Saturday, May 04, 2013

Interview: Eric Metaxas

We can learn about virtue and manliness from some of history’s heroes. 

What does it mean to be a good man?  Eric Metaxas, who has previously written books on William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is the author of the new book Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness. Metaxas talks about men, women, and heroic virtue with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

​KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why a book about men? Does this prove that there is a Christian disdain for women?

ERIC METAXAS: We have a crisis of manhood in our culture. We’re afraid to talk about what it means to be a man, so I wanted to talk about it and to show the lives of seven truly great men. But if this book does well I’d love to write a book titledSeven Women. But if men aren’t learning how to be real men, it’s women who suffer more than anyone. So I had to write this book first.

LOPEZ: Why are you stuck on Father Knows Best? Do you want to turn back the clock?

METAXAS: Yes, I want to turn the clock all the way back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, about 6,000 years ago. Is that so wrong?

But seriously, somewhere along the line in the last 40 years we lost our idea of what a man is. Every parent knows that a young man needs to know what it means to be a man — and that he needs and wants heroes. But in about the same way that we’ve shrunk from saying what a man is, we’ve denigrated the idea of heroes in general. Deep down, all men want to live heroic lives. And unless I missed something, playing video games isn’t all that heroic.

LOPEZ: Is chivalry dead, and if it’s not, what does it look like in 2013??

METAXAS: Chivalry is whenever a man acts like a gentleman and treats others — but women especially — with grace and civility and selflessness. There’s less and less of this in our public life, so it’s important to reconsider the concept. We need to know that there have been many men whose lives were defined by this kind of behavior. George Washington was exceedingly gracious, as my chapter on him illustrates, but all of the men in my book were chivalrous to some extent. We need to recognize this as an important part of what it means to be a great man, especially because many contemporary public figures behave decidedly unchivalrously. But just because Donald Trump has lamentably stooped to say boorish and vicious things publicly about women who have somehow mussed his hair — metaphorically speaking — doesn’t mean that there aren’t many who consider such behavior deplorable.

LOPEZ: What does the sacrifice of the three men who died trying to protect their girlfriends at last year’s movie-theater shooting in Aurora teach us about how men should treat women?

METAXAS: Many people don’t even know that that happened, and we should know that it happened. It’s an extraordinary thing, and it’s deeply discomfiting to those who preach the idea that there’s no difference between men and women. Don’t these men’s heroic actions themselves say what we are afraid to talk about in our ridiculously politically correct culture: that men and women are different?

Of course, this is what men are supposed to do. It’s what I’d want a man to do if he was with my daughter or my mother or my wife, and it’s certainly what I would expect myself to do. Men express their love this way. It’s how God made us. Of course, women typically don’t jump in front of their boyfriends to shield them from bullets, because that’s not how God made women to express their love. But we have to wonder: Why did God make men that way? Why would we instinctively want to protect others, even if it means dying ourselves? What’s that about?

That’s what this book is all about. Men and women are different. God created us different. What is God’s idea of a man and why aren’t we talking about that? I’d suggest that the three men who gave their lives to save their girlfriends give us a picture of God’s idea of a man. It’s heroic, and it’s beautiful and moving and we need to celebrate it.

LOPEZ: In your chapter about George Washington, you write, “Who really thinks of him as an actual flesh-and-blood human being who struggled as we all struggle and who put on his breeches one leg at a time? That’s the problem with being that famous. People often don’t think about you as a person at all.” This is a real problem, isn’t it? How can we avoid it?

METAXAS: This cuts both ways. We put more expectations on public figures, but that’s just as it should be. As one wag in antiquity put it, “To whom much is given, of them much is required.” But yes, the other side of this is that we inflate famous people to such cartoonish proportions that we actually end up thinking less of their noble accomplishments, because we forget these people were genuinely no different than we are.

LOPEZ: Did anyone really need to write anything new about George Washington?

METAXAS: I don’t write anything new, nor was that my goal. On the contrary, I only wanted to reiterate the basics, because I’m afraid most Americans aren’t really aware of those basics about him anymore. It was once de rigueur in our schools to teach his story, but as I say in the introduction to this book, that’s no longer the case and this is having a baleful effect. We’ve so focused on the negative things about him that we have forgotten how superlatively great he was and what tremendous sacrifices he made. Every American needs to know his story.

LOPEZ: What was your goal and what do you think you accomplished in Seven Men?

METAXAS: I wanted to begin a cultural conversation on what men are and what they ought to be. We’ve gotten so confused on this subject that we’ve shrunk from it, and that’s been tremendously unhealthy. And as part of beginning this conversation, I wanted to hold up the examples of these seven men whom I think worthy of general emulation. These were real men who faced monumental difficulties with courage and grace. We need to educate ourselves — and the new generation — with these stories. We used to do that. Plutarch’s Lives was popular for centuries. Bonhoeffer actually was reading it during his last days on this earth. We need heroes very desperately, and these seven men are a good place to start.

LOPEZ: Why do you bring up a David Brooks column in your chapter on Eric Liddell?

METAXAS: About two years ago, David Brooks mistakenly claimed that strong Christian faith tended to make one uncompetitive, which is dramatically untrue. Some of the greatest athletic champions have been men of great faith. Jackie Robinson and Eric Liddell, two of the men in this book, are the first examples that leap to mind. But there are many currently active and fiercely competitive sports figures who are men of devout Christian faith. R. A. Dickey, Tim Tebow, and Jeremy Lin are three who leap to mind.

LOPEZ: Liddell wouldn’t run on a Sunday, even in the Olympics. Wasn’t he being overly scrupulous?

