COLUMN: Person of Interest
An Interview with Eric Metaxas
Eric Metaxas is a funny guy with a dry wit and a comedian’s sense of timing. He’s also a serious Christian who came to faith in his twenties, after graduating from Yale a confirmed unbeliever. His resume could be the definition of eclectic. He’s written for Veggie Tales, Chuck Colson, The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and National Review Online, to name a few.
His book credits include best-selling biographies and children’s books. Among them are Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery; Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask); Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving, and It’s Time to Sleep, My Love. It’s worth attending the Socrates in the City events (see sidebar), which he founded and hosts, just to hear him introduce the speakers who come to discuss the “bigger questions in life.” And that’s saying a lot, considering that the speakers have included Dinesh D’Souza, N. T. Wright, Peter Kreeft, George Weigel, Robert George, and the late Richard John Neuhaus.
Most recently, Metaxas made news as keynote speaker at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., attended by, among others, the President and First Lady. His oratorical skills did not fail him, nor did his commitment to “speak the truth in love,” when he raised the subject of protecting the unborn and led the entire gathering in song. He spoke to us about that experience.
Marcia Segelstein: How did you decide what to speak about at the National Prayer Breakfast? And how much was the fact that the President would be listening in your mind as you wrote your speech?
Eric Metaxas: When I was asked, first of all, I was totally staggered at the honor. I felt strongly that I was not equal to this. And in some ways that’s a healthy viewpoint because you realize that you’re genuinely going to be forced to depend on the Lord. It was an honor. And it had nothing to do with me. It was just that somehow God had something he wanted me to say. And in a very real way, that took the pressure off.
What do you say in a few minutes? I knew that I wanted to talk about Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce. I knew that I wanted to focus on this basic idea that there’s a fundamental difference between what many people think of as religion in a kind of negative sense, and real faith in God. That is sort of at the core of everything. So I knew roughly what I wanted to talk about.
But yes, there is the question of what do you say if you have a few minutes in front of the President and Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden and a host of luminaries. There’s no doubt that that’s just outrageously daunting. As it got closer, and especially that day, I did feel that I was speaking to the President and to the First Lady specifically. I felt that I really wanted to reach out to them and to others who are different from me politically and theologically with the olive branch of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Was it uncomfortable for you to bring up the issue of the unborn—comparing them to the slaves of Wilberforce’s day and the Jews of Bonhoeffer’s—in front of a pro-abortion president?
Not in the slightest. I didn’t say it just to say it. I wanted to say everything I said with God’s love. Not to say it in a judgmental way. Not to say it to shame people, but to bless people. We have to speak the truth in love. We have to love our enemies—our political enemies, our ideological enemies. We’ve got to be able to communicate what God would have us say.
But the way we communicate is as important as what we communicate. You can’t divorce the two. There’s no such thing as truth not spoken in love. Then it’s not actually truth. It’s faux truth. It’s like sex outside of marriage. It’s not real sex. It’s divorced from God’s idea, and God’s idea is always something utterly integrated.
For me to mention these things felt almost like a sweet compulsion. It didn’t feel difficult. I really wanted to say these things, and God wanted me to say these things. But he wanted me to say them in such a way that was going to bless the hearers, so that even if they disagreed, they might hear it in a different way. The prayer is that God would make it alive to them.
In your speech you said that Christians are commanded to love those who do not yet see that the unborn are persons. How should pro-life Christians love people who are pro-abortion?
The world always gives us a false choice. You have people who say they don’t want to have enemies, that they want to love everybody. And you have other people who say they have enemies and they hate their enemies. Jesus says you have to love your enemies. It seems like a conundrum. How do you deal with that?
First of all, we have to understand that we’re not called to either of those two false things. We’re called somehow to speak the truth in love, which is to say we’re not supposed to set ourselves up as morally superior so we can demonize those with whom we disagree. We have to see ourselves in our enemies.
You look at someone like Wilberforce, maybe the ultimate example of a man who was able to fight passionately for what was right. He would never have said, “The gospel’s the gospel, and I don’t want to get involved in politics.” He knew that by God’s grace he was representing all of these people who could not speak for themselves, people who needed him to be their advocate. Every Christian is called to do that. We’re called to the fray. But Wilberforce also knew that apart from the grace of God he would have been on the other side of the battle. So he spoke differently.
We speak differently to somebody we love. We try to win them over, and they see that love somehow, and the love itself is convicting. We’re called to do what is right, but we’re called to do it God’s way. To shrink from doing it is as bad as doing it badly.
So does loving in this case mean praying for those people in addition to speaking to them in a way that is empathic?
We do have to fight our enemies. We can’t say that, because God calls us to love them, we shouldn’t oppose them. I think we’re called to do all we can for the unborn, for people who are being trafficked around the world, and so on. Every time we see injustice, we’re called to step up.
So it’s not just a matter of praying for these people. We’re supposed to get involved politically. We’re supposed to be advocates. We can’t shrink from it. I would fight to elect someone who I thought was on the right side of an issue, and I would fight against those who I thought were on the wrong side of an issue. But to demonize those on the wrong side is not of God. And, of course, praying for our enemies even as we’re fighting them gives us a different perspective.
In your speech you referred to your conversion experience, which is documented on your website [www.ericmetaxas.com]. You talked about going through difficult times prior to that. How did your conversion change you? Was there a turnaround in your life?
Yeah, oh yeah. There was a sense of purpose where there had been none. A sense of joy and peace where there had been none. There’s no doubt that those things became constants for me. I still struggle but it’s a totally different kind of struggle. It’s like being sick with a loving parent by the bed, as opposed to being sick alone. And I think the scales fell from my eyes on a number of issues—the life issue, issues of sexuality. I began to see those things differently than I had before. And I think really it was knowing who I am as a child of God that changed everything.
If someone had said to you five years ago, or anytime for that matter, that one day you’d give a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast and lead the President of the United States and all those assembled in singing “Amazing Grace,” what would you have said?
One thing I know is that, with God, all things are possible. Nonetheless, on a human level it was shocking. On the one hand, you marvel, as you should, and there’s a huge gratitude, as there should be. And on the other hand, you realize that this is just God. So I’m shocked but I shouldn’t be shocked. •
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