It was 1949 in Los Angeles. The conservative Christian community had pulled together to put on a multi-week revival under a big tent, featuring a then relatively-unknown Billy Graham. By the end of week three, the organizers were unsure if the revival meetings were to continue. Despite a massive publicity campaign with flyers and newspaper ads, attendance had been rather so-so. Graham and the leadership team decided to pray, asking for God’s guidance on what to do. After much prayer, they decided to go ahead and extend the meetings a few more weeks. But had they done the right thing?
Several weeks later, on week five, a well-known celebrity made his way into the revival tent. Louis Zamperini grew up a restless teenager and became a juvenile delinquent. To give his life some focus and meaning, Zamperini took up running. Eventually, he earned a spot on the United States Olympic team in 1936 in Berlin. World War II dramatically changed his life, where he was shot down over the Pacific and suffered terribly as a Japanese prisoner of war. When Zamperini came back home after the war, his life kept falling apart. After struggling with marriage problems, alcohol abuse, and horrific post-traumatic stress, he entered that revival tent that one evening. He gave his life over to the Lord Jesus Christ, and he spent the rest of his life serving Him.
Zamperini’s conversion to Christ had helped to give Billy Graham and his team a sense of confirmation that extending the revival a few more weeks was the right thing to do. For Graham, the Los Angeles revival gave him international exposure and influence that has continued to last today into Graham’s twilight years.
Louis Zamperini died in 2014, but his story lives on. Laura Hillendbrand’s bestselling book Unbroken is an enthralling story, from friends of mine who have read the book. From what I have been told, even if you are not a Christian, you will be spellbound by Hillendbrand’s telling of the story. Also, according to his son, Luke Zamperini, the 2014 movie Unbroken by Angelina Jolie tells the story of his dad’s life well, particularly with respect to how Jolie presents Louis Zamperini’s Christian faith, though some say that the faith element is downplayed too much.
But what I find even more fascinating is how Zamperini’s story also helps to tell the story of Billy Graham and the generations of believers who have come under his influence. The intersection of Zamperini with Billy Graham was a critical watershed moment for American evangelicalism in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Here is a summary of some correspondence between Graham and Zamperini before Zamperini’s death.
I would be curious to know from other Veracity readers what you have thought of the book and the movie.
HT: John Paine, for the Luke Zamperini story about the Christian faith element in the movie.