaking free.

Why? What’s so bad about this environment of faith? Why must I break free?

Certainly not because I no longer believe the Bible. I trust and value God’s Word more than at any other time in my life. It’s the Story in which I found life, the Story in which I live, the Story that continually brings Jesus to me.

Not because the people I’ve known in those circles were bad. They remain dear friends, and I love them, and we love Jesus together.

Not because I got hurt or disillusioned in some personal way.

Not because God didn’t work in and through us in those settings.

Rather, it is because I can no longer believe that God confines himself to those settings.

Because it all looks to me now like a little tunnel where people hide from a great big scary world. Where I hid too.

But now I see that that world is exactly where God is and has been all the time.

Because I now believe, even though I don’t remember it consciously, that God was there when my parents brought me to the font to be baptized as an infant.

And he was there when I looked with curiosity and fascination through the books we had at home about Jesus and the twelve disciples.

And when I was a young child and wanting to stay with my parents in “big church” to see the light streaming through stained glass, the colorful robed people processing down aisles and across balconies, the somber vision of the white-haired minister kneeling to pray before worship; the rhythm of his words when he preached. Singing, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Amen.”

My mom taught me to follow the words in the hymnal by tracing a path with her finger. I loved hearing her sing.

I remember times after youth choir practice, wandering around the dark hallways of the church building and coming upon a little chapel lit by an eternal flame. The smell of the old wood. The feeling of silence.

I remember the wonder. He was there.

I recall the pastor visiting my grandparents in their home, always friendly and kind.

Kneeling at the altar rail for communion.

Wishing I could be an acolyte carrying the flame.

Singing my first solo as a robed elementary choir member.

Joking with our choir director and having so much fun.

I remember, though vaguely, my confirmation class. The white-haired minister spoke to us in somber tones about how God met him and changed his life. I felt so serious as I bowed my head in prayer.

Standing outside at night after youth group as the snow fell upon the old stone church building.

He was there.

Somehow, one day that world ended.

It was dark for what seemed like forever. And then…

…a newborn fundamentalist came into the world.

In my born-again mindset, I have looked back on childhood as the time when I was lost and knew nothing of God. Is that right?

Now I wonder.

Don’t get me wrong. Whatever my “conversion” experience as a young adult actually involved spiritually, I know for sure that I needed God’s intervention to turn me around at that point. I was the prodigal son. Our version of Billy Graham, calling for decision and inviting us to come forward, hit me square in the heart and changed my life.

However, for years now, I’ve known that the narrow-minded path I started walking on at that moment is not enough, at least for me. It’s not a big enough God. It’s not a big enough life. It’s not a big enough vocation.

I hope I’m going forward now into something newer, bigger, more wonder-filled.

But in doing so, I find I’m looking back a lot.

Perhaps my desire for an “ancient-future” faith is a longing for nothing more ancient than the childhood where God first made himself known to me in ways that made a child dream.

Stained glass.

Eternal flame.

Brilliant robes.

Smell of old wood.



  1. I experienced a very similar path CM. However, I didn’t begin as a child in a Main Line (yours sounds Episcopal) and in my upbringing we absolutely did NOT use instruments of music.

    • Yep, no instrumental music. No bake sales, cake walks. No mixed bathing, dancing, drinking. I had to sit out the square dance portion of our sixth grade variety show. Dad preached against smoking too, but in between Sunday School and Worship there had to be enough time for the men to step outside and smoke. Somehow I missed the diatribes against rock music. And we were distinctively amillenial, thanks in large part to an irrascible old curmudgeon from Texas who led a purge of it in the colleges and periodicals in the first half of the 20th century.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Dad preached against smoking too, but in between Sunday School and Worship there had to be enough time for the men to step outside and smoke.

        In Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar, JMJ/Christian Monist makes the exact same observation about the rural Tennesse Baptist church where he was raised. Justified in that an exception was made for WW2 vets.

  2. “liked rock music too much…”
    yupp, there goes Chap Mike….3/5 of a mile in 10 seconds…..

    appreciate the list, don’t miss the IBYC red notebook one little bit.
    happy (new) trails

    • “I’m on the highway to hell…”

      That AC/DC album was the only rock album I threw out when I became a Christian. Just figured that title song was too close to many people’s reality. But I kinda miss the thing now. It was loaded with great songs.

      • Dan from Georgia says

        Hey, I still like rock music.

        OK, how many of us re-purchased albums/cassettes/CDs…um…8-tracks…a while after tossing them out?

        I sure did.

