April 19, 2013
Friday Five Interview: Eric Metaxas
How do Christians display courage and civility? We asked the author of Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Eric Metaxas. Eric is the author of bestselling biographies on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce. He was the keynote speaker at the 2012 White House Prayer Breakfast. Eric is also a familiar voice on the Breakpoint Commentary radio program. We asked Eric about his new book, Seven Men and Their Secret to Greatness and his got thoughts on the controversial comments by this year’s White House Prayer Breakfast speaker, Dr. Ben Carson.
You recently released a new book, Seven Men and Their Secret to Greatness. Is this a continuation of the theme from your biographies of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer?
What this book shares with those two books, besides Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer themselves, who are two of the eponymous seven men, is that it is an effort to present the lives of laudable men, or at least parts of their lives I thought especially important. I've come to the conclusion that, in our culture, we've skimped on providing role models—for young people especially—and I'm convinced that this is tremendously important. We learn by observing the lives of others, whether the people around us, or figures we observe in the media, or figures we read about. We need to see the lives of real human beings lived out in ways that help us figure out how to live out our own lives. So presenting the lives of these seven men was an effort to do that, and to get people excited about studying these lives in greater depth.
But in Seven Men the effort to communicate that was conscious and intentional, whereas in the Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer books it was simply a side effect, albeit one about which I'm exceedingly happy. But in this book, that was my goal from the outset. I feel it's vital to offer these examples. And while my previous two books unintentionally featured men, that's intentional in this book. There is very real confusion about what manhood is and what constitutes a great man. This confusion has been harmful to the culture as a whole. But I'd like to do a book on seven women, too.
In your National Prayer Breakfast speech last year, you challenged the President to read Bonhoeffer. Do you know if he's taken you up on that?
I'm not sure I meant to challenge him as much as I was simply teasing him publicly, which is my way of showing affection. It's the sixth Love Language, and it's so rare it wasn't even included in that famous book, which only lists five. I'm increasingly uncomfortable with this president's policies, but I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to speak to him. I thought it would be good for him to be familiar with the life of Bonhoeffer, for a number of reasons. No, I've not received any communications from him or his office. I confess to coveting a “thank you,” which I would naturally have handsomely framed, but I'm guessing that they're probably busy dismantling the Military-Industrial Complex, so one must be patient. In all seriousness, I do hold out hope that he doesn't get a third term and will have time to read Bonhoeffer and Amazing Grace. And send me that note.
You've spoken often about the need for Christians to live in the tension between civility and courage. Why do we so often get that wrong?
Because it's tough! Because we have very few role models and examples of how to get it right. Some things cannot be taught and merely talked about; they must be observed. Living out this tension is one of those things. I've tried to model this in my own public appearances and speeches, and I think it's utterly vital that we try to get this right and model it when we have that opportunity. I tried to do it in my National Prayer Breakfast speech and in my speech on Religious. That both of those speeches have been seen hundreds of thousands of times is encouraging to me. For me, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer got this right and are worth studying for this alone.
It's obviously easy to err on one side or the other. If we are merely being "civil", and never challenging anyone because we are uncomfortable with confrontation, we are not really being civil at all. We are certainly not doing our job of being salt and light and of speaking the truth. Many evangelicals especially have been cowed into silence on vital issues, for fear of being too political. They think this undercuts their ability to "preach the gospel," but there is a deep theological error in that thinking.
If we shrink from courageous and prophetic speaking, we can never truly preach the gospel. What if Wilberforce had just "preached the gospel" and had not spoken powerful challenges to the entrenched slave trading interests of his day? We only see that cause as popular in retrospect. For him it was as difficult as it is today to speak out about a biblical view of sexuality or about the genocidal war on the unborn. It was very hard for Wilberforce to do what he did. And what if Bonhoeffer had merely prayed and had never openly challenged the misguided thinking of the Third Reich, not just on the issue of the Jews, but on so many other issues? These two men waded into so-called political waters because they understood that the gospel often takes us there. To remain on the shore, piously avoiding those waters is ultimately to deny the gospel.
