Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety

Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety

Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety

Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety

Excerpt

The appearances of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich on the cover of Time magazine after World War II publicized their religious thought; and although the images were somewhat like caricatures, they captured the distinctiveness of each figure’s Christian ministry. With foreboding skies and a distant cross in the background of his 1948 cover, Niebuhr’s station as America’s prophet was communicated clearly by his stern visage and by the accompanying caption—doubtlessly inspired by his vivid sense of original sin—which read: “Man’s story is not a success story.” Six years later, a Garden of Eden scene, complete with a naked Eve and a menacing serpent coiled around the tree of knowledge, provided the backdrop for Graham’s cover portrait. Graham is depicted in midsentence, with an intense gaze and a finger pointed at the viewer. The message is plain: Graham is an evangelist doing what evangelists do, confronting humans with the reality of their sin. Tillich’s cover of 1959 is equally somber as those of Niebuhr and Graham. He sits in deep thought with a human skull resting on a table in front of him. A bookshelf filled with leather-bound volumes fills the space behind him. The portrait, complete with its reference to Shakespeare, also evokes the theme of the human condition, as the consummate theological scholar contemplates anew Hamlet’s existential question, “To be or not to be?”

Scholars have rarely portrayed Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich as anything but utterly distinct and contrasting figures. Indeed, their very names conjure definitive images of their careers and disparate audiences, as the differences in their respective Time covers demonstrate so vividly. As a consequence of these characterizations, Niebuhr the neo-orthodox prophet, Graham the popular evangelist, and Tillich the learned German émigré theologian seem to have nothing in common save their contemporaneity. Yet the Time covers also feature a foundational unity, one hidden in plain sight. The covers, in fact, are all of a piece, showing each fig-

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