This piece was written by Jerry Bowyer and published in the Arts & Letters section of Forbes.com. To read the article on Forbes’s website, click here.
The unjustly obscure Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin wrote a vastly detailed history of world civilization at the end of which he concluded that when societies are ascending, their art and other cultural artifacts consist of ideal types: heroic, beautiful, harmonious, inspiring images and stories. When societies begin to decline, their cultural artifacts point downwards, are obsessed with death, lust, corruption, and despair. Sorokin said that, if this is the case, the West’s culture was showing signs of decline. I’d say things have only gotten worse since The Crisis of Our Age. Sorokin wondered whether this process could be reversed. I wonder too. If it will be, I think that books like Eric Metaxas’ Seven Women will prove to be one of the causes of that reversal.
If you haven’t heard of Eric Metaxas… just wait. Part Dick Cavett (with whom he is friends), part public intellectual, Metaxas is an evangelical thought leader with a sharp wit and a knack for mass communications. He founded an influential public lecture forum in New York called Socrates in the City. He’s written a shelf full of books, mostly biographies, and now he has been unleashed on the airwaves with a syndicated radio program. The show deals with intellectual and cultural topics. It’s a bit like PBS, but funny… and right… and no one is forcing you to pay for it.
I sat down across a Skype-to-phone connection with Eric recently to talk about his book, Seven Women, which was released today. To paraphrase Big Dan fromO Brother, Where Art Thou?, there was not much air in the conversation.
JERRY: Do you think that we spend too much time thinking and talking about people that are not admirable, too much time talking about what we oppose and not enough about what we should emulate?
MR. METAXAS: That’s the reason I have written books like “7 Women” and “7 Men”. The book that comes out today is “7 Women” because I want to highlight the lives of people who got this right.
MR. METAXAS: The lives of people who led heroic, beautiful lives worthy of emulation. When we feed ourselves those stories, which in this case are true, seven women who lived these lives, I tell their stories, it does something to us. It inspires us, it encourages us. It encourages us not to be hopeless and negative and simply upset and angry. It encourages us. And I honestly believe that we’ve got to do more of that. We haven’t had that in the culture.
MR. METAXAS: For about forty years we’ve been anti-heroic. We always focus on the negative thing. Every leader’s a hypocrite. You know after Watergate and Vietnam we’ve kind of soured and questioned authority. Well, it’s good to question authority, but if you question authority to such a point of negativity and cynicism that you don’t believe anybody in authority is good, you’re dead, you can’t — you might as well go home at that point. So I really feel that we got to put up real heroes, and the seven women in this book, and the seven men in my previous book are examples of that.
I said, “Look at these lives, these people are — you can’t help but be inspired. It’s beautiful.” And I just feel, especially with the young people, that we’ve got to feed them that. We haven’t been feeding them that, and you wonder why people get cynical and negative and angry.
JERRY: Yeah. David Frum once told me that mass media, at least from the ’70s forward, is an institution that cannibalizes the credibility of every other institution.
Eric: Oh, that’s brilliant. David Frum, every now and again, comes up with something pretty darn brilliant. That is really wonderful.
JERRY: That was early Frum. That’s before he became a cabana boy for CNN. But back then he was saying sensible things. Its job is to expose what’s wrong with everybody else. But of course, please never shine the light on us. You know we’re the light shiners.
MR. METAXAS: Right. That’s right. Yeah, that’s correct.
JERRY: What I’ve noticed about your writing career and Socrates in the City that attracted me to it was that I think it’s toxic to spend most of your time and emotional energy in the company of people who are not admirable, even if you’re spending your time fighting them or disapproving.
MR. METAXAS: Yes, you’re right.
JERRY: You know if you’re hanging out with bad people or confused people, or people who are doing harm, even if — whether you’re fighting them or not, there’s still a way you sort of get transformed into what you spend time with, whether you fight it or whether you’re in favor of it. I think that that there’s been sort of a growth industry in, “You thought Obama was bad, it’s even worse than you thought.”
MR. METAXAS: Yes.
JERRY: ”You thought that Hillary was bad, even worse than you thought.” It happened under Bush, too. ”You think the Bushes are bad? Well, actually, there’s a Hitler connection.” There’s a kind of sense where people wallow in unadmirableness.
And what I see from your writing history is it’s almost entirely biographies of people who are admirable, people that we should like, people that have lived, in some ways, exemplary lives, people who’ve had a wonderful impact on the world. So it seems like it’s just a healthier diet emotionally and spiritually.
MR. METAXAS: Well, listen, since we’re talking — since we’re on Forbes here, this brings up the issue of the market. I am, whether I realize it or not, looking for a niche in the market. And when you look around in America at this point in our history, you see a dearth of this kind of thing. In 1930 there was not a dearth of this kind of thing. But after the ’60s, we tended to go negative. And as I said, we’re afraid of heroes because they’ve broken our hearts every time. Everybody proved to be a hypocrite or this.