Of course to be merely and nakedly political and to say things and advocate for issues in an uncivil manner will create an idol of politics and results. To worship that idol is to deny the gospel in another way. So yes, this is a terrific tension, but one that we are solemnly obliged as believers to try to get right—and to get right. Today the issues of sexuality and religious liberty take us into these waters. We must speak the truth of the gospel in love, knowing that God will be with us, and that the results are not in our hands, but in his.
Some prominent conservatives like Cal Thomas criticized this year's Prayer Breakfast speaker, Dr. Ben Carson, for what they felt was a lack of civility and respect. Do you agree with this assessment?
It's hard to say. I see Cal's point, and Dr. Carson certainly went beyond where I went a year before in that he was speaking less about spiritual matters and more about political and legislative matters. But I think there are mitigating circumstances. For one thing, he was addressing a president in his second term, which I was not. This sometimes calls for stronger language because the threat of an impending election has been removed. Also, Dr. Carson is 13 years my senior, and I think the older we are the more we are inclined to speak our minds forcefully. Whether that can sometimes be an excuse for incivility is another issue.
But as someone who was in the room when Dr. Carson gave his speech, I would say that it did not come across as confrontational, at least not to me. I think that the conservative pundits and talk-radio world unhelpfully spiked the ball and did their end-zone dance over his comments in the days following in a way that colored them as being much more confrontational they actually were. That sort of partisan gloating and showboating is just as unattractive and lamentable in the world of political commentary as it is in the world of sports. It's a symptom of the increased incivility and vulgarity in the culture at large, and it's one of the things I hope might change as a result of people studying the seven men in my book. Humility and civility must go hand in hand with any victories, and when we are not humble and respectful and civil we pollute the victory itself. I think that's part of what happened with Dr. Carson's speech, and I commented on that publicly at CPAC when I interviewed Dr. Carson at the end of our session together.
Through your books and through your work with Socrates in the City, you've encouraged Christians to escape the subculture and to renew their minds through intellectual pursuits. How can pastors and church leaders foster this kind of environment in the church?
The church has to a large extent bought into a false divide between secular and sacred, between church and culture. As Bonhoeffer makes very clear and as the Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper said, and I'm paraphrasing: "There is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ does not say ‘mine.’" So to pretend that there is such a thing as "Christian" music or "Christian" fiction is itself an absurd fiction. Everything that is good is of God. And God created and sustains every atom in the universe. But I don't say that an apple is a “Christian” apple or that Jupiter is a "Christian" planet. All that is good is of God and all that is not good is not of God—and much of the latter can be found in the so-called Christian subculture of sub-par "art.” So for one thing, we need to reject this bad theology, and we'd better do it quickly. Need I point out that in the pages of Scripture, Paul quotes pagan poets to make his point? Was Paul being unbiblical?
The intellectual pursuits to which you refer—if they can be called that—have sometimes been rejected by Christians because we have again bought into a false theology, cobbled together from proof-texts such as "God is no respecter of persons,” which wrongly implies that God favors the uneducated and uncultured and unsophisticated over the educated and cultured and sophisticated. This is simply untrue. If God is "no respecter of persons," then that must cut both ways. And from the point of view of good missions strategy, to avoid engagement with cultural elites only serves to harm the propagation of the gospel. We know that the cultural elites determine much of what goes in the culture at large, which affects everyone, so to avoid reaching out to them or engaging with them is simply self-destructive and at odds with God's larger purposes. I really think that we've got to reclaim a truly biblical view of culture. When we do that we will be countercultural and prophetic instead of subcultural and pathetic. Doing that would be to take the road less traveled; and as some pagan poet once pointed out, that will make all the difference.
Daniel Darling is a pastor, author, and speaker. He regularly blogs here. Follow him on Twitter: @dandarling