METAXAS: No. In the 1920s, the idea of doing anything significant on the Lord’s Day was absolutely out of the question for many serious Christians. Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey practically invented modern baseball and he wouldn’t go near a ball field on Sunday. Christians today have lost that sense of the sanctity of the Sabbath, but reading about Eric Liddell makes you wonder if we haven’t taken things much, much too far in the direction of blurring the bright sanctuary of Sunday into the rest of the gray week.

LOPEZ: What’s the most practical lesson from the life of Eric Liddell for men living in today’s secular culture?

METAXAS: That anyone who takes God seriously can’t have his faith confined to Sunday mornings or to some “private” sphere. Faith is either something that informs one at all times or it isn’t anything at all, really. When the Chinese government tells its citizens that they can worship in a certain building on a certain day, but once they leave that building they must bow to the secular orthodoxy of the state, you have a cynical lie at work. They’ve substituted a toothless “freedom of worship” for “freedom of religion,” because the latter freedom is powerful and dangerous to statist interests. I talked about that at CPAC recently.

LOPEZ: How important is William Wilberforce’s idea of “graciousness in the midst of battle”? Is that idea realistic in the media and political environments today?

METAXAS: It’s never easy, but yes, it’s not only realistic, it’s vital. In fact, it’s simply smart politics, which is to say it’s effective. The cynical thinking that says I can’t be gracious, I’ve got to win, is actually short-sighted and ultimately stupid. Wilberforce won one of the greatest political battles in the history of politics. You could argue that he is the most successful political reformer who ever lived. If that’s what civility will get you, perhaps we should have more of it.

LOPEZ: You’re way into Wilberforce. Is he a particularly significant model for our day?

METAXAS: Yes! He shows that politics is important — that people of faith especially should not shrink from politics. But he also shows us that we are not to make an idol of politics. We are to fight for what is right, but we are to do so in a way that is right. We cannot stoop to do whatever is necessary to win, as I’ve said. We need to understand this, and not merely to be more effective; our souls depend upon it.

LOPEZ: Why did you choose to include Jackie Robinson in this book?

METAXAS: I had no idea the movie 42 was coming out when I decided to include him in the book. Very few people realize how serious Jackie Robinson was about his faith and how prayer played a role in his being able to do what he did. It’s a historical fact that this man made a great sacrifice, and we need to know that and celebrate it. I’ve been wanting to tell his story for years. There’s just so much to it that is important.

LOPEZ: You include John Paul the Great in Seven Men. How is the life of a celibate relevant to every man?

METAXAS: To some extent a life of celibacy is a picture of how all of us are to live, containing our passions for God’s purposes. Freud propounded the materialist canard that we must “express” ourselves sexually or we’ll eventually develop facial tics, and we’ve been paying the price ever since. Many of the greatest people in history have been celibates. Bonhoeffer was of course one of them. Can we really doubt that the oversexualized culture in which we live has taught men to be selfish? And has hurt women?

LOPEZ: The story of Chuck Colson and his commitment to prison ministry seems especially relevant to a consideration of how we can help men be good men. What can we learn from his life?

METAXAS: Chuck Colson went to prison for a Watergate-related offense. When he got out he decided that he would spend the rest of his life not forgetting about the men he had met during his seven months on the inside. His willingness to spend 35 years going into prisons when anyone would have said he should put that all behind him is one of the reasons we need to know about the life of this great man. He is a hero, and I had the great honor of knowing him personally and calling him a friend. His story teaches us so much. It teaches us that we may have no idea of what it is that can make us great. In Chuck’s case it was going to prison, crazy as that might sound. It also teaches us that we’ve got to care about those who are suffering, even if they are suffering because of their own actions. That’s a big part of what it means to be a real man, a mature man.

LOPEZ: Why do you compare Colson to William Wilberforce?

METAXAS: Chuck Colson didn’t need to spend his life fighting for prisoners and their families, and William Wilberforce didn’t need to spend his life fighting for African slaves. Both these men gave their genius, talents, time, and influence toward helping the most marginalized members of their societies — what the Bible calls “the least of these.” In doing this, both Wilberforce and Colson rise together as shining examples of what great men can do in the public sphere.

LOPEZ: What was the most important lesson Colson taught you?

METAXAS: That the life of the mind and the life of faith are not only not mutually exclusive, but they are inextricably intertwined. As soon as I found faith I discovered his books and was tremendously encouraged along those lines.

LOPEZ: He was writing about religious liberty until the end — including on NRO. What might he remind us about now if he could?

METAXAS: For one thing, he would remind us that the battle for same-sex marriage has less to do with sexuality than with religious liberty. And that if we don’t have a serious discussion about this before we make the decision to ratify this historically unprecedented concept, we will forever regret it. I was myself entirely ignorant about religious liberty until Chuck Colson made that connection for me, and now I talk about it all the time, hoping others will finally see that it’s the real elephant in the living room.

LOPEZ: “Playing to the proverbial audience of One” is a phrase you use in the book. What is its significance? God did, after all, give us all these other people. We’re not lone agents in marriage, family, friendship, work, and life.

METAXAS: It’s a theatrical metaphor, of course, like “cracking the boards” or “playing the Dane” or “waiting in the wings” or “in the limelight.” And of course we do consider others in doing what we do. But sometimes in life we come to a place where many, if not most, of those around us won’t understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. At that point we need to have a deeper sense of what’s right and wrong that is not contingent on even what those closest to us might think. We need to have God’s mind on the subject, as almost all of the men in this book did at one time or another, and at that point it is his opinion that must be dispositive in how we proceed. History will judge whether we got it right, and in the cases of the seven men in this book, it seems that they did.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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