Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bonhoeffer, Socrates and the State of the Church

Eric Metaxas

It’s rare to cross paths with someone whom you could consider a modern-day John the Baptist. But even casual conversation with Eric Metaxas quickly turns into a compelling, stirring call to holiness. Just like Bonhoeffer – the bestselling biography that Eric wrote about the revolutionary German pastor during Nazi Germany – his words ring with the passion of a man solely devoted to obedience and a desire to live righteously. I recently caught up with Eric about his take on the church, society and his newest book Socrates in the City.  

John: Before you became an author, you were involved in media and the arts community to some extent. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Eric Metaxas: Ever since I graduated from Yale in 1984 I have known that I wanted to be a writer and that’s what the Lord had for me. The only question was what was I going to write? I knew that I was a writer, one who hadn’t yet written anything that people would care or know about too much.

John: In Bonhoeffer we see a man filled with passion for Christ; even in how he interacted with the culture around him. Looking back at the time you were researching his life to write the book, do you feel like your life and relationship with Christ changed in the process?

Eric: Well, I think yes and no, but I’ll explain. I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church – my dad is Greek, my mom’s German. So I grew up in the church but never really heard the Gospel. It was mostly a kind of cultural Christianity. I then went to Yale – an aggressively secular university – and lost whatever modicum of faith that I had brought with me. I was dramatically born again in the summer of 1988. And really, ever since then I have had a deep passion to serve God with my gifts as a writer and speaker. That’s always been a constant, [I think] because I came to faith later in life (I was saved around my 25th birthday). I’ve had this incredible passion ever since. The only thing that changed by writing Bonhoeffer is that in some ways it accelerated that and gave me a greater sense of urgency about speaking the truth, standing up for Christ in the culture, being less shy about it. I’ve never been particularly shy about it but it made me more bold and courageous because this is true, not just something I hope is true. It’s true! So it’s not that it awakened so much in me, but as I was writing it I realized there was no question, this [book] is going to speak to a lot of people who need to be affirmed, encouraged and inspired. There’s something about this man’s life that is profoundly inspiring to Christians. The funny thing is that I didn’t know so much that that would happen, but through the course of writing it became clear to me that that’s what God was doing.

John: So this type of passion was certainly sparked within you before the book, but did seeing someone who had similar passion make it resonate even stronger in you?

Eric: There’s no doubt about that. Writing the book was a personal agony on a number of levels for me. I had a keen sense that God had created and called me to write this book. I had a very (how do I put it…?) palpable feeling that this was part of what God had created me to do and He was with me while I was doing it.  I really sensed His presence, very, very strong in writing it.

John: You’ve commented before about that ‘sense of agony’ you felt in writing the book – what exactly does that mean? We’re also curious about what you think a revolutionary like Dietrich Bonhoeffer might have to say to the church today…

Eric: Well I think Bonhoeffer would have the same thing to say to the church today that the Lord would have to say to the church. Because, let’s face it, either the Lord is speaking through people like Bonhoeffer or who cares what Bonhoeffer has to say. While writing the book, what Bonhoeffer really helped me see is that, we the church will always get it wrong both ways. Not just one way. The liberal church is screwing up one way and the conservative church is screwing up another way. We’re all messing up. When I was writing it and still now, I’m stunned at the parallels. For example you think, how did the Holocaust happen, how did this German Christian nation allow this to happen? Part of it was because of liberal theology and then part of it was a kind of hyper-religious, pious, separatist Christian theology. I was amazed to see in Germany that the mainline protestant churches had pretty much stopped proclaiming the historical Gospel and that compromised them fundamentally. That’s a big part of what happened to the church in Germany then, and it’s a big part of what is happening in the church here today. It’s not that they’re just not preaching this, but we see that it cripples them from actually calling evil evil and dealing with [sin] in a Biblical way. But then, of course, are people on the other end of the theological spectrum who are religious but not disciples of Jesus Christ. In other words, they’re excited about having the right theology, but they can almost make an idol of it, neglecting the loving and gracious Gospel of Jesus. They’re almost worshiping theology more than worshiping Jesus Himself. You see this back to almost the first century. There was something about the nature of things then with the aggressive secular culture of national socialism trying to take over the church. And I think we see a parallel of that today, that the mainstream culture has become increasingly secular and increasingly bold in stepping onto territory that absolutely belongs to the church. The church has to see that and the church has to do something about it. I think that either the church doesn’t see or accommodate itself to that or just doesn’t respond in a Biblical way. The story of Bonhoeffer gives us a Biblical model of ‘how are we going to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the middle of a culture that is very counter to that idea?’

