“I Was a Wild Man”: How to Decode Evangelical Testimony

Last month, as many conservative Christians mourned the “collapse of marriage” nationally, one notable evangelical marriage quietly collapsed in Florida. Reverend Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin), grandson of Billy Graham (and nephew to Franklin), admitted to an extramarital affair.

Though the timing of this incident is of some interest, the story grabs my attention because of the way it has been told.

I’ve been studying the narrative elements of evangelical testimony— the crafting of life stories for a rhetorical and theological purpose—and the Graham heirs are born testifiers.

Tchividjian’s account, offered with his resignation from the famous Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, is a perfect example.

Though less formal than its more liturgical cousins, evangelical Christianity does subscribe to at least one ceremonial speech practice—the sharing of personal testimony. Testimony enhances social connection and communal bonding and provides a clear and coherent narrative structure upon which the faithful may project their lives. Common practice in church services, youth groups, camps, and conferences, the sharing of testimony is second nature to life-long evangelicals, and quickly becomes so for new additions to the fold.

In almost every case, testimony is modeled on one of two patterns: the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, or the parable of the Prodigal Son. Either way, the stories depend on a three-part structure of sin, repentance, and redemption.

These two stories have been deployed by countless Christian ministries as rhetorical templates to be studied, learned, and mimicked.

Of the two types, the Pauline narrative is the more common. Consider, for instance, its appearance in this template offered by Campus Crusade for Christ (“Before I accepted Christ, How I received Christ, After I accepted Christ”). The same “before, during, and after” structure is urged on students in the instructions from InterVarsity as well in: “30 Minutes to a Shareable Testimony.”

Do a quick google search on how to share your testimony, and you are certain to find scores of others. Many, like this one, teach you how to limit your life story not just to three easy steps, but also to three easy minutes.

The result, all too often, is a flat, uniform pattern of thought and speech stripped of all distinction. And yet, invariably, it will be clear, simple, digestible, and useful.

Though ubiquitous within evangelical circles, Paul’s narrative is not confined to them. For many politicians and public figures, it has provided the rhetorical tools to explain away misdeeds and to claim a fresh start. Famous examples include Nixon hatchet man-turned-evangelist Charles Colson, Ku Klux Klansman-turned-mainstream-politician David Duke, and perhaps most famously, former President George W. Bush.

If the Pauline narrative lends itself to those who once were lost but now are found, the Prodigal Son narrative is useful to those who once were found, then lost—and are now found again.

In his 1995 autobiography, Rebel With a Cause: Finally Comfortable Being Graham, Franklin Graham recalls his rebellious youth, including wild times “drinking the beer, and going out to the parties, and running around with different girlfriends.” One night, alone in a hotel room while traveling abroad, Graham experienced a religious epiphany.

“That night instead of going to the bar for a couple of beers,” he writes, “I found myself alone in my room reading through the gospel of John. When I came to the third chapter, I read not just that Jesus told Nicodemus he had to be born again, but I also grasped that Franklin Graham had to be born again as well.”

That night, Graham writes, his life changed abruptly and completely. Upon returning to the United States, he settled down, got married, and recommitted his life to Christian service. He thus received his true inheritance in the form of his father’s legacy.

Later, this same trajectory would be followed by Tchividjian, with nearly perfect precision. In an interview with the Associated Press, Tchividjian declared that, as a younger man raised in the Graham dynasty, “I rebelled against everything my family stood for.” The article explains:

At 16, unable to obey his parents’ basic rules (like not bringing drugs in the house), he was escorted by police from his home. He dropped out of school and spent the next five years partying on South Beach, trying to pick up girls and getting high.

“I was a wild man. I lived a no-holds-barred lifestyle,” Tchividjian said. “If I believed it would bring me maximum pleasure in the moment, I did it, no matter what it was.”

Eventually, he said, he bottomed out. He arrived home late one night, coming down from a high, and literally fell to the floor.

“God, I have tried my best to ignore you and to do things my way,” he remembers praying. “I’m broken. I’m broken and in need of fixing.”

A classic prodigal son story followed. Tchividjian recommitted himself to Christ, entered the seminary, became a minister. He married and had three children. He started the New City Presbyterian Church, a 450-member church in Coconut Creek.

Tchividjian’s “classic prodigal son story” would continue, eventually landing him in the pulpit of Coral Ridge.

I would venture that the prodigal son identity is especially attractive to literal sons, especially those raised in the shadows of famously pious fathers.

At times, Graham’s book seems to revel in its recollection of drink, parties, and women, just as Tchividjian is only too willing to describe his past self as a “wild man” living a “no-holds-barred lifestyle.” Reluctant to be cast in the role of dutiful and attentive pastor’s child, each man committed some years to rejecting his birthright, only to break down, bottom out, and faithfully return in the end – just as the prodigal script demands.

Unfortunately for Tchividjian, that’s where the parable ends. After his return, one assumes, the prodigal son stays. Indeed, the usefulness of both templates is largely dependent on the authenticity of their embodiment. Invoked and re-invoked too often, the stories lose force as the storytellers lose credibility.

In public statements since his resignation, Tchividjian appears to have found sanctuary anew, this time through the Christian rhetoric of grace. He has admitted his sin, sought forgiveness, and testified to his experience of spiritual agony. To the extent that speech is appropriate in times like these, he has said most of the right things.

Still, his account of his own downfall retains the persistent odor of usefulness. In a statement to the Washington Post, Tchividjian said:

“I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues. As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated. Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign.”

Though he admits to extramarital sin, Tchividjian is careful to observe that he only had the affair after his wife cheated on him, and only as a result of seeking “comfort” with a female friend. In his telling, he was largely a victim of circumstance, a wounded bird needing a nest. If it is possible to commit adultery in sympathetic fashion, Tchividjian has done it – or so he says. In her statement to the Post, Kim Tchividjian was less gregarious, and a good deal less self-serving:

“The statement reflected my husband’s opinions but not my own. Please respect the privacy of my family at this time, thank you. I do thank everyone for the outpouring of love for my family as well during this difficult time and we appreciate all the prayers and support we are receiving.”

Without pursuing this further into the tabloid material, we may observe that the lives of Christians, of public figures, and – perhaps especially – of Christian public figures are dependent on and governed by the stories they tell.

As Gabriel Garcia Marquez once put it, “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Tullian Tchividjian’s future in ministry will likely be made or broken by how he tells his own story; on his commitment to narrative – as well as to marital – fidelity.