The Death of God Is Greatly Exaggerated
December 18, 2016
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal; to read the article on their website, click here.
If religion in America is dying, then someone will have to explainEric Metaxas. The happy warrior for a muscular Christianity displays nothing but confidence about the durability of belief in modern America. In fact, he seems to hope more Christians will ignore the pressure—from the media, the courts and other liberal bastions—to keep clear of the public sphere. The message has made him especially popular with evangelical Christians.
“Part of my life’s thesis is that we live in a culture that has bought into the patently silly idea that there is a divide between the secular world and the faith world,” he says, the idea that religion can be walled off exclusively into private life or pitched altogether, particularly when 70% or so of U.S. residents identify as Christian. “Culture presents us with this false choice between channels that are exclusively faith-based” versus those that are “exclusively secular.” Yet “that’s not how most Americans process the world.”
Mr. Metaxas plays his multichannel part as a best-selling author, radio host, public speaker and humorist. In his Manhattan apartment hangs a document signed by William Wilberforce, the 18th-century Christian abolitionist who was the subject of Mr. Metaxas’ 2007 biography “Amazing Grace.” Nearby is a framed letter from filmmaker Woody Allen, calling one of his short stories “quite funny.”
His work is a “strange amalgam,” as Mr. Metaxas puts it. He churns out poetry, children’s stories and 600-page tomes; he is a devout follower of Jesus Christ who doesn’t want for a sense of irony. This is a guy whose endeavors include a nationally syndicated radio show “about everything” and a New York event series, “ Socrates in the City,” that explores “life, God and other small topics.”
An unwillingness to talk publicly about matters of faith and ultimate reality has left “tons of people dissatisfied,” he says, in an expansive conversation this week. “You’d never know that from watching TV or listening to radio. You’d think the only thing people argue about is politics.” He puts everything into a blender on his radio show: On Wednesday he sized up the Republican foreign-policy debate; on Monday he included a “Miracle Mondays” segment in which he chats with guests about extraordinary phenomena.
Mr. Metaxas pushes back against what he calls the “lie that faith and science are somehow opposed to each other.” He thinks the two work in tandem. As he wrote last year in these pages: “There are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart.” In sum: “Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident?”
This resonates with people. “They say: ‘You know, it didn’t make sense to me that the universe made no sense.’ ” In his book about the miraculous, Mr. Metaxas cites the Christian scholar C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his 1952 book “Mere Christianity”: “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
But Mr. Metaxas says he’s “keenly sensitive that there are people listening who don’t share my point of view. And I want to talk about whatever we’re talking about in a way that’s respectful of those people.” That isn’t the conservative talk-radio model—venting about the latest political outrage, with a financial incentive to foment anger among loyal listeners.
Those who call for “civility” are often uninterested in taking hard stances or are looking to shut up those who do, but Mr. Metaxas has a way of prizing civility while both staking out strong positions and defending the right of others to speak out.
He says unequivocally that he thinks the constitutional right to religious liberty is in peril, with Christians told they aren’t permitted to object to broad cultural changes—for example, Catholic nuns forced under ObamaCare to countenance contraception they find objectionable.
His free-exercise advocacy finds him emphasizing that the First Amendment is not merely a right to think what you want: “It means you must be able to exercise your faith in the market place, in the public square, not just on Sunday.” He takes it further, arguing that America’s founding fathers knew that “the whole nation hinges on that idea,” and that the success of the American experiment depended on, as he says, a “virtuous and moral populace.”
He points out how little this message is appreciated: “All you hear about today is that people used the Bible to justify slavery,” he says. President Obama even offered that critique of Christianity this year at the National Prayer Breakfast. Mr. Metaxas notes that there would have been no abolition of slavery without “passionate, devoted, serious Christians,” including Quakers. “Largely the people driving abolition did it because of what they believed from the Bible” and that’s the case “in England and in America. Period.” The civil-rights movement, he adds, “came totally out of churches” from “overtly Christian” figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Today, many Christians are tempted to eschew politics—and Mr. Metaxas objects. The faithful may think they’ve seen “all that culture-war stuff ‘and that makes me uncomfortable. So now I’m going to go in the other direction. I’m not going to say a word about anything political.’ And I think to myself, look: William Wilberforce could have had a much nicer life. He could have been prime minister of England if he would have shut up about the slave trade. He took tremendous heat, and he had his life threatened, but he felt: I as a Christian see these Africans as made in the image of God. I have no right to stay silent.”
