The news of George Beverly Shea’s death was not a shock for me–one expects that to happen fairly soon when a person reaches the age of 104. But I do feel a loss. I can’t remember a time when Bev Shea was not an important person in my world. Well before he became known nationally and internationally as a prominent presence in Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades, he was a household name in the New Jersey spiritual environs where I was raised–he sang regularly as a soloist in churches, at Bible conferences, and on local Christian radio programs.
Our family bought our first record player when I was about five years old, and my memory is that the first record we purchased was of George Beverly Shea singing the favorites for which he was already well known. To listen to a record on that device one had to turn a wind-up handle, and I was so fascinated with that new technology, that I played the Bev Shea recording over and over again, with the result that I could eventually repeat every line in the songs that he sang.
Several decades later I made effective use of that early memorization on a public occasion when someone challenged me on a theological point. It was the early 1970s–a period when the “evangelical social action” movement was emerging–and Ron Sider and I were serving on a panel at an evangelical gathering, addressing the topic of “the Gospel and the poor.” We each did our best to give a biblically-faithful portrayal of God’s concern for those trapped in poverty, but at least one member of the audience was not at all convinced by the case we were making. In the Q&A session he challenged us in angry tones, referring specifically to a comment of mine: “That’s not from the Bible,” he said. “It’s straight out of Karl Marx!”
In replying, I told him that my earliest lessons on economics came, not from Karl Marx, but from George Beverly Shea. I described my childhood experiences with our family’s record player, and then I quoted some lines from one of Bev Shea’s standards: “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold/ I’d rather have him than have riches untold/ I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands/I’d rather be led by his nail-pierced hands…./I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.”
And then I said this: “Once you’ve learned your Christian economics from George Beverly Shea, all the other perspectives: Karl Marx, Adam Smith, mixed-socialisms–all those other perspectives seem quite tame by comparison!”
I’ve spent decades since then struggling with the complex issues of poverty, economic development, the gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” effective stewardship. But what I learned as a child from George Beverly Shea has always been my starting-point. I thank the Lord for what Bev Shea taught me!