Revisited: Website Review of BillyGraham.com

The death last year of televangelist Oral Roberts leaves behind only one other elder statesman of Christianity, if you don’t count God. The Rev. Billy Graham has spent much of his 91 years ministering not only to his Southern Baptist base but to presidents, world leaders and millions of participants in his crusades around the globe. He even found time during the turbulent 1960s to run the Fillmore music venue in San Francisco, introducing the nation to seminal bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

No, wait — that was Bill Graham, promoter and rock impresario.

See, I could keep these two straight if only I’d visit the Billy Graham Library, a Charlotte, N.C., site that houses memorabilia from the famous minister’s life. Built in 2007, the 40,000-square-foot “experience” allows visitors to discover the life and legacy of America’s pastor. The 20 landscaped acres include the “barn-shaped” library itself, a multimedia presentation about his dynamic journey from farm boy to international ambassador of God’s love, a prayer garden and the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar, featuring sandwiches, salads, cookies and ice cream (as it is in Heaven, no outside food allowed).

Billboards throughout the Carolinas promote the library with the tag line “No Books to Check Out … Just His Story,” lest potential visitors be scared off by the prospect of having to read something. However, the advertising is probably intended more for those who are just passing through, as those of us who live here are already well aware of the now-retired reverend’s impact on the area. Visitors to Charlotte are still alarmed to find that, in order to drive to the airport, you have to “take Billy Graham,” the parkway named in his honor, not the actual man, who is too frail to do much air travel these days. Locals take the influence for granted.

Now I’m not about to start making fun of an elderly, gentle man of God, even though he may have made some questionable political choices during his career. Despite early associations with right-wing nutcase Bob Jones and a well-known chumminess with Nixon, Reagan and assorted Bushes, Graham did oppose segregation in the South, even going so far as to bail Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail at one point. So while I may be willing to give him a pass, I reserve no such restraint for the website promoting his library, which is the subject of today’s Website Review.

The home page includes some basic information about the library (obvious things like closed Sunday, no firearms or pets permitted, MasterCard and Visa accepted at the gift shop) and an overview of key features. There are re-creations of historic moments in Graham’s life, “amazing” films and more than 350 photographs, and an opportunity to “submerse yourself” in a special room dedicated to his late wife, Ruth. There’s also a brief video, slickly produced but a little lacking in audio quality, in particular the introduction that at first listen sounds like “experience the journey of one simple mind that impacted millions.” And there’s a description of the site’s centerpiece, the restored Graham Family Homeplace, which was rebuilt using 80 percent of the original materials and, presumably, 20 percent of stuff from Lowe’s.

The home page also includes news releases and testimonials about the power of God as exercised through Rev. Graham. There’s a statement in reaction to Oral Roberts’ death — Graham “loved him as a brother” and “looks forward to seeing him in Heaven” — and one from Billy’s son Franklin, who has taken over much of the day-to-day operations of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin, naturally, had spoken to Roberts’ son Richard, and judiciously avoided saying anything about how his father could now beat up Richard’s father.

The testimonials are mostly from average Christians who have visited the library recently. “I can’t think of a better place to spend my birthday other than Heaven,” notes Chrissy from Louisburg, N.C. “I lived across the street from the Smithsonian in Washington for many years and it has nothing on this library,” says Fred from Lexington, S.C. “My son is addicted to meth and was ready to commit suicide,” writes one father, a bit off-topic.

There’s also a long piece from a former atheist and alcoholic (there’s a difference?) who came to Christ after being told by her bartender she should attend the local crusade, then showing up and hyperventilating among 65,000 Christians, then fleeing to the sidewalk outside to catch her breath, then becoming “completely transformed” because the sermon could still be heard in the parking lot. Now she has a radio show and is available through the Captivating Women Speaker Bureau.

There’s a Reservations pulldown encouraging advance arrangements for parties larger than 15 people, so theoretically Jesus’ 12 disciples could just show up unannounced but will be advised to wear comfortable shoes, allow at least two hours for the visit, and need to provide their own strollers and wheelchairs. A Get Involved section solicits volunteer library workers who have prayerfully considered their ability to stand on their feet for four hours at a stretch (no mention of requiring familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system).

The Special Events area describes two recent happenings, a Teddy Bear Tea Party and something called “Bikers with Boxes,” and promotes the currently running “Christmas at the Library” festivities. The latter actually sounds like fun, with a live nativity, horse-drawn carriage rides through a beautiful lights display, strolling carolers and holiday goodies. If you can nudge the Joseph actor to break character and burst into a giggling fit, you might even qualify for a free plate of Mother Graham’s poundcake and hot apple cider, though that’s unlikely since I just made it up.

There’s an extensive Books and Gifts section with some great ideas for holiday giving, such as DVDs, festive cards and the library barn Christmas ornament. A daily prayer journal with insights from Billy Graham will help you keep track of which requests God has already granted and which are on back-order. And there’s a whole collection of resources “equipping tweens to live for Christ” called the “Dare to be a Daniel” series. I checked with my son, who is an actual Daniel,  and he hopes there’d be minimal emphasis on being eaten by a lion and more about going out to movies and Taco Bell with friends.

The pulldown about “Billy Graham, The Man,” is one I will respectfully decline to deride, other than to note that his answer to the question he hears everywhere he goes is that hope in the future is possible “through Jesus Christ,” and that he looks ridiculous in his white wedding  tuxedo.

Finally, I’ll mention a Special Announcement that will be of interest to anyone who plans to visit the library soon. It will be closed. Despite being in business for only two years since its construction, the facility will shut down for several months of extensive upgrades and improvements beginning Jan. 11 and continuing until spring. Local news reports at the time of the announcement indicated that there are significant issues with acoustics in many of the exhibits, allowing sound from adjacent rooms to bleed through the walls. So, for example, during quiet reflection in a chapel you may suddenly hear what seems to be the Lord Almighty ordering a tuna salad sandwich and a chocolate milkshake but is in fact bleed-through from bustle in the Dairy Bar.

But the website will continue to remain in service during construction, so you can virtually enjoy the glory of God as reflected in his humble servant Billy Graham from the comfort of your own personal family homeplace or barn.

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