Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Dr. Falwell's Graduation

As I was driving to visit an out-of-state customer this morning, I heard the news that Rev. Jerry Falwell had been found unconscious in his office and taken to the hospital "critically ill". An hour later, I heard that he had in fact died.

At the moment CNN is running its series of reports and retrospectives on Dr. Falwell's career. We were just treated to Larry King interviewing Tammy Faye Baker Messner -- what a remarkable pair to reflect on Falwell. Oh, now we get Robert Schuler from the Crystal Cathedral. At least Franklin Graham will be coming up later.

I have to say Jesse Jackson was surprisingly positive, acknowledging the wide differences between their political views, but saying they enjoyed an "odd couple" friendship and shared some public events in the fight against poverty. Ditto Al Sharpton, who said that "You couldn't dislike him if you got to know him."

Jimmy Carter's contribution, however, lives up to his continuing downward spiral; CNN is replaying a sound bite where Carter said of Falwell, "I say, in a Christian way, that he can go to hell," which speaks volumes of Carter. Of course, Carter libeled the deceased Rev. Adrian Rodgers in print last year (Our Endangered Values), sending his family a belated apology after the book was on the shelves, so what should we expect. Christopher Hitchens has just called him "a toad", "a horrible little person", and "an evil old man" who "teaches lies to children", but then, Hitchens seems determined to construct himself as the most outrageously bitter atheist in the media.

They're in the minority. Most of the comment so far has been more positive than simple nihil nisi bonum mortuis would require. There will be a tremendous amount said about Falwell the next few days so all I can contribute is a few anecdotal observations. I feel like I need to, though. My wife graduated from Liberty University; I took graduate courses from there by extension, so every time I think about completing the M.A., I think about Falwell's institution. His ministry has cast a long but benevolent shadow in our family.

I know a lot of my fellow believers really didn't care for Dr. Falwell, the Calvinists maybe because he was an icon of Baptist fundamentalism. Certainly I was upset last year at the seminary president Ergun Caner's outrageous remarks saying Calvinists are as bad as Muslims in his book; nothing like a brother calling you an infidel. For that matter, I know some fundamentalists didn't like him, either, because he was more open to teachers and pastors outside the fundamentalist camp. For one example, the hard-line fundamentalist paper Sword of the Lord took sharp exception to Falwell's acceptance of Dr. Ed Dobson, an open Calvinist, on the faculty at Liberty University in the 1980's.

Overall, I would call Falwell a moderate among fundamentalists, firm in his beliefs but open in his fellowship, and his late-career move into the Southern Baptist Convention aligned him with men like Charles Stanley rather than the harder-edged fundamentalists like Curtis Hutson.

I know many people in both the Christian and the secular worlds hated his constant fundraising efforts. I didn't care for his style of fundraising either, but what he did with it is remarkable. Falwell grew a church from 35 members to well over 20,000, twice the size of my home town. The college he founded in Lynchburg grew to over 24,000 students in thirty years, larger than the major state college I graduated from. Other projects beyond the Moral Majority included homes for unwed mothers and recovering alcoholics and countless other ministries, missions, and service groups. Al Sharpton said Falwell had an incredible gift for organization and he gave him great credit for that, even though Sharpton says he didn't agree with much of what he organized.

My wife knew him and his family from her time as a student at Liberty University, and she said their home and cars were not lavish and Falwell's salary was consistent for a college president. And he was known for his personal generosity. A student called in to Sean Hannity this afternoon and shared how Falwell had written her a personal check for $1200 to complete the funding for a mission project she had organized to Central America. My wife said that was Dr. Falwell's way, and many of her fellow students told similar stories. His fundraising was never about personal enrichment, it was always for the ministry.

Compare this with several other prominent "televangelists" who come to mind from the 1980's and 1990's -- most of whom imploded their ministries with scandals, infidelity, or criminal convictions. While Dr. Falwell occasionally made provocative statements, some of which he later moderated, I never heard of a scandal concerning him or any of his family members. While running his "multi-million-dollar religious empire" as CNN put it, he always maintained reliable counsel and board members that kept the ministries on an even ethical keel -- something sorely lacking among others.

I only spoke with Dr. Falwell personally one time. I ran into him at the Republican National Convention in 2004, introduced myself as one of his distance students from the university, and chatted for a minute while we headed to the seats. My one encounter was consistent with what students on campus are saying this evening -- Falwell was not an inaccessible icon, but a "regular guy" with a talent for reaching out to anyone.

In all the debates and confrontations I saw Dr. Falwell engage on television, I never saw him lose his temper or lash out at an opponent. Even CNN can't quite get over the geniality of the man, as much as they'd like to, and the short news clips and interview segments they are airing show this clearly. And in all the discussion about Falwell's impact on American politics -- others will document just how huge it has been -- even the carefully edited footage can't keep out the man's heart to share the Gospel and to challenge America to live in accordance with Scripture.

I have to say, with Dr. James Dobson, that the church has lost a general. And in a way, though I hardly knew him, I feel like I've lost a friend, too. It seemed like Dr. Falwell was always somewhere in the background of our lives, and I do appreciate many of the things he accomplished or made available to the country and to us individually.

Rest in peace, Brother, and rejoice in your new Home.

1 comment:

"The Captain" said...

I thought that was a great eulogy for Dr. Falwell. If you google it you can find Larry Flynt's article on him and Falwell's friendship. I always respected him for forgiving Flynt.