I’d seen him once before. A December night on C-SPAN – and, likely, a rebroadcast. He spoke in what looked like a community center or senior high classroom to a smallish group of older, dispassionate adults. His topic was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Having recently written a biography on the German theologian and conspirator against Adolf Hitler, this puckish, engaging author was on a book tour. What stopped me in my tracks to watch him, however, was not simply his mastery of his subject, but rather his keen wit, his natural charm, and his willingness to passionately evangelize a story to an audience whether 15 or 5000 in size. I had seen him this one time. But it wasn’t until last Friday night that I truly met Eric Metaxas.
Mr. Metaxas was a guest speaker at the seamlessly organized “Faith & Life Lecture Series”, a program of talks devoted to exploring faith in the public sphere. Pastor Tim Westermeyer (full disclosure – a very close friend) has spearheaded and shepherded this decade-long series to re-infuse faith into the “public square” in a thoughtful and challenging way. Mr. Metaxas was the final speaker for this year’s series.
I was honored to be invited (with my wife) to meet Mr. Metaxas in advance of his lecture. I am in the process of reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and have found it captivating. We exchanged pleasantries, he inscribed our book and a second for my father. He kindly entertained questions and comments with charm and warmth. He was far from a New York Times best-selling author who may typically be bothered by a fan’s “too-long” anecdote or the 50th rendition of the same question. Mr. Metaxas was simply warm, witty, and eager even after a tiring day.
But it was the Eric Metaxas who spoke moments later that I and hundreds of others found riveting. In a large sanctuary at St. Philip the Deacon Church with standing room only, this slim, bespectacled man with a boyish shock of salt-and-pepper hair hypnotized his audience. With self-deprecating charm and razor-sharp wit, Mr. Metaxas walked us through his Greek-German (which, he would quip, meant effectively Greek) New York upbringing, his underfed agnosticism rendered into atheism by a mean Ivy League secularism, and his vocational wanderings landing him, inauspiciously, in his parents’ home and a Union Carbide proof-reading room. It was the story, humorously told, that we all can relate to (or as Metaxas might correct us, “a story with which we all can relate”). Success and failure, direction and vacillation, hope and apathy on the road through life. But it would be an evangelizing Episcopalian co-worker and a dream about a Golden Fish that would change Mr. Metaxas’ life. I would not do justice to his story of conversion from atheism to Christianity, so would heartily encourage a visit to http://www.ericmetaxas.com to hear it in his own words. It is his conversion that informed his decision to write about such faithful figures as William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The story is best reserved for Mr. Metaxas to tell, but he would likely relate that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was one called, devoted, and compelled to walking the walk of his Christian faith. Whether it was his parents’ haunting childhood call to accountability, his frustration with a disingenuous intellectual Christianity among theological peers, or a taste of visceral faith among believers at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, it seems that Bonhoeffer’s life responded to a Voice. While at times obscured by distraction and at other times painfully clear, the Voice faithfully guided Bonhoeffer. And perhaps it was in his courageous, precarious resistance to Hitler’s regime that the Voice whispered most sweetly and mournfully as Bonhoeffer gave his last full measure of devotion in the gallows of Flossenburg concentration camp.
Mr. Metaxas masterfully weaved this story to an entranced audience. Eloquently blending humor and high drama, he returned again and again to a recurring theme that haunted not only Bonhoeffer’s life, but haunts ours as well: We all must walk the walk. In conflicts great or small, public or private we must listen to the call and follow it. This gets to the heart of the vocational direction our lives must lead. The cost of discipleship is just that: costly. To engage in discipleship in the modern era is truly counter-cultural. But as Eric Metaxas would emphasize, it is as relevant and imperative today as it was 70 or even 2000 years ago. And while it may not be popular and it may not be easy, it is surely right. And worth it. Just ask Eric Metaxas. Just ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’m sure they would agree.