John: Without persecution here in the West, can we as followers of Jesus strive to pay the same cost of discipleship that Dietrich did?

Eric: That’s a great question. I don’t know… It doesn’t seem so. I think we’re on the verge of real persecution. Because I think that today, for example, if you hold a Biblical view of sexuality, you are now being branded as a bigot. Just a few years ago, you could still say I’m a Christian and this is what I believe, but now, that’s becoming more difficult. I think that serious Christians, as they were in Hitler’s time, are being marginalized. If you are willing to bow the knee to Baal, well, we’ll still pat you on the head and let you go to church, but if you seriously believe these things and are proclaiming these things even in a loving way, you’re going to be marginalized. It is going to become increasingly more difficult to function. And that seems to be happening with the same sex marriage issue, and it’s a bit startling to see it happening that way in our culture which has been so traditionally Christian in so many ways.

John: You talked a little about how government is encroaching on the church in the US and also how the American church is handing over certain areas of its functionality to the government. When you look at the church, what peeves you the most?

Eric: Well, I think there’s a kind of gutlessness. We’re quick to agree with all kinds of things that we should not agree with. We’re so afraid of being branded as intolerant that we’ve made too much peace. We haven’t been bold. There are people around the world suffering for their faith and we don’t even seem to be able to put up with people sneering at us. It gets our noses so out of joint that we just somehow cease to be salt and light. That level of gutlessness, cowardice (unfortunately nothing less than that) is the death of the church. You saw it in spades in Nazi Germany, people wanted to be a good national socialist and a Christian. They were uncomfortable realizing ‘national socialism is forcing me to choose between itself and being an actual Christian.’ Many people never made that choice, and if you don’t make that choice, you’ve made the choice. I see that happening here. People are afraid to take a stand on issues because they’re simply afraid of what people will think or what the New York Times will think. I think that’s why Bonhoeffer gives me hope, because he calls us to wake up and be the church. He says, if you don’t, terrible things will happen. In his day, terrible things did happen and in our day terrible things will too unless we repent and do what God called us to. It’s always what God has called His prophets to do, which is to speak His truth, to call the people of God to be the people of God. I have this crazy idea that in the story of Bonhoeffer, God would give us a second chance. He would say, the church did not heed the cry of my servant in the 1930s but maybe now you’ll hear his voice. In the same way, we applaud Isaiah and Jeremiah today but in their own day the people of God did not applaud them. I have a funny feeling that Bonhoeffer’s voice is crying out to our generation and that it really does hang in the balance. I would like to think that the church would be the Church and that somehow his story is an encouragement to us along those lines.

John: So on that note, if we, the church were faced with another Holocaust, do you think we would act in cowardice today?

Eric: Oh I think we’re acting in cowardice already. Any kind of tragedy is a holocaust. The abortion industry over the last 30 years is a kind of holocaust. You’ll never see the same thing twice because you’ll be smart enough to recognize it. It will always be different, it will always fool you. And that’s exactly what has happened. The breakdown of the family has led to a different kind of holocaust. How many Steven Jobs have been aborted? I mean, he himself was born to an unwed mother who gave him up for adoption. How many people like that don’t exist because we’ve fundamentally changed our view of these kinds of things? Yeah, I don’t see how we’re ever any different. People are people, but God asks every generation to step up, and to the extent that we do, we try to avoid it. We’re no different than the Germans in those days, we fool ourselves if we think we’re somehow morally superior to them.

John: Do you think that the church has lost its credibility on some of the most important topics?

Eric: I think we have allowed ourselves to be politicized to the point where we can sometimes sound shrill. I think that many have been cowed into silence and other people have been goaded into shrillness. Both are unbiblical. So you take your pick. We’re speaking up on important issues, but again I think it’s both. If you hate shrill political conservatives, it’s very easy to point the finger at them while you’re bowing your knee to Baal except in a different direction. I think it’s just easy to get it wrong either way. I don’t think that the devil really cares how we get it wrong, as long as we get it wrong, or keep our mouth shut. [The problem is] agreeing with our friends on everything, or being so shrill, partisan and uncivil that we marginalize ourselves, making it very easy for people to ignore what we have to say.

John: Ok so transitioning to a lighter note, Socrates in the City (laughs). Tell us a little bit about this book and how it relates to the public forum that it grew out of.