        • Yep. Bought a new copy of Bat Out of Hell by Meatloaf last summer, and Pink Floyd too. Eagles, Rolling Stones. Boy was I dumb to believe all that Jack Trick stuff.

          • I kept ’em all, all except that AC/DC album. Guess I never bought into the need to purge “all things secular.” Same with movies. I think I skipped R-rated movies for all of two weeks before concluding it wasn’t necessary. Thankfully I had a fairly healthy church environment which didn’t push that kinda nonsense.

            • Dan from Georgia says

              “all things secular” – that was the dividing line, wasn’t it? If it was secular, it was automatically judged to be bad. Even if it wasn’t bad.

              Heck, I’m on my 3rd copy of X&Y by Coldplay!

              Yes, third copy. Man my spiritual life is complicated!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          OK, how many of us re-purchased albums/cassettes/CDs…um…8-tracks…a while after tossing them out?

          I’m sure you’ve all heard of “Cage-Phase Calvinists”.
          Well, this is just the Cage-Phase Evangelical shtick, i.e. “Purge All Things Secular like the Taliban blowing up those archaeological sites”.

          Once on Slacktivist: Left Behind, Slack described this using CHRISTIAN(TM) actor Kirk Cameron as the type example. That this was symptomatic of being catechized with Holiness and Righteousness defined in primarily NEGATIVE terms, i.e. a list of “Thou Shalt Nots”. And the more Thou Shalt Nots you observed (and pushed), the more Holy you must be.

          You can see where this is going.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Another corollary of this type of Holiness one-upmanship (More Degrees of Separation than Thou) is the substitution of “Just like fill-in-the-blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!” knockoffs of what was tossed into the Bonfires of Vanity to keep the pop-culture fix while still remaining uncontiaminated. This phenomenon has been covered before here at Internet Monk:

          Guilt. Oh sure, you used to like listening to Christina Aguilera, but now you are a Christian, so you listen to BarlowGirl, not because you like their sound or their lyrics, but you would feel guilty listening to and enjoying Christina Aguilera now that you have been saved. You used to love reading science fiction by Orson Scott Card and Ursula K. Le Guin, but now you read Left Behind. You used to go study the works of Van Gogh, but now you look at a picture of a pasty-white Jesus knocking on someone’s door.

          Are you enjoying your new choices in art? No, not really. But you would have a terrible feeling of guilt if you continued to consume that which you previously enjoyed. After all, if you like something, it has to be wrong, right?

          So we buy Christian crap, not because we want to, but because we feel guilty buying “non-Christian” works of art. We keep Christian stores in business, buying water bottles that say “Seek the living water.” T-shirts with ripped-off corporate logos like “Things go better with Christ.” And books and music that are such inferior examples of their media they would be laughable if their effects weren’t so horrible. So much Christian art causes us to become people who cannot think for ourselves, cannot determine what is solid food and what is baby food, cannot distinguish between what is beautiful and what is a very poor imitation of beauty.

          My comments on that thread:

          “Christian (TM) novels are consolation prizes so those Christians (TM) keeping their noses squeeky-clean to pass the Rapture Litmus Test can have their pop culture just like Those Heathen without risking contamination by Those Same Heathen. The reason “hordes of people think this is good literature” is because they either have never encountered the real thing (again, a negative view of Holiness) or it is all they have to read and they make the most of it. When you’ve never known (or are forbidden to touch) anything else, even crap makes your mouth water.”

          And from the previous thread :

          “According to the massmind over at Slacktivist’s LB page-by-page analysis/comment blog, this is probably one of the reasons why LB became a best-seller. Real True Christians (TM) are forbidden from reading, watching, and listening to so much stuff (due to a negative view of holiness) that they will glom onto any Approved Christian (TM) imitation of the now-forbidden “Christian Aguilera” like a starving refugee to a Thanksgiving feast. Now they can read/watch/listen to something approximating what they liked without feeling guilty or threatening their squeeky-clean Christian nose at God’s Litmus Test and risking being Left Behind (TM).”

          However, there is a counter to this. I was exposed to the real thing (SF lit) before I was the Christianese knockoffs of it, and it upped my resistance to Jesus Junk. Remember that sermon illustration about how “You don’t learn to recognize counterfeits by studying counterfeits — you learn to recognize counterfeits by Studying The Real Thing!”? Or that pop song of 100 years ago:

          “How you gonna keep ’em
          Down on the farm
          After they’ve seen Paree?”

