Bill Bright: Twilight of the Evangelist

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Bill Bright

The 79-year-old evangelist sits on a pink couch in an Orlando condo with a view of a lovely little lake, oxygen feeding constantly through a tube in his nose. He is not in good shape: incurable pulmonary fibrosis has left him only 40% use of his lungs, and his doctors told him a year ago that he had just months to live. But with the inexorable will that has made him an empire builder, he pumps his latest project, a swashbuckling novel featuring a miracle-working naif who brings God's word from Ethiopia to California. Bill Bright is a late convert into the exploding field of religious potboilers, but an enthusiastic one. "I've written many books about the Holy Spirit," he says cheerfully, "And this will probably be read by many times more people." He knows that if only one thousandth of the people whom he has reached for Christ through other means shell out their $14.99 for "Blessed Child," the book will leave behind the hugely successful "Left Behind" series.

The world knows Billy Graham, but few outside the Evangelical fold are acquainted with Bill Bright. Yet Bright, whom Graham biographer William Martin calls "one of the most important of a generation of Evangelical titans," may have had nearly as much impact. Has Graham preached to millions, sometimes all at once? Bright, an inveterate quantifier, estimates that his great creation, Campus Crusade for Christ, has brought the gospel message to "six billion people" since its founding in 1951. He hastens to add that only God knows how many have accepted it in their hearts. Then, unable to hold back, he says "On the basis of what we've seen and heard, we can assume hundreds of millions." Along with Graham, says Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, Bright led evangelicals out of self-imposed isolation into their current rich (if bittersweet) engagement with the secular world. A tally of CCC grads among today's evangelical leaders, he adds, would be "enormous."

"Bright's like the guy who invented the crescent wrench. People were probably using something else before that, but he gave 'em a neat and nifty tool."
Born into Oklahoma oil money, Bright claims to have been a "happy pagan" in his youth. By his 20s he had moved to Los Angeles and founded Bright's California Confections. But he fell into the circle of legendary Christian youth worker Henrietta Mears, and under her influence drafted a contract with the Lord stipulating, in part, "I am your slave." His for-profit work tailed off; but his entrepreneurial bent flourished. In the 1950's, conservative Christian youth had begun an exodus from small bible colleges into liberal arts schools, wildernesses of secularism. Sensing a market, Bright founded Campus Crusade's first branch, at UCLA.

He had a gimmick. All evangelists are essentially marketers, but there is an ebullient post-war nerviness to Bright's Four Spiritual Laws, which boil the Gospel down to 45 words. ("God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life./Man is sinful and separated from God, thus cannot know and experience God's love and plan./Jesus Christ is God's only provision for man's sin./We must individually receive Jesus as Savior and Lord.") Armed with this "spiritual pitch," CCC recruits could not only consolidate their faith but purvey it one-on-one like Amway. Once converted, more subtle souls often moved past the Laws. But, explains Tommy Oaks, an itinerant evangelist who has observed CCC on dozens of campuses, "Bright's like the guy who invented the crescent wrench. People were probably using something else before that, but he gave 'em a neat and nifty tool."

And built an empire. Campus Crusade now has 24,000 paid staffers, 550,000 trained volunteers, operates in 190 countries, and was listed in the 90's as one of the country's biggest and most efficient charities. Bright diversified wildly: his second most successful product is the "JESUS" film, a celluloid gospel financed by Nelson Bunker Hunt that Bright calculates has played "to 4.2 billion people in 660 languages."

Not everyone approves of Bright's reductivism, which historian Mark Noll once said led to an evangelical environment that is "naive, inept or tendentious." Columbia University religion professor Randall Balmer contends that the Laws "flatten the Gospel," while CCC's culture cramps "faith into a dualism between saved and damned, right and wrong, moral and immoral." Immoral often meant liberal: Bright helped lay the groundwork for the religious right. Of his stylistic critics, he notes "Jesus had to be simple so the masses would hear him gladly."

His book, written with co-author Ted Dekker, is (like the "Left Behind" series) chock full of hi-tech and hollow-point bullets, but for Left Behind's apocalyptic backdrop, it substitutes more modest effects like the raising of the dead. This is a wonder that Bright is convinced that God ("He hasn't changed"), continues to bestow among communities of "people who trust and obey him." But not, Bright hopes, to him: since it would interrupt his final reunion with the Lord. He has no idea how much time he has left. He appears not to be concerned. "If I die I'm going to heaven. If I don't die, I go on serving the Lord," says Bill Bright, from the pink couch. "I'm happy either way."