Something happened in the ’60s where we turned, where we only hear the downside of, let’s say, George Washington. ”Oh, he owned slaves.” And you think, wait a second; you can talk about that and it is right to talk about that. But if you say that and you don’t talk about the fact that his noble character and self-sacrifice probably made it possible for the United States of America to exist, you have no business talking about the negative side of him. You need to let young people know that this was a man that, at great cost to himself, made some sacrifices and some choices that have benefited us and generations of Americans. You’ve got to teach that. And the same down the line with all of these people that we sort of knocked down. It’s not right.
So as I say, I’m looking for niche in the market. I realize that —
JERRY: So you’re going for the severely underserved hope-and-admiration niche.
MR. METAXAS: Well, I guess that’s the point. People say that’s what I’m doing; you say that’s what I’m doing. Well, I’m doing it because there’s clearly a deep need for it. I wrote my book, “7 Men” — by the way, I should be clear on what that is, just because “7 Women” just came out today, and so people will wonder what I’m talking about.
Before I wrote “7 Men”, I wrote a biography of William Wilberforce, who led the abolition forces against the slave trade in the British Empire. Great hero, and that book’s “Amazing Grace”. Then I wrote a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a German pastor who, because of his faith in Jesus, stood up for the Jews, stood against the Nazis, got involved in the plot to kill Hitler. Just tremendously admirable people and lives that we typically don’t know about.
Jerry: Who are the seven women?
MR. METAXAS: Hold on a second. Moms Mabley, Jane Fonda, hang on — no, just kidding.
JERRY: Well, her exercise — Jane Fonda’s exercise video changed the world for the better.
MR. METAXAS: Hold on a second. The seven women — I just want to make sure I don’t leave any of them out.
JERRY: Joan of Arc.
MR. METAXAS: The first one is Joan of Arc. The second one is Susanna Wesley; that’s the mother of John and Charles Wesley who led the Wesleyan Revival and changed the world. Now, this is another thing, people — when you read the story you’re going to say, “How did I not know about this?” It’s one of these things that I’m stunned — even myself, I say that I only have known about this for a few years, and you think these people changed the world; why did I not learn about them in high school. It’s kind of bizarre.
But this is the mother of —
JERRY: And “why didn’t I learn about them” is close cousin to “why wasn’t I taught about them,” right?
MR. METAXAS: Well, that’s kind of what I meant.
JERRY: Yeah, right.
MR. METAXAS: You’re just not hearing it. So Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Hannah More —
JERRY: As an aside, as an economist — my day job, economist — I’d say without Susanna Wesley I really doubt that you have the same economic rise of the United Kingdom that you saw.
MR. METAXAS: There’s no doubt. No, this is what I’m saying. If you want to see the power of one life — and this woman was a mother; she didn’t have a career — to say she was an amazing mother is an understatement. She was an extraordinary human being. And this woman raised her children in such a way that two of them ended up changing the world. Now, you’ll read that in the chapter; I don’t need to go into that. But her story is staggering.
Hannah More is the third one. Hannah More was a good friend of William Wilberforce, one of the most popular writers of the eighteenth century, friends with all the literary lights of London, and so on and so forth. A profound woman of faith who was one of the most important people in abolition of the slave trade. Stunning human being, Hannah More.
Okay. Then the most obscure one is Maria Skobtsova. She was a nun — an orthodox nun in Russia who then went to Paris, who saved tons of Jews. She just put her life on the line and, in fact, was killed by the Nazis. Amazing human being.
Corrie ten Boom, that’s a Dutch woman. Many people know her story from the movie “The Hiding Place”, which starred Julie Harris. And she also saved Jews.
JERRY: All right. All right, I’m sorry, Corrie ten Boom…
MR. METAXAS: Rosa Parks. Many people don’t know that Rosa Parks was a woman of deep Christian conviction. And she — it was no coincidence that she decided to do what she did on the bus. It was because she was a woman of deep Christian conviction and virtue that they wanted her to be the guinea pig, the person to go against the dark forces.
JERRY: Now, I’ve only had this book for a couple of days, so I haven’t read it all. And I was reading Rosa Parks last night, and she’s on a bus. So I’m really dying to see what happens next. So don’t ruin it for me.
MR. METAXAS: Yeah, well, a lot of stuff’s going to happen.
JERRY: I really want to know what happens.
MR. METAXAS: You just hang in and you’re going to see.
And then the last person is Mother Theresa. And again, it’s one of those stories when you read it you think, “Gosh, I had no idea of her life.” I mean, we know her from recent years. But when you realize how she got there, the story, what an amazing human being out of nothing. She was like a poor woman, grew up in — an Albanian, in just a world that was not conducive to women rising. And this woman, you know, four-foot-eleven or whatever she was, became one of the most famous people on the planet. So she’s the seventh woman in “7 Women”. But they’re just all great in different ways, and all great as women. They’re not women who were the first ones to do what a man had already done ten years ago. No, no, no. Their greatness stems from them embracing who they are as women. And I think that’s important for us to understand.