          Exposing kids to GOOD mainstream arts will up their resistance to the Cheezy Christianese Knockoffs. Even if they’ve grown up with the Cheezy Christianese Knockoffs — once they’ve been exposed to the Real Thing (“Seen Paree”) in contrast to the Approved Christianese Versions — they won’t settle for anything less.

          • Dan from Georgia says

            HUG…all true.

            Sadly, too true.

            Back when in my early believing days, I had a pamphlet that was called something like “Sounds Like..” – listing a bunch of secular pop/rock musicians, along side their Christian sound-alike counterparts. This pamphlet was produced in the very early days of Stryper, so about 99% of the comparisons were a BIG stretch.

            Full disclosure: I still enjoy a few of the Christian rock counterparts to their secular sound-alikes, but honestly most of the time it makes me cringe. Most of it seemed very late-80s-ish, right-wing-ish, moral-majority-ish, end-times-ish propaganda. I was blessed when I came across good, genuine music produced by believers – Over The Rhine for example.

            And don’t even get me started on the visual arts CRAP that pollutes the now-mostly defunct Christian bookstores.

  3. …it took a long time to break free.

    I’m still breaking free.

  4. Ronald Avra says

    That life chronology will likely resonate with many who happen by this blog. Good post.

    • +1. I enjoyed reading your journey, CM.

    • Flashbacks. Thanks. Now I’ll need more counseling!

      • There are a number of things that occasionally haunt me from my fundy days, but the one that creates the most angst is when I recall how circumscribed our choices for counseling were. And in the nondenominational world, I encountered some counseling practices that now understand to be nothing more than religious folklore voodoo. That said, and I believe I have mentioned this before in this space, it’s difficult to find a good counselor even if you don’t consider the restrictions that certain fundamentalists maintain.

  5. When I look back, I see that God was using all the exposure I had to church and the Bible, and life experiences, I can only conclude that God was setting me up to be ready to respond to the Gospel when I finally heard it.

    And when I did respond to it, by some amazing luck (it was as if God had a hand in it), this crazy dysfunctional church where I got saved taught me that my allegiance was to Christ first and denominations/labels/etc. were of a lower priority.

    I have seen God work in evangelical churches, and in other kinds of churches, but my focus has been on Christ, not labels. I remember when God told me of a situation in the Primitive Baptists where a problem was solved and it could only have been the work of the Holy Spirit, and that was my first insight that just because someone had different theology didn’t mean God wasn’t using them. My “bible club” in High School had folks from Baptists to Catholics and everything in between, but Christ was honored by all (this was during the Jesus movement in the early/mid 1970’s).

    Somehow I ended up at the only evangelical college in the Southeast that was not affiliated with a denomination. So I got to see God working through Methodists and Presbyterians as well as Baptists. Non-denominal churches seemed the best fit for what I was seeing God do.

    So… has “evangelicalism” been wrong about some things? Possibly. But I can’t see leaving it – or, rather, I don’t feel called to leave it. Maybe it needs reforming (haha).

  6. Randy Thompson says

    The picture of Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham and George Beverly Shea was sweet. It reminded me of a time when evangelical Christianity projected a genuine warmth, where you wanted to respond when the Gospel was proclaimed and the choir began singing “Just As I Am,” Despite real flaws (e.g., Richard Nixon), these three exuded a genuine goodness and winsomeness

    Sadly, such is not the case any more., as evangelial Christianity degenerates into a fear-driven folk religion seeking political protection from Donald Trump and the Republican Party. (Didn’t the OT prophets have something to say about this political move?)

  7. when you think about, the ‘invitation’ to ‘come forward’ might be symbolically seen as telling a person to BEGIN his/her sojourn ‘towards’ God

    I can see that ‘invitation’ now more as a BEGINNING of a long, long journey in the right direction . . . but I suppose it was intended more to be an ‘arrival’ at safe harbor in the storm that rages

    maybe it’s both

    • Nice!

    • Karin Ristau says

      All the talk resurfacing about Altar calls during the times of the Billy Graham Crusades reminded me that in one sense, the invitation to come to Jesus is, to experience salvation, the arrival of us in the safety of His Love. At the same time, the invitation is also about making a turn-around from the way we were headed, to start this journey with Him in the right direction. That’s often how my uncle, the preacher, explained it to us. Not only a heartfelt prayer repeated and we’re in, but a decision made to follow Him from that day forward. We are sanctified, and being sanctified! And yet, if one passed into eternity immediately after the prayer, there would be no further earthly journey to travel!