No right to stay silent—or grouchy. Mr. Metaxas believes that Christians, regardless of how society changes for the secular, have no excuse for dour outlooks. “One of my favorite Bible verses is Philippians 4:6: ‘Be anxious about nothing.’ Nothing. Now what does that mean, ‘nothing’? It means nothing.” He adds another biblical line: “ ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ That’s a command.”
He has heard the reports that Christianity is on the way out in America; Pew Research this year released a report showing the share of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian slumped to 70.6% in 2014 from 78.4% in 2007. Then came the headlines highlighting the rise of the “nones,” who don’t identify with any religious tradition.
Mr. Metaxas notes that Christianity is booming throughout Latin America, Africa and elsewhere. And he thinks we’re “dramatically underestimating” the hunger for religion and the search for “answers to transcendent questions” in America. As historian Paul Johnson might put it, what happens in history is sometimes as notable as what doesn’t happen—and no society, not even the Soviet Union, has snuffed out the unquenchable hope of belief. Mr. Metaxas borrows Shakespeare to say “truth will out,” even if the faithful suffer for a long time. “I know how the story ends.”
If Mr. Metaxas sounds as ardent as a convert, that’s because he is. He grew up Greek Orthodox but didn’t consider himself a Christian until after graduation from Yale University in 1984 with an English degree. He couldn’t find a job. He aspired to be “a New York literary figure,” he says, like John Updike or John Cheever, but at age 24 moved back in with his parents, working-class immigrants (father, Greek; mother, German) who didn’t have much patience for soul-searching by a son they’d put through the Ivy League.
While he “floundered,” he was influenced by a good friend who was a Christian. Mr. Metaxas’ initial attitude was: “Don’t come too close. That’s all that weird stuff I’ve been trained to avoid. On the other hand, tell me just a little bit more.” The friend gave him “The Cost of Discipleship,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor from a prominent family who stood in solidarity with the Jews in World War II, publicly denouncing the Nazis at his peril. At age 39 Bonhoeffer was murdered by Hitler’s henchmen two weeks before the Americans liberated Flossenbürg.
This story laid the groundwork for Mr. Metaxas’ “dramatic” conversion experience, which he says happened overnight, in a dream. It was “game over.” He said he knew he believed in Christianity and his only question was: “How do I reconcile my life to this?” That continues to be a work in progress.
Mr. Metaxas eventually landed at Rabbit Ears Productions, writing children’s books. In the late 1990s he wrote for the then-popular Christian children’s show “Veggie Tales,” which depicts Bible stories through anthropomorphized vegetables. (I tuned in as a child, and am deflated to discover that he didn’t think up the episode about grapes who learn to forgive.) “In some sense, there is no such thing as writing for children,” he says, echoing C.S. Lewis’s view that if it isn’t worth reading at 50, it isn’t worth putting in front of developing imaginations. “You can’t fool children.”
Mr. Metaxas’ break came in biography, a genre that hadn’t previously interested him. (“I’m far too self-centered to spend that much time focusing on someone besides myself,” he once quipped.) First a publishing house asked him to work up a biography of William Wilberforce to release with the 2006 film “Amazing Grace.” That did well, so people asked: What’s next?
His answer: A book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the figure who had sparked his interest in faith. “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (2011) has sold hundreds of thousands of copies world-wide, translated into 19 languages.
Mr. Metaxas, in our interview, recalls how in 1939 Bonhoeffer was sitting safely in New York at Union Theological Seminary. He elected to return to Germany, what Mr. Metaxas calls “the great decision.” What would animate someone to leave comfort and security for the depraved Nazi Germany, where he would surely be arrested for supporting the Jews?
“One day,” Mr. Metaxas says, “his reading was ‘He who believes does not flee.’ And he really felt God was speaking to him, saying that if he had faith he would not worry about his life, but would return to his family and to his people and face whatever he must face.” In short: sheer obedience.
It’s a startling story, one that is particularly resonant during these pre-Christmas days of Advent as Christians ponder how someone who had no reason to subject himself to suffering returned to a dark place.
Bonhoeffer would later meditate on Advent from a Nazi prison cell—and as one leafs through a collection of his sermons and letters, it becomes apparent how studying Bonhoeffer might have heightened Mr. Metaxas’ capacity for awe: “No priest,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “no theologian stood at the manger of Bethlehem. And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of all wonders: that God became human.”