Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness
Thomas Nelson, 2013
240 pp., 24.86
Interview by John Wilson
7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness
Editor's note: Eric Metaxas and I first met almost 20 years ago, and we've been friends ever since. This conversation was conducted via email. When I got in touch with Eric to suggest that we talk about his new book, he was in Germany. By the time the conversation actually started, he was 30,000 feet in the air, en route to Texas. ("I'm on the plane to Austin now …," he emailed me. "I'll land in ten minutes and have dinner with a new friend and then go to bed and tomorrow I'm speaking at the National Conference of Holocaust Organizations about Bonhoeffer. Then I fly to Dallas so that the next morning I can fly to Ottawa where I'm speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast of Canada. No kidding. Happy to continue this as I am able.") And he did continue. By the time our conversation concluded, he'd been to Redding, in Northern California, then to San Francisco, and was about to fly home to New York. If some of his answers seem a bit incoherent, please consider the circumstances and cut him some slack.
Why a book called 7 Men? Sounds like The Seven Samurai. Are you working the shtick perfected by John Eldredge, Mark Driscoll, et al.? Why not 3 Men & 3 Women?
First of all, how about a hello? A smile don't cost nothing, friend. Anyways. Well, the reason the title of my book is 7 Men is that it is actually about seven men. Perhaps that strikes you as overly literal, but I can be that way sometimes. For example, when Jesus said "I am the door," I believe he meant that literally. But that's another story. Also, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not a Kurosawa fan and barely got the Seven Samurai reference. I much prefer Hal Roach as a director. Or Jerry Lewis. As for the shtick I'm working to perfect, it is my own shtick entirely. In fact, I suspect Eldredge and Driscoll et al. are drafting off of my shtick, to use a bicycling term. Not "shtick," but "drafting off of." I believe "shtick" comes to us from the world of taxidermy. Finally, three and three make six, not seven. I'm flabbergasted that you didn't know that. I strongly suggest an abacus before we go any further.
The Rifleman, yes. Doesn't the intro to every episode feature him cranking shots from his custom-made rifle, sort of like a 19th-c. version of an assault weapon? This is what we need today "to communicate what it means to be a real man, a good man, a heroic and brave man"?
Dude, you're harsh! By the way, I think you have to clue the folks who are reading this into the idea that I mention The Rifleman in my introductory chapter. I don't wanna tell you how to do your job or nothing … but yes, of course, The Rifleman opened with Chuck Connors blasting away. It was awesome! It was a show mainly geared toward boys, of course, and the reason I mention it in my intro is it always showed that a man should use his strength nobly, to protect the weak, and should to stand up to bullies—not you specifically!—and that there was evil in the world and that real men stood against it with courage. Every episode seemed to have a theme along those lines. There was real nobility and heroism in it, much as you and your over-educated hash-smokin' friends might like to sneer at it! I take that back; you're not over-educated. I'm sorry. I've had too much coffee.
You know, my brother has worked for decades with what they call "at-risk" kids. And a lot of those kids have been at risk because their fathers are absent (sometimes in prison), or dead, or failing to live up to the minimum daily requirements of fatherhood. Let's bracket out the question of whether watching The Riflemen would help them to do better, and take a look at the seven men you highlight, starting with George Washington. What might a man in 2013—an ordinary man, insofar as any human being is "ordinary"—learn from Washington's example?
The main reason for putting Washington in the book—and really it's at the heart of why I put all of these men in the book—is that at one or more points in his life he made an extraordinary sacrifice. I'm thinking most specifically of when in 1783 he turned down an offer of virtually unlimited power. It's staggering that he did that, but true.
The officers around him were all angry that Congress wasn't paying them. They'd sacrificed enormously over the years of the war and now weren't even being paid and might never be paid. As far as they were concerned, their leader, Washington should simply lead a military coup and take charge of the fledgling country. He'd practically created it with his bare hands and he deserved it. And he would be a noble leader, not a tyrant. He could style himself King George of America and everyone would be happy. They certainly had the ability to pull off a coup at that time. They had the sheer military strength, and most Americans would probably have applauded them. And we have to keep in mind that the globe was covered with monarchs. The thought of a democratically elected president didn't even exist. But with all of this, Washington flatly refused the offer. In fact, he was deeply offended at it, saying that the principles for which he had fought the war must not be compromised. The nobility of what he did at this juncture is truly historic and stunning. It deserves our notice and our celebration and undying gratitude. But most school kids today hear nothing of this. Of course they should know about this, that a man who had great power voluntarily gave it up and that despite tremendous temptation, he did the right thing.