  8. I used to watch Billy Graham on TV when I was a stoner and somehow knew that his message about Jesus was right. I grew up on the other side of the tracks with more than a little boozing and getting stoned.

    And he kept up with that same simple message for years. So many others veered off into various ditches. He really did run the good race well.

  9. Yeah it’s been big ole nostalgia week. And I’ve discovered that under a certain age most folks have never even heard of Billy Graham.

    This will be a sign unto you given so that thou may knowest thou art truly old – if you remember when rock music was satanic and the purpose of the church was to save souls.

  10. My journey began at an early age when I was born. I was born in NC as my Mother was there at the time and I wanted to be close to her. Legend has it I labored hard to be born or my Mother labored hard, I get confused as the story is told different according to who is telling it. I was so ugly when I was born instead of slapping my bottom the Dr. slapped my Mother (Henny Youngman RIP).
    My journey began with one small step which ended up in a journey of at least a thousand miles. It was one small step for a man but a giant step for mankind. I put my nose to the grind stone and gave 110%, never looking back. I arrived at a fork in the road and took the path less traveled,{ unless near Atlanta Ga. then I take I 85 North.}

    I tried to stay on the straight and narrow pathway but found it to be a long and winding road. Many times I wanted to take the high road and stay above the fray. I found out the hard way that indeed sticks and stones could break my bones but words could not hurt me, unless the words were “we are from the IRS”. Sometimes my journey had me going around in circles or on a wild goose chase.

    I will stop now as I do not want you to think my life is a chiche’, it was so new and unique to me. I try to stop and smell the roses but the thorns got me. So far my journey has been good and I hope to extend it , even if I have to pay more. I do not want to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    As a young smart donkey teenager in Miami growing up we had a saying about the tourist from NYC “God made 8 million and broke the mold”.

    My point is , if I have one , God gave us all the wonderful journey of life, on this side the journey is our life and we can continue the journey with God or get off at the end of the line or as Rob Serling called it Shellybville. Either way its been a great ride but there is a season to turn , turn , turn.

  11. Very sad to hear about Billy Graham. The direction of evangelicalism has been changing since he retired, now he’s not available even as a figurehead. What now? God help us.

  12. Robert F. In the life of a baby boomers there were a few people who always were there in our life in various fields, Nixon, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, John Wayne ,Elvis Johnny Cash and Billy Graham. . In my cliche’ driven life all the diverse people added quality to it. They were just always there.
    Stephen made the excellent point that younger people and I do not really know what age it would be, are not aware of Billy Graham, which is a sea level change and the march of time and history to me . There will not be the likes of people like I listed above that were national figures for literally a lifetime. Billy Graham stayed on point and message his whole life but unlike my recap it rang of true belief and without any pretense. That is a remarkable achievement and a great testimony.
    My cliché’s were a testimony to the simpler times that CM alluded to, that baby boomers grew up in with certain concepts of certainly, right and wrong and guidelines that were not challenged for years. I was doing a generic recap of an obit for a baby boomer with little substance compared to the giant shadow of the life of Billy Graham. Not well done by me, but most things are not, I have references on that. .
    There will be many cliché’s about Billy Graham in the next week and they will be merited, heartfelt and relatable l unlike my mine, Billy Graham would be a major impactor of society/world with his journey , I am an impactee. There really was and will be only one journey like that of Billy Graham.

  13. Thanks, CM, for sharing your story here!

    I share nearly all your sentiments.

    Shortly after I had a “born again” experience at age 16, I, too, became a part of evangelicalism for 25+ years.

    I can still remember going to the high school football game on a Friday night and driving home, discovering “CCM” on a 30-minute show on our local Xn station. Larry Norman, and others I don’t remember. But it was exhilarating.
    Yes, it was a simpler, more innocent time.

    i never went too far down the evangelical rabbithole. I was baptized as a baby in the EUB, and I was often
    aware of God, growing up. My wife’s childhood as a Lutheran and my EUB and UCC confirmation experience
    told me that there was a “bigger world” out there, as CM said. And like CM, I have a lot of fond memories.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Larry Norman, and others I don’t remember. But it was exhilarating.

      Larry Norman was a master.
      His music was done to go up against the masters of mainstream rock, not Praise Worship Chorus #127a in the Christianese Bubble.

      • Yeah. Larry certainly pushed the boundaries of CCM, from the get-go. Definitely a very complicated individual — some might say a walking contradiction.

        There’s a book on Larry coming out I believe in March. CT ran an excerpt which I couldn’t read ’cause I’m
        not a subscriber.