Eric: I have had the privilege of knowing some of the greatest thinkers and speakers in my time. I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to bring some of these people [here] to New York to opine on the big questions? (Because this is not a place where you typically hear people talk from a Biblical world view.) But not in a church-y environment – in a fun environment, an expensive private club where there’s wine and hors d’oeuvres and piano music, so it’s a social event. What would happen if you brought Os Guiness or Chuck Colson or any number of brilliant, wonderful speakers into that environment? I thought it would bless the church because we need to have our minds fed and it would bless the unchurched because they’d have a safe place to hear about something from a different point of view – so [I thought] let’s see what happens. Frankly, we’ve been doing it now for 11 years – it’s been a smashing success. I can hardly tell you what these evenings are like, but most of them are really terrific. For years I’ve thought, we’ve got to get this into a book, some of these talks are just so great, how can we not put them in a book? My introductions [of the speakers] are intentionally fun and silly because I don’t want it to feel like an intellectual exercise, I want it to be fun exploring these big questions. And it really has been fun! The book, for me, is a dream come true because I get to share these evenings with anybody who can buy a book at the bookstore. They can suddenly participate in what we’ve been doing. I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself. The reviews I’ve gotten so far from friends have been beyond what I really had hoped. I never meant for [the events] to be just for Manhattan or the people who come to them, but as the time passed I felt more and more like it was a crime that people couldn’t listen in on these things because some of them were so magical. So we picked 10 or 11 of the most representative ones and put them in a book. To me the event does translate onto the page, we edited it lightly so that you really kinda feel like you’re there as opposed to just reading a book. That to me is a big achievement. I’m really excited about it - it’s time for Socrates to go public. We’ve done events in Chicago and Dallas/Ft. Worth and we’re refurbishing our website so folks can actually watch the events on video. So it’s a new day for us. I really can’t contain my enthusiasm for this because I feel like we’ve been hiding it under a bushel.

John: In doing these interviews, do you find yourself disagreeing with any of the speakers?

Eric: Well I don’t normally do interviews, mostly it’s a lecture. I introduce them, they give a talk and then we have Q & A, which is a lot of fun. Absolutely most of the speakers would differ from me in one way or the other but it’s not about having people who agree with me on everything, it’s about having people bring a fresh perspective that’s generally something that you’re not going to hear in a place like Manhattan or on TV. So sure, we’ve had some, but never anything terribly significant. That’s kind of the nature of the open-ended aspect of it, where people can ask questions and argue, but it’s always done in a civil environment so that’s the fun of it. People can come up to the microphone and say ‘I disagree with this’ then force the speaker to defend him or herself.

John: On your own website you describe this book as including humor. You’ve participated in comedy throughout your life – even voicing a VeggieTales character. How do you transition from something that has more comedic value to something weighty like Bonhoeffer or these great ethical points of philosophy in Socrates? Is this all who Eric is?

Eric: Humor has always been a major part of my life, it’s how the Lord made me. We are all strange, complicated creatures. I was the editor of the humor magazine at Yale University when I was there, I’ve written humor for the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, obviously working for VeggieTales humor’s involved, it’s always both – it’s never either or. I think it’s the nature of life generally, but it’s also the nature of my life (laughs), such as it is.

John: So what do you to unplug?

Eric: (Pause) …That’s a good question. I don’t know… um, crash? Burn? Yeah, crash and burn would be the answer. I don’t think I’m really good at unwinding or unplugging. I think if you’re doing something you enjoy you don’t really need to, I mean, it’s fun in and of itself. I don’t collect stamps if that’s what you’re asking.

John: Family? Married?

Eric: My wife and I just celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Our daughter is 12 and goes to a tremendous Christian school right here in Manhattan, the Geneva Christian School. Without the school I don’t know if we’d be able to live here, it’s just fantastic. My wife runs the only evangelical crisis pregnancy center in New York City and they just celebrated their 15th anniversary also. So, I’m a family man living in New York City and I really do believe God called us to be here.

John: Eric, we are in awe that you took a few moments to talk with us today. We’re so grateful for Bonhoeffer. It is a great read.

Eric: Nothing pleases me more – you can only imagine how much that just blesses me. The Lord was with me and really had spoken to me that this was His book and that He would use it, I clung to that. It was really tough to write, then I had to switch publishers [in the process which] was a really horrible experience, but by God’s grace I found my way to Thomas Nelson and they have been tremendous. I don’t have time to tell you the details but trust me when I tell you there were really, genuinely miraculous aspects to the whole thing, so the fact that God is using it this way, it’s only proof that it is His book and nothing could really make me happier.

To learn more about Eric, his books or the click the Socrates in the City forum.