Interview by Hope McPherson (firstname.lastname@example.org) | Photos by Luke Rutan
Eric Metaxas (center) spoke about his best-seller Bonhoeffer at Seattle Pacific University's annual Downtown Business Breakfast on April 23, 2013. "Know what you believe," he told listeners, "because it will matter."
Known for a wide-ranging collection of work — from The Washington Post to Veggie Tales — Metaxas in recent years has been known for his biographies, starting with Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery and, in 2011, his best-seller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. In April 2013, his latest book (a collection of short biographies), 7 Men: And the Secrets of Their Greatness, was released.
Response had some questions for him about his work, his goals, and why we need heroes.
Seattle Pacific University has five Signature Commitments, including that we will be a place that knows and understands what’s going on in the world; and we will graduate people of competence and character, equipping them to change the world.
If your work had its own signature commitment, what would it be?
I think it’s to bring a Christian and/or biblical voice into the mainstream of the culture. We’ve not done a good job at speaking into the mainstream of the culture. Sometimes we have allowed ourselves to be marginalized, or sometimes we have been marginalized, whether we wanted to be or not.
Helping the church see how to engage culture and how to be in the middle of culture is important to me. I’m paraphrasing, but the famous Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not one square inch of creation over which Jesus Christ did not say ‘mine.’”
We need to live that out, and that ties into Bonheoffer’s theology. I’ve been thinking this way a number of years: We allow ourselves to be merely religious and stand in a religious corner, when God calls us to be in everything. Part of the call on my life, I think, is to figure out how to do that and to help others figure out how to do that.
In Harper’s, you said Bonhoeffer was zealous for God’s perspective on things, and God’s perspective is wider than “the standard parochial political points of view, sometimes forcing us toward a liberal view, and sometimes toward a conservative view.” What advice would you give to Christians who want to avoid being co-opted by today’s societal extremes?
This is really tricky stuff, because that’s not to say that sometimes one side of the political spectrum is getting it totally right and the other side is getting it wrong.
If you’re a Christian, on some issues you will end up on one end of that spectrum. The question is: What are you serving? Are you serving politics? Or are you worshiping God?
On the issue of life, I don’t think there’s any compromise. The only question is what does that mean? How do you go about living that out? Same thing with the idea of biblical sexuality. The only question is how can you lovingly express that?
Life is complicated. You can be a bigot who is pro-gay marriage, or you can be a bigot who is anti-gay marriage. Or you can be someone who really loves people and has a stand on that issue. We have to look at our hearts, because it’s not about which side of the issue we come out on. You could be on the right side of the issue and still, in God’s view, be wrong somehow.
God is always challenging us to look at our hearts. Do you feel justified in disliking the people on the other side of that issue? Or do you know that I died for them, and even though they are wrong, you need to love them because I love you? God is always challenging us in that way.
It’s very tempting in this day and age to say, “I don’t want to be political,” which I think is nonsense, because William Wilberforce was involved in politics. Why? Because that’s how he was able to work for the justice of African slaves who needed to be freed.
If you care about the unborn, then you’re going advocate for them. Now, you could be a jerk doing that or you could be God’s servant doing that. That’s up to you. But the idea that, “Oh, I’m just going to avoid that. I’m just going to preach the Gospel”? You can’t. There’s no such thing as preaching the Gospel without, to some extent, being forced to be political.
Let's not shrink from expressing that truth, because we're afraid of being demonized as bigots. That, to me, is a real issue right now. If people cease to speak up, it creates huge problems.
I think that we're seeing some of that ― a bullying that's cowing people into a silence on this, and that's not right. It offends me as an American because my parents came from Europe, where they did not have this freedom. I don't take lightly the idea that we can speak in America.
Why are the lives of men like Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce, as well as Jackie Robinson and the others in your new book 7 Men, useful to consider as society grapples with some of those hot topics?
We need role models. It’s one thing to talk about how we should behave; it’s another thing to see it. I think that that’s part of why the Wilberforce book and the Bonhoeffer book, in particular, have caught on. We don’t have a lot of good examples. We have a lot of bad examples. But how should you live? What is a heroic life? Dedicated to God, dedicated to truth, and goodness, and justice? What does that look like? We don’t have all that many examples of that in the culture. Why?
I argue in the introduction of my book 7 Men that the idea of role models has fallen out of favor since the ’60s. We don’t trust anybody. Everybody’s a crook. Every politician’s a crook. Every war is unjust. We’ve moved so far in the opposite direction from where we were before that I think we’ve moved too far, and we’ve lost the ability to say, “That’s a great life. That man is a hero. He’s not perfect, but what can we learn from him?”
I’ve written those books for that reason, because I think that, especially young men in our culture, are lacking great models of what am I supposed to be? What does a man’s life look like given over to God’s purposes? What can it look like? So the seven men in 7 Men are meant to be examples.
Who are one or two of the men that you didn’t include but could have?
That’s a good question. Lincoln was going to be one of the seven men, but when my hero and friend, Chuck Colson, was on his death bed, it dawned on me he really needs to be the seventh man. So, well, Lincoln got bumped.
Who are women, living or dead, you would include in a book on heroines?
A big part of my criteria in 7 Men was that the person is no longer among the living, which is why Chuck Colson qualified. So whom would I pick?
One person I would put in is Hannah More. She is a figure from my Wilberforce book. Hannah More was a friend of Wilberforce’s who was sort of the premiere woman of letters of that period. Her novels sold 10 times more than Jane Austen’s at the time. She was a friend of Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds, and the leading woman in the Clapham Circle, Wilberforce’s group of people that were helping him to do so much to transform Great Britain. She’s an amazing woman.
There are so many others I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I know Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Sayers are two that are highly likely. But, of course, 7 Men has to sell well before the publisher would even dream of asking me to write a 7 Women book.
You said you wouldn’t write about someone still living in your book, 7 Men. But who are your living heroes? And what makes them your heroes?
There are lots and lots of people who I admire. I’ll tell you one: Baroness Caroline Cox of the House of Lords in Parliament. She is a living hero. I had her speak at Socrates in the City twice. She is an advocate all around the world for people suffering under religious persecution. I think she’s extraordinary.
Os Guinness is another one. He’s written an amazing book called A Free People’s Suicide. And he has been a brave, intelligent, articulate voice for decades. He’s a friend and a hero.
You once said you weren’t interested in writing biographies, but that’s where you’ve put your energies in the past several years. What had you planned to do?
For many years, I have wanted to do what I’ll call mainstream TV talk show, and I’m getting very close to that. But I thought I’d be putting more of my energies into that, as opposed to the last six years spending so much time working on these books and talking about Bonhoeffer. But that’s really what I feel is important — speaking to the culture that way.
I also have wanted, for a long time, to write my spiritual autobiography, because there are so many interesting things that have happened. I want to tell the stories, amazing stories — some of them very funny, some of them real miracles of God — that are astounding. Real stories that are undeniable, incredible, and worth telling, so people can know that God is real and working in people’s lives. That may be my next book.
I have a feeling you’ll get the show eventually.
We’re getting very close, and I’m excited about it. Also now, we’re working with a script writer on a Bonhoeffer script for a movie. Very exciting.
If you were an SPU Commencement speaker, what challenge would you want to leave with Seattle Pacific University students?
I think it’s this thing that I talk about a lot: The difference between dead religion and real faith in Jesus Christ, and how one of them is very, in a sense, negative and reactive and defensive. The other one is very proactive and positive and joyful.
Some of this I’ve gotten from getting to know Bonhoeffer as well as I have — the idea that God expects our faith to lead to action, and it’s not about avoiding sin. It’s about serving God through action.
In serving God with our whole lives we can’t help but avoid sin. In a sense, that’s the way to avoid sin — by serving God and recovering a heroic, active view of what it is to be a believer, as opposed to sort of a pinched, negative, reactive religious view.
I think that many Christians have confused the two. They’re quite different, and I think that’s important to know that we’re supposed to engage all of culture.
Be a Christian in every part of your life — in your marriage, in your friendships, in the workplace, in your career, in how you deal with everything. Your faith should be everywhere. It’s a full-time wonderful thing, and not just living a compartmentalized religious life. If I can communicate that to graduating undergraduates, I would.
You turn 50 this year. How has that changed your perspective on your work, and what do you now find most important?
I’ve always been someone who doesn’t want to waste time. I think that the older you get, the more you realize you really do have to focus. I can’t do everything; I have to try to do the things that I find most important. So I’m learning to say no, and I’m saying no much more often than I ever was able to, because I feel like I’m a steward of the time I have and of the talents God’s given me.
I think in the Bonhoeffer story helps, too; I’m much less shy about speaking out. A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have talked about the biblical view of sexuality or the redefinition of marriage.
But I think that God says, “What are you waiting for? You’ve crossed the starting line, and it’s go time. You’ve got to do what I’ve called you to do now. Time is short.”
You have a lot of speaking engagements now, and you’re moving in circles of influence that most of us never even brush up against. How do you keep a sense of perspective?
God has taken care of that by humbling me up front. I struggled a lot, and I’ve not had success until very recently. So I’m not used to it, and I’m very, very, very grateful for it. In retrospect, I see God’s mercy in it.
I have a profound gratitude to the Lord for giving me perspective by, as I say, humbling me up front. It has been a real financial struggle to try to be a writer. It’s given me an appreciation for how so many people struggle and for how so many people work so hard.
It’s not lost on me what a blessing it is to have a book that sold well, or to be able to speak places where people are interested in hearing what I have to say. I don’t take any of those for granted. I’m stunned and amazed and grateful. It would be a horror for me to lose that perspective.
How do you keep life normal for your family and yourself?
I’m not gone as much as people think. I always race right back home, and we talk on the phone every day, and I pray with my wife every time I’m going to speak. I take all that very seriously.
I’ve seen friends miss out on their kids growing up because they’re working so hard on their careers. That’s not something I want to happen. My first calling is to be a husband and a father. I also think that if my family were less happy with my being away now and again, I wouldn’t be away. I think that it’s provided an OK balance thus far.