That's the case with almost all of the men in this book, and it's vital that we let young men especially know that these men existed and did these things. It works against the cynical idea that all leaders are venal and self-serving; instead it can inspire others to do the right thing when the chips are down. I think the denigration of the heroic is a large part of why young men, especially, are confused about life and not sure what they were created for. They were created for greatness and for things like what Washington and these other great men did, but they need to know about these great men and what they did.
Sorry to go on, but that's the main thing I think instructive about Washington and why he's in the book. Now can we talk about The Rifleman some more? And if ye kin spare the time, I'm hankerin' to chew the fat with ye over Gunsmoke and Johnny Yuma and some of them other shows what featured plenty o' gunplay and brawlin' and didn't have a lotta bookish types in 'em neither! Why, in them shows, th' only feller who wuz called "Perfesser" was the fella what played piano in the cathouse! Or is a-mentionin' that too rough for yer gentrified readers?
Help me apply Washington's example to choices that are made by men who will never be in the position Washington was. Because the point—right?—is not to emphasize how great Washington was (even as we honor him) but rather to say you can act as Washington did, in the circumstances of your own life.
First let me say that a number of the men in 7 Men made similar sacrifices and "did the right thing" when everything was pushing against that. Jackie Robinson gave up the right to fight back against what were the most despicable insults, and sometimes actual physical attacks. But he did this because as a Christian he believed in Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek," and also because he knew that the success of integrating baseball depended on his being completely above the fray. Chuck Colson gave up a plea bargain that would have kept him from going to jail, because he was unwilling to lie and say he'd done something he hadn't done. And he went to jail. Eric Liddell gave up a guaranteed gold medal in the Olympics because it would have required him to run on a Sunday, something that he simply couldn't do, since his Scottish Presbyterian tradition said that he couldn't. In each of these cases the temptation is different and the circumstances are different, but you see strength and courage and nobility. Everyone has moments in his life when he will be tempted to cut a corner or to do something he really shouldn't. These stories are meant to show us that there are men who did the right thing, and that's an encouragement to us in our own lives, whatever the circumstances.
Yes. And there's a nice twist in the chapter on Eric Liddell, about running on Sunday, which doesn't at all undermine his uncompromising stand in that famous instance but which shows another quality worthy of emulation.
You must mean where he says "Dude, rules are made to be broken!" Sorry, I couldn't resist. But seriously, folks, that moment to which you are referring is so touching. I don't want to spoil it for the reader, but you do see his heart in that. He was obviously not some overserious legalist. He was a truly wonderful man. I've actually met someone who knew him, who was at that time a boy in the Chinese prison camp when Eric Liddell was during World War II. The kids loved him, and of course I talk about that in my chapter about him as well.
Yes, and your account of Liddell's time in the prison camp is very moving. In fact, there are powerful stories in every chapter. But I wonder: Why do we hear almost nothing about the flaws of these men?
Because most of them were so genuinely wonderful that it would be a disservice and a distortion of the truth, especially in a short chapter. If someone asked me about you and even though I think tremendously well of you I felt the need to think of one negative thing to say, just to be "fair," that would in fact be deeply unfair and wrong. For example, shall I tell everyone who asks me about you that you stole from those dear elderly people you were visiting? Besides, you needed that jewelry, didn't you? Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, it's nobody's business.
Okay, but seriously, let me wonder right back atcha: Why is our generation obsessed with the flaws of famous men? At some point in the last 40 or 50 years we've swung from never revealing the flaws of famous men to focusing exclusively on those flaws. I talk about this at length in the introductory chapter of the book. It's become genuinely pathological. We've gone from hiding the glaring flaws of seriously troubled men like JFK—who everyone feared might be "too Catholic," but who in reality regularly brought prostitutes into the White House, which is not all that Catholic, now that we think about it, eh?—to tearing down genuinely great men, like George Washington, who did so much for this nation that we are all profoundly in his debt, but who now must always be gravely scolded for having owned slaves at a time when not one single Virginia landowner did not own slaves. Of course there was a time when we may have overpraised even the great George Washington, but for the love of Mike, let's not all leap from being Parson Weems to being Bill Maher or Chelsea Handler. Can't we strike a balance?
