I made a passing remark during a class about Karl Barth meeting with Billy Graham. My students were all over it. “Karl Barth met Billy Graham? You just blew my mind,” one student said. “I think I assumed they were from different planets or something,” said someone else. And then they all looked at me as though something had shifted. As though something about our lives would be better if Karl Barth and Billy Graham had hit it off.
“Did they get along at all?” someone ventured.
It’s interesting that we might assume they wouldn’t. Or maybe I should say indicative. Indicative of how polarized we have become in our thinking and outlook.
Notably, the American media of the late 1950s and early 1960s seemed to begin with the assumption that there were important similarities between Barth and Graham, representing their differences in the context of what they had in common. In 1956, for example, Christianity Today reported: “Karl Barth and Billy Graham are both rescuing the Bible from Liberalism,” adding, “But their views on Scripture differ dramatically.” In 1962, at the time of Barth’s American lecture tour, The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Barth said he liked Graham as a “good fellow” and that he “admitted … the gospel can be preached in a football stadium” even though, as he also said, “mass evangelism is not for me.” I can’t help but think that, if published today, the banner headline would read: “Barth Denounces Mass Evangelism!” And it would leave out Barth’s affectionate words about Graham.
Barth and Graham did, in fact, get along. They met twice in Europe — once when Barth was on vacation with his son Markus (they went mountain climbing together) and the second time two weeks later, right at the end of August 1960, at Barth’s home in Basel. Barth later commented in a letter that Graham was not only a “jolly good fellow” but that he was also a “good listener.” Graham remarked similarly, in his autobiography, that he and Barth were “good friends” despite their “theological differences.”
Graham talks about how Barth came to the evangelistic meeting he held in Basel, showing up “in spite of the pouring rain.” Both men recognized that Barth didn’t like the evangelistic tactics Graham used there. Graham says that Barth told him afterward he objected to Graham’s use of the term “must,” preferring a more invitational approach to the gospel. But, Graham insisted (chiding Barth for putting his preferences above the Bible), he would continue using the word “must” because it is “scriptural.” Barth, for his part, seemed surprised at the change that seemed to overtake Graham’s personality at the meeting, describing Graham as a “madman” who used “threats” and preached “law” rather than gospel. Yet even in the midst of making his most serious critiques of Graham, Barth recognized Graham’s success as an evangelist and continued to think highly of him as a person. “God works right through human weaknesses,” he marveled, “It works the same with Billy Graham as with us all” (see the book “Barth in Conversation” edited by Eberhard Busch).
Does it make any difference to know that Barth and Graham thought of themselves as friends, engaged in the same work despite their theological differences? I think it might, if we took away from knowing this a commitment to reaching out to colleagues of all theological persuasions with respect, humility, curiosity and a willingness to argue transparently with each other about that what matters most to us all.
As it turns out, we may be able to ward off the polarities that seek to confine us by being friendlier and investing in relationships. Maybe we already knew that. But the surprising friendship of Barth and Graham helps us imagine how it can actually be done.
Cynthia L. Rigby is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas.