Wrestling with storytelling: Billy

Thomas Nelson Publishers is working with social media. (Their CEO is even on twitter – @michaelhyatt). They started a program to have bloggers review books in exchange for a copy of the book. I signed up. I think it’s a great idea.

Now I’m in trouble.

I am a big fan of Billy Graham. As much as I am a fan of any person, that is. He has lived clearly and consistently. Agree with him or not, he’s about what he is about. My mother has prayed for him for longer than I’ve been alive, asking God to protect his reputation.

For the first book to review, then, I asked for Billy. It’s a book written to be released with the movie by the same name.

Now I’m in trouble.

I didn’t like it. And in order to get any more books (which I’d like to do because Thomas Nelson publishes some very good books), I need to talk about not liking the book. And that feels funny for me, it feels out of character for this blog.

Ah well. I’ll tell you about the book and why I don’t like it. I’ll give it to the first person who asks for it. I’ll tell Nelson that I wrote about it. I’ll pick more carefully next time.


The plot of the book is this: a reporter is interviewing a person on his deathbed. In flashbacks, Charles Templeton is talking about the early days of Billy Graham. The reporter is trying to find scandal in Graham’s life. Templeton is trying for one last time in the spotlight.

Templeton had been a colleague and mentor to Billy Graham.  Eventually, however, he decided that he had too many questions about his faith and gave up his pastorate, gave up his preaching, identified himself as an agnostic, and had a second career as a newspaper reporter.

Templeton talks, in answer to questions by the interviewer, about Graham’s early life, decision to be a Christ follower, college mishaps, dating and marriage, and major struggle with his own faith in the Bible.

Here’s what I don’t like.

1. Style of writing. It reads like a book that was written to describe what was on the screen. I want a book to be a book, not an adaptation of a screenplay. I want a book to be about the subject, not about what you are seeing on the screen.

2. Fictionalization. This book is a story about Billy, with elements made up to tell the story. Thus, there are parts of Graham’s story that I recognize. There are parts that I think, “Ah, that’s how it happened.” However. The whole reporter/flashback element of the book is made up to tell the story. As far as I know, there never was this interview with Templeton. I’m guessing that the scene at the end, where the adult Billy comes to visit the adult Charles, never happened. As a result, I’m not sure what is true about conversations that Billy may have had and what isn’t.

1/2b It’s like you have a book that you love and someone makes a movie of it and you think, “That’s not right.” In this case, there is the actual life of Billy Graham and then a story is told out of that as a movie, and then a book is written about that movie. And you think, “Is that part true?”

3. Dramonic License – One part of Graham’s biography that is particularly compelling is his decision to depend on the Bible as true and trustworthy. If you ever have heard him preach, the phrase “the Bible says” is a foundation of his argument. And I know that there was a time early in his ministry that he made a conscious decision to trust.

In this book, that decision is dramatized as a scene on a hilltop, with the devil as a character having lines and stage directions. And it feels strange.

Here’s what is okay.

By focusing on the early years, the years before his big success, this book shows the pieces of Graham’s life that can be overshadowed by later years. He attended three colleges before ending up at Wheaton (full disclosure, my college, too). He dealt with people who were pretty legalistic about what counted as church. He was a preacher and then a speaker and then a college president before ending up in the crusade preaching career that most of us know him for. These sections, this thread through the book, is great.

I still didn’t like the book.

But ask for it, and it’s yours. And you can review it, too.


11 responses to “Wrestling with storytelling: Billy

  1. Well written review, insightful and compelling. I’m reminded of the many reasons to respect Billy Graham, and I’m pretty sure that I’d rather read you than the book. Congrats on being authentic!

  2. Jon, A friend asked me to review a book she had coauthored a couple of years ago for my newsletter. It was the first time I was reviewing a book where I personally knew the author. There were a few things that I didn’t like about the book and things that I did like.

    In the review I started off with what I liked and then wrote what I didn’t liked.

    She really liked my book review and I was very honest with my perceptions of the book.

    Avil Beckford http://www.twitter.com/avilbeckford

  3. I would much rather read a review like yours that tells me honestly what you personally did and didn’t like about the book than read a gushy review that ends up painting the book in glowing colors that turn muddy when I read the first page of the book…this is especially true when I lay out money for a book that has been well-reviewed. After reading your review, I can weigh whether I would enjoy the fictionalized aspect of it and would be willing to suspend believe in the entire thing in order to be able to glean the good parts.

    Don’t give up doing the Nelson blogger reviews–you’ll be a breath of fresh air.

  4. One other thing–I’ve started writing reviews for The Christian Librarian, journal of the Association of Christian Librarians…If I find myself reviewing something that has big problems, I usually take the “sandwich approach”–sandwish the negative in between the positives. Lets me tell the truth about the negatives while keeping a positive tone in the review overall.

  5. I reviewed “The Faith of Barack Obama” for T. Nelson – which was interesting & worth the read. But I haven’t found anything they’ve offered since to be compelling enough for me to take the time to read it.

    I’ll avoid “Billy”.

  6. Dave – thanks.
    Avil – Although it’s a challenge to say tough stuff to others, I realize
    that I would rather people let me know when I’m not measuring up than to
    just be polite. Thanks.
    Amy -I like the idea of being honest to keep others from being disappointed
    based on what I say. That helps a lot. And I usually sandwich when I’m
    talking face to face.
    Paul – so you understand.

    Thank you all.

  7. So, are you planning to try to request only books you’ll like? There would be a kind of slant in that, too; one might almost call it a faint trace of dishonesty.

    I think you handled this review well (including the wrestling with how to do a negative review, at the top). While I think your desire to highlight what is good is great, I think you should also expect to do more negative reviews, and think some more about how to handle them. Perhaps you could write a page or post about your review philosophy (or just use this one), and link to it with every review — good and bad.

    In any case, T.Nelson owes you big thanks for this review! The last thing they need is for their blog-review program to turn into a blindered sweetness-and-light factory. No one, but particularly not the blog community, buys such a picture, it’s anti-advertising.

  8. Thank you Jack. That is a great perspective.

    I am tempted to say that I won’t do any reviews. I realized in the process
    of wrestling through this one that I have a hard time reviewing because I
    read differently. I tend to sample. I tend to not read whole books.

    I’ve requested review copies of a couple books and then not been enamored
    with them or found them useful or had the time to spend on what I thought
    would be appropriate consideration. I then am hesitant to post because I
    want to be balanced and thoughtful.

    And that, of course, sounds like what you are warning about in your first
    paragraph. And I need to think more.

    I do, however, want to filter what I choose to spend my time on. There are
    books currently on the list at the Nelson page for reviewers that I am not
    interested in. To request a book to then spend the time reading to then
    write a review that I already know would be difficult because I already know
    that I have questions about the approach of the book or genre of the book
    (not big on lots of categories of fiction, for example), feels like a waste
    of my energy and focus.

    On the other hand, there are books that are not on the list that I should
    spend some time reviewing, but haven’t taken the time to do.

    Okay, now I’m thinking. On a number of levels: responsibility to those of
    you who take time to show up here every day. Responsibility to my own time.
    Responsibility to people who ask me to look at things (not very many of
    those, by the way.).

    Thank you Jack. I think this a subject I’ll come back to.

  9. I guess my thought was something like, you should offer to review books in an area you care about (not every book on the list!), and that generally look worth-while. “You should expect to do more negative reviews” because … oh, I can’t resist … you can’t judge a book by its cover!

    Even filtering, you’re going to draw some that disappoint–like this one. So then, write about that. Mention why you thought it would be worthwhile in the review; mention how it disappointed that expectation, or how it had some other weakness you hadn’t considered.

    Or, not. As you say, maybe this isn’t something you really want to commit to. This review was genuinely useful to me, because your description of why it looked interesting is exactly how I might have picked it up, while your review of how it disappointed would really have been a problem for me, too. But if you think there are better ways to use your time, that’s cool, too. I was picking books before you got the reviewer’s bug, I’ll still be picking books if you stop.

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  11. you are helping me think, Jack, about a couple pieces of my blogging that I
    hadn’t stopped to consider. Thank you!