Western Standard: A Review: The Times that Try Men’s Souls

April 11, 2023

Guest Columnist Shafer Parker reviewed LETTER TO THE AMERICAN CHURCH for the Western Standard. The full article is here.

The Times that Try Men’s Souls
Shafer Parker
April 9, 2023

Occasionally an author will discover he has written a series of books that, taken together, impel the writing of another.

The spade work of preparation was already done in previous books. Now it’s only necessary to explain what they mean when taken together. Such is the case with Letter to the American Church, by Eric Metaxas.

Here’s a partial list of Metaxas’ previous works:

1. If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. (Best seller.)

2. Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. (Companion book to the award-winning 2006 film.)

3. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. (Winner of the 2011 John C. Pollock Award for Christian Biography and the 2011 Christopher Award.)

4. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. (A New York Times 2017 best-selling book and a New York Times Editor’s Pick.)

Do you see it? Having covered the law-based liberty upon which America was founded in If You Can Keep It, the fight for a moral culture in Amazing Grace, the story of a principled man paying the ultimate price in Bonhoeffer, and finally, the man who quite literally changed the world in Martin Luther, Metaxas was uniquely prepared — by God Himself, in my opinion — to write the challenge to the North American Church found in Letter.

By the way, this matters here: Please do not say to yourself that because you live in Canada, Metaxas’ book has nothing to say to you. I have lived in Canada continuously since January of 1992, and I can say with assurance, apart from a few historical references, everything Metaxas says in Letter is applicable to Canada, and in some cases even more applicable.

So, what does Metaxas say? He says North American Christianity is too much the same as that found in the German Church of the 1930s. In his view, that’s a bad thing.

“So the only question,” he writes, “is whether we might understand those parallels, and thereby avoid the fatal mistakes the German Church made during that time.”

What fatal mistakes did the German Church make? We don’t have to guess because Bonhoeffer, as Metaxas makes clear, identified those mistakes for us. The German Church’s first mistake was the failure to recognize with the coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis, the world changed and not for the better. As Metaxas puts it, “They seemed to think what might have worked in 1915 or 1925 would work in 1935… They refused to see the new situation and to act accordingly.”

Metaxas then gives details to show the same situation prevails in North America today. We don’t face Nazis but “the emergence of ideas and forces that ultimately are at war with God Himself.”

All of them, Metaxas says, spring from a central source, “atheistic Marxist ideology,” as expressed in Critical Race Theory’s many guises, and “radical transgender and pro-abortion ideologies” that are “inescapably anti-God and anti-human.”

To summarize, “These ideas have over many decades infiltrated our own culture in such a way they touch everything, and part of what makes them so wicked is that they smilingly pretend to share the biblical values that champion the underdog against the oppressor.”

What, then, are we to do? Bonhoeffer spelled out his position in an April 1933 essay, The Church and the Jewish Question. In the essay, written on behalf of the “Emergency Pastors League,” Bonhoeffer argued “the church was the conscience of the state and must call it to account,” and “that it must loudly object if the state was doing wrong.”

Churches must not, as Metaxas denounces in scathing terms, retreat to a focus on “the gospel” as though God has nothing to say about public evil.

“This is not just nonsense,” Metaxas writes, “but is a supremely deceptive and satanic lie, designed only to silence those who would genuinely speak for truth.”

For what it’s worth, Letter gives the lie to the cool, laid-back, joke-cracking, sardonic host of Socrates in the City, which, for many of us was our first exposure to Metaxas’ personality. In Letter he is pure fire, so different from his public personality one must conclude we’re seeing the result of a life-changing work of God. (Would that God would do the same in all of us.)

But more from Bonhoeffer as Metaxas reports it: “… the Christian Church was obligated to help any victims of the state,” he wrote. Then he really bore down, “… if the state refused to change course and do the right thing, but rather continued in its sins — which in this case were principally focused on persecuting the Jews — it was the solemn obligation of Christians to take action. They were not merely to protest verbally and to help the victims, but were also to become actively political — to ‘shove a stick in the spokes’ of the wheel of the rumbling machine of the state.”

The problem for Canadian pastors in the 21st century is the same as it was for German pastors in the 1930s, that is the realization those who see what the evil state is doing are duty-bound to be the “stick” shoved in the whirling spokes of the government’s hell-bent machine. And while it’s true enough sticks shoved into governmental wheels may ultimately break the spokes, it is equally true that they might not. The only certainty is many sticks will be broken in the process. Thus, it should come as no surprise that now, like then, few pastors volunteer for stick duty.

Instead, through our cowardice, we risk being caught up in what German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann dubbed the “Spiral of Silence,” a phenomenon that occurs when people see a culture transitioning toward tyranny, but refuse to speak.

The longer people hesitate, the more the price of speaking rises. As the price rises, fewer people choose to speak, and the price of speaking rises again. And so on, until a nation is silenced. Metaxas sees this happening in North America, and when you read him, I think you will find it difficult to prove him wrong. The longer Canada’s pastors wait before declaring God only made two sexes, the harder it becomes to say anything about the dangers and evils of transgenderism. The more pastors and churches “welcome” homosexuals, the harder it becomes to call anyone to repent of sexual sin.

What, then, must we do? The surprising answer from this Greek Orthodox Christian makes him sound like an old-fashioned fundamentalist. We must “see the One who is Truth” as our “standard,” or as our “battle flag for truth” then “we are to rally to that battle flag, to Jesus Himself.”

When Metaxas writes this way, I can hear the familiar sound of the old upright piano in the Texas Baptist church where I grew up, beating out the march tempo “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

Is Metaxas really calling for us to think of ourselves as Christian soldiers, “marching as to war?” Yes, I think he is.

But because it’s Jesus we’re talking about, we must remember the “weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (II Cor. 10:4). We must learn to combine truth with love, and because Jesus is a person, we must move beyond creeds and statements of faith. We must speak the truth in love, not theoretically, but aimed at real situations, and always for Jesus’ sake.

The one thing we must not do is remain silent. As Metaxas puts it, on the most practical level possible, Christians have a duty to speak out against the men who find athletic glory by competing against women, or the young man who has been taught by society to “celebrate his same-sex attractions as a gift from God.”

Metaxas asks, “Is your pastor talking about these things? Are you?”

You must read the book! If you love God’s church, and if you love people and want them to know the truth about God, heaven, hell, and eternity, you must read the book. If you care about the kind of world your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in, you have no choice; you have to read the book.

It isn’t long, only 139 pages, and it isn’t expensive. Buy the book, read the book, then buy as many more copies as you can afford and pass them out, starting with your pastor.

“But will they read it” you ask? They will if you promise to invite them over in two weeks for an informal discussion of its content.