The Radio broadcast was about to begin but the host wasn't in the room. It was a live recording for "The Bible Answer Man," among the most popular Christian stations in North America, and the only man in the room was I. It wasn't my first rodeo, but suddenly I felt more like this would be "The Bible Question Man."
The two clocks in the studio ticked down to two minutes, one minute, then 30 seconds, then three seconds, two, one . . ."
"Houston, we have a problem!" kept ringing through my mind. I had put on the headset and buckled in for the ride of my life. I figured I could do one of two things: introduce myself as someone else, say my friend Clifford Keister, or, start quoting Scriptures from memory, but that would likely leave a good half an hour of the hour-long program. I needed either rosary beads or Depends, or both.
What would you do if suddenly hundreds of stations were waiting for a program and you were unexpectedly the only one on the other end? I had only met the host briefly, but knew he was in the building. I was impressed with the organization of his studio suite. The multiple variations of his two dozen books were in perfect order, including at least one national bestseller. The finely-appointed complex was in an attractive Charlotte suburb. Even the recording room itself had a majestic orderliness. But suddenly I wanted to wring Hank Hanegraaff's neck, in Christian love of course. The Bible Answer Man needed to be answerable to his calendar.
Fears momentarily subsided as an unseen announcer began the show with his George Beverly Shea voice. But once again the clock started to count down from five, four, three minutes to 2.02; then Hank walked in. I wanted to jump across the desk and give him one of those overtime-win hugs. Instead I just remained silent and hoped he didn't notice the blood-pressure red draining from my face. For the next hour I settled in and followed the lead of a 24-year radio veteran (see www.equip.org and the 3/11/2013 broadcast).
With the fast-firing synapses of a Dennis Miller or Robin Williams, Hank never missed a beat. With the knowledge depth of a George Will, he wove in and out of many subjects. With the public savvy of David Brooks, he engaged his audience nonstop. With the healthy confidence of World Hope's founder JoAnne Lyon, he commanded the airways. In some ways, I was along for the ride – but enjoyed the first-row seat of genius at work.
The special moment for me during that broadcast was quite serendipitous. While we were chatting during break and he was checking a passage in his bulky Bible, I caught a glimpse of his marginalia-notes written in the aisles of his worn Scriptures. Most pages were covered with writing in pencil and different colors of inks. Various angles. Some with Stick 'Em notes. Others with taped tabs. A few papers. Paper clips. Some were quick references and others full paragraphs. His marginalia represented decades of dedication to his main calling – knowing the Bible and responding to related questions.
Like other TV or radio ministers, he's had his bout with probes and ethics' challenges. Whether the issues fell more to prudence than ethics was decided elsewhere, but from my only day with Hank, I came to appreciate his natural gifts and honed skills. His cerebral capacity – his God-given gift – had been recognized early in his career via his rapid responses to tough questions with memorized biblical texts and secondary books easily recalled. His honed skills were evident in the published works by major publishers, along with self-published resources now with millions of readers. And, his lonely unpopular stance against the Y2K doomsday threats, warning Christians and non-Christians alike the event was manufactured at worst, and grossly overstated at the least.
Without the marginalia I assume his impact would have been minimal. We all need marginalia – those signposts of thought that frame our reference for recall; those notes that help us to be intentional, to lead by design and not default. Whether we're 30 or 80, our notes help to capture the essence of an informational avalanche.
While Hanegraaff is like many public voices – religious or not, right or left – and hammered with hundreds of sound bites, blogs and books, he maintains a core of beliefs, entering every broadcast with a frame of reference. Within that very public dialogue are signposts along the way that help to articulate his central message.
I have the privilege of studying marginalia in the Green Collection, including that in the spectacular Leber Atelier Parisian Bible (circa AD 1230). "Parisian Bibles" became the standard Vulgate version used in universities, or what we might call the first modern textbook. This manuscript is often on display in the Passages Exhibit and opened to one of its 80 sermon themes handwritten in its margins. The marginalia helped regulate messages for countless communities.
I'm writing this column between sessions at "The Faith Angle Forum" run by the Ethics and Policy Center, D.C. Twenty top journalists attend this annual Miami retreat for personal enrichment to learn from experts on religious matters. One special guest this year is noted author, Tim Keller, founding pastor of the massive Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I smiled when he opened a hard bound journal, filled with handwritten notes. It's little wonder that he's become a formidable voice for millions of Christians.
Whether digital or handwritten, we all need an articulated framework of beliefs. And I suppose for the Christians reading this, perhaps the marginalia of the Bible Answer Man's Bible is nothing more than taking 2 Timothy 4:2 to heart, "Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction." Some take this as instruction only for religious leaders. However, for all of us, the deeper we go spiritually, the more consistent we become spontaneously. And, the more notes we take in private the more people take note in public.
If you hear Hank Hanegraaff on a broadcast, or Reverend Keller on TV, be assured that aiding their phenomenal memories is marginalia – whether visible or pneumonic anchors for their thoughts. Millions of listeners may be divided on their content, but rarely its clarity. One thing that wasn't clear before my visit – The Bible Answer Man is actually an institution not an individual, however brilliant. His marginalia say so.