Billy Graham’s 95th birthday bash: Happy or harpy?

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In the 1984 hit movie “Sixteen Candles,” Molly Ringwald’s character, Samantha Baker, awakens on what should be the biggest birthday of her life. Only, her family has forgotten the occasion.

Overshadowed by her older sister’s impending nuptials, Samantha spends the day hoping one of her family members will remember. Hilarity ensues. Eventually everyone wishes her a happy birthday — including her hunky, sportscar-driving, secret crush Jake. He shows up. And he brings cake! They kiss. Yippee!

I couldn’t help but think of this classic coming-of-age movie (the late Roger Ebert once quipped, “Molly Ringwald was the Molly Ringwald of the ’80s”) as I read USA Today’s rehash of last week’s celebration marking Billy Graham’s 95th birthday in Asheville, N.C.

Not that the Graham family didn’t remember their patriarch’s big day. Not that there wasn’t cake. It was that on this particular occasion, the MSM Graham storyline, like Samantha Baker’s, was just so very, very wrong. Friends and neighbors, was this really a political celebrity story?

At 95 and in frail health, Billy Graham often resists family entreaties to make excursions from his mountaintop home. But the nation’s most famous evangelist attended a birthday celebration Thursday night that featured hundreds of well-wishers and what is being characterized as his final sermon.

Given the lead player, his impact on the world religion stage and the role he has played in the lives of millions of believers in the 185 countries he has visited, you’d expect some retrospective in this story. Some context. At least allusion to the cultural changes that surrounded his ministry and the decades in which he preached. Words that attempt to capture the poignancy of Billy Graham choosing his 95th birthday to present his final sermon.

Instead we get a Fox News infomercial.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for instance:

“His message transformed my mom’s life,” Palin, one of the dinner’s speakers, said in an interview with USA TODAY.

“In the 70s, she would tune into the Billy Graham crusades, televised. My mom was raised Catholic, and she … was yearning for something more,” she said. “His invitation for people to know that they could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ — my mom understood that from the way that he could articulate it. She became a Christian, led the rest of the family to Christ, and that I believe transformed our family.”

This juxtaposed well with the story’s earlier mention of his visit with Pope John Paul II and a photo of the two men taken in November 1982, not to mention his congenial relationship with the Catholic Church over many decades. (Yeah, not so much).

Those Fox paw prints were all over this story. We learn that Rupert Murdoch attended, Greta Van Susteren emceed and that at one point during dinner, son Franklin Graham proclaimed Fox “The greatest news channel in America.”

Mention of Donald and Malania Trump? Check. Various other politicos and entertainers? Check?  

Yet unless you were in the audience or searched online for “The Cross” you would have no sense of the deep spiritual message this fading preacher desperately hoped to convey that night. Perhaps more content about the content of the Graham video that was rolled out during this event, the on-screen sermon called “The Cross”? Yes, it was premiered on Fox. But what about the content?

Indeed, this story would have been better served in the paper’s entertainment section than the news hole it filled. I suppose “Ninety-five candles” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, though.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this story.

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About Tamie Ross

Tamie Ross is a wife, mom, writer and all-around crazy-about-life girl now battling autoimmune disease. Her 20-year journalism career included stints as religion editor for The Oklahoman, online editor for The Christian Chronicle and freelancer for clients ranging from The Associated Press to United Methodist News Service. She has won state and national awards for her personal columns and editorials.

  • FW Ken

    The story was indeed shallow and overly focused on the celebrities. I would have liked to hear from the non-celebrities in the crowd.

    Did Gov. Palin merit that much space? And no, her comments don’t offend this Catholic. It would be foolish to begrudge someone a more vital spiritual life, although I found mine in the Catholic Church. I would take issue with the notion that Dr. Graham didn’t have good relations with the Church. In fact, he is considered a heretic in fundamentalist circles for consorting with Catholics, and once noted that he had never received hate mail from a Catholic.

    I didn’t catch the content problem with the story, probably since I had already watched it.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Micheal Hickerson

    Sorry to be late to the commenting party, but there seems to be a clear story here: where are the religious leaders? The article mentions politicians, singers, TV celebrities, but not a single pastor or leader of a religious organization. Were they in attendance and the reporter chose not to mention them (or didn’t realize who they were)? Or was there an actual dearth of religious figures at this celebration for one of the most important religious figures of the 20th century? If there were no or few religious leaders in attendance, THERE’S your story.

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