Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Billy Graham is Dead, Matthew Avery Sutton Not Yet

If it wasn't CS Lewis, then it was somebody who did an awesome impression of him at college, who told us that the problem with the present time is that it assumes everybody else was wrong, and the current bunch are right.

And so Matthew Avery Sutton, not even waiting till Billy Graham is cold, stomps in to tell us that Graham was "on the wrong side of history".

Which reveals that Dr Sutton has a pretty poor concept of what "history" means. Or, more importantly, that he doesn't realise it hasn't ended yet.

What side is history on? Ultimately, history is on the side of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Of futility, failure, decline and death. Viewed from the end of history, we will see that pretty much everything was a waste of time - a chasing after the wind. That the victories that were won, were short-lived. That joy is fleeting, and the best any of us can hope for is temporary bubble of stability and happiness in the midst of despair.

In this respect, Billy Grahams' view of history was more consonant with the reality of things than any progressive view on life. If he thought you should do what you could, while knowing that true happiness only comes at the restoration of all things - then he was at least 50% right. Maybe 100%. Whereas Matthew Avery Sutton's view of life is doomed to utter failure, and we all know it.

What really upsets Matthew Avery Sutton seems to be that Billy Graham's solutions to problems weren't statist. "Individuals alone can achieve salvation; governments cannot. Conversions change behaviors; federal policies do not." It's a fundamental rift in outlook this. And I probably need to use an insight from CS Lewis again to consider it.

If Christianity is true, then states and governments are temporary whereas individuals last forever. On the other hand, (my words) if Christianity is false, then both are temporary so what the hell. Who cares? Let's eat drink and be merry and relatively kind to each other, for tomorrow we die.

Worth remembering that, whatever his political influence, Billy Graham was a churchperson not a politician. So when Matthew Avery Sutton complains that Graham "criticized civil rights activists for focusing on changing laws rather than hearts" - well, yeah. What Sutton is saying is that he'd rather the law made people behave well than that they wanted to. Which, yeah, is pretty indicative of a statist view of life. Of course, the thing about states is they're not all as nice as the one M Sutton thinks we should have. Some states are frankly a bit crappy. Wouldn't it be nice if we all loved each other?

In the end, Matthew Avery Sutton's piece basically tells us the important piece of information that he didn't agree with Billy Graham. But only one of them, as of today, is dead. I wonder about the piece - did Sutton write it ages ago, and then wait for Graham to die? Or did he write it in a hurry, asked to knock a few hundred scathing words out? I hope it was the latter. Sutton has an excuse for its laziness and unexamined assumptions if it were the latter.

But I'll tell you this. A liberal deciding who is on the right side of history, two years after the Brexit vote and 15 months after the Trump one, with Putin in the Kremlin, Assad in Syria and Erdogan in Turkey may wonder where history is. And when the newspaper publishing his piece has a failing business model and is losing money hand over fist they may also wonder which way that arc is bending. Personally I'm more on the liberal side. But the idea we're heading for a liberal utopia strikes me as being as unrealistically eschatological as anything you're likely to hear.

So Billy Graham is dead, and Matthew Avery Sutton isn't yet. One day we may (or may not) find out what side history is on. But if your view of the Kingdom of God is that it's coterminous with the State, I'm guessing it's not on your side. States are temporary. Individuals last forever.

Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.


  1. Well said. The saddest thing about the Guardian piece was the way it gave the BTL crowd an opportunity to slag off a decent man who loved God and successfully shared his faith with millions. The saddest thing for me about being a Guardian reader is that paper's willingness to allow contributors to snipe at Christianity but hardly ever to celebrate it. It's probably the best newspaper we've got, but sometimes wonder if it deserves to fail. And I'm one of their 'supporters'.

  2. Well,it would be the Guardian! I remember, years ago, reading a book on the English Novel by one Walter Allen. He was ever so patronising about such writers as Dickens, precisely because such writers said there would be no real and lasting improvements/reforms in human lives and societies until mens' hearts were changed for the better. Poor Dickens, so naive, said Allen.

  3. As someone said, a better Britain needs better Britons.


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