We've got to regain our common sense and be able to tell the difference between heroes and villains—and yes, those categories still exist—without endlessly feeling the hand-wringing obligation to say that some hero wasn't perfect. Of course every one of the men in 7 Men is a sinner and flawed, but since none of them is Jesus, shouldn't that go without saying? We owe it to ourselves—and to young people especially—to be able to make the distinction between Joseph Stalin and Christopher Columbus. And we have got to snap out of the adolescent habit of saying that unless we report on the one bad thing someone did, we're not telling the "whole" story. Our constantly tearing down leaders and over-focusing on their flaws has had a tremendously baleful effect on the culture at large. It's made us all cynical and world-weary. There really are times when it's okay to be innocent and hopeful, but like some eye-rolling Goth 15-year-old, we've decided that that's just like so naïve. To which I must needs reply: whatever.
It's fascinating how differently we see this question. "Can't we strike a balance?" But what you mean by "balance" is hagiography. I think we have WAY too much of that already (especially in Christian circles), just as we have too much sneering cynicism.
I believe your perspective is atypical, to put it mildly. In your position in the CT universe, you've for decades been wading at the base of the thundering CBA waterfall, being pummeled by their often saccharine offerings. So I suspect you are inclined to think most Americans see the banal hagiographies to which you refer more than they actually do. And as an antidote to what you've experienced, you've also spent a lot of time reading especially exquisite books and watching art-house movies. So what you have missed—and good that you have—is the mainstream culture in which most Americans (who aren't editors of Books & Culture, and that is probably the majority of us) exist. Yes, there is lots of sneering cynicism, but I would say that more than that, there is a simple absence of books that focus on the good and redemptive. Mainstream culture was once awash in hagiography, which is not good, but now it's utterly devoid of anything leaning in that direction.
There is a place for positive and redemptive stories. They're important, or do you think Plutarch's Lives merely hagiographic? Bonhoeffer in his last days was reading Plutarch's Lives, and we know he had superb taste in literature. He was very fond of Adalbert Stifter and of Georges Bernanos, for example. But yes, young men especially need to know that there is such a thing as greatness, to know that there are real heroes, that there are men who did the noble and right thing when others didn't. We need to go back and tell the good stories again. The seven men in my book led lives that—on balance—were remarkably good and true and beautiful and I'm thrilled to be able to share them.
Hmm. I thought we were talking about biography. Instead you give me something like a free therapy session. Turns out I'm a pointy-headed intellectual—a nice guy, to be sure, but a bit out of touch. Ah, well. You do get back to the subject eventually. "There is a place for positive and redemptive stories." I agree, as I have already made clear, but the impact of such stories isn't negated by acknowledging, in the telling, that our heroes are flawed, imperfect, as all human beings are. On the contrary: this makes their stories more compelling. Or so I think.
But thanks for making the time for this conversation. It's always good to talk with you, even via email in bits and pieces. To wrap it up, when you were all done with 7 Men, what surprised you most about the lives in which you had been immersed while writing the book?
A free therapy session? Er, that wasn't my intention. I was hoping you'd write me a check. And I didn't mean "pointy-headed" literally. Or did I just think that word and you somehow intuited it?
But really, all I'm trying to say is that you are blessed not to hang out in the toxic world of mainstream American culture. It was meant as a compliment. But yes, like the movie expert/reviewer who has seen so many movies and who goes to ten movies a week, he comes at movies from another angle than the average moviegoer. Is it so odd to suggest that that changes one's perspective?
So your sense that there's too much hagiography out there simply seems wrong to me. And of course I absolutely do mention the flaws of some of the men in my book. I talk about Washington's slaveholding and his involvement in the murder of a group of French soldiers early in his military career. I talk about Jackie Robinson's struggles with his temper, and I talk about Chuck Colson's flaws in tremendous detail. Did you miss the part where he blows his marriage and participates in the Watergate scandal and then goes to jail? So I confess I'm just not sure what you're looking for, nor that you should be looking for it.
As for what surprised me, I'm not sure that anything especially surprised me. I knew the gist of these stories before I really got into writing this book and so I didn't find anything I hadn't really seen before. Except for the fact that John Paul II was a jogger. That's not a joke, as you will know from my chapter on him. It happened. But the idea of a pope jogging just kills me! Of course it was the '70s, and everyone was jogging. Still, I can't help thinking of him wearing long tube socks, Nike Waffle Trainers, red-white-and-blue wristbands with a matching headband, and a Starsky & Hutch tee-shirt as he sprints past surprised tourists near the Spanish Steps. Not that that actually happened. But it might have. Who would know? Huggy Bear, that's who.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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