NEW YORK (RNS) Before evangelical leader Chuck Colson fell ill at a conference last year, crumbling at the podium and later dying at the hospital, it was Eric Metaxas who introduced him.

Eric Metaxas took over some of Chuck Colson's roles after Colson's death, including part of BreakPoint, a radio show Metaxas wrote for in the late 90s. Photo courtesy Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas took over some of Chuck Colson’s roles after Colson’s death, including co-host of BreakPoint, a radio show Metaxas wrote for in the late ’90s. Photo courtesy Eric Metaxas


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At the time, Metaxas seemed primed and ready to become the next Colson — a key leader in the evangelical movement, known for his prison ministry, but also credited with keeping Christians engaged in politics and culture through books, radio and other outlets.

Metaxas took over some of Colson’s roles, including co-host of BreakPoint, a radio show Metaxas wrote for in the late ’90s. He took Colson’s place on the board of the Manhattan Declaration, a movement Colson helped found to focus Christians’ attention on life, marriage and religious freedom issues.

And like Colson, Metaxas took to the Christian conference circuit, speaking on the issues that were near and dear to Colson’s interests.

But comparisons to Colson only go so far, Metaxas said.

“I’ll always want to follow in Chuck’s footsteps, but I’m a humorist, I write poetry and children’s books,” said Metaxas, whose most recent book, “Seven Men” came out this spring. “Chuck was a lawyer.”

But like Colson, the Nixon adviser who converted to Christianity after serving time for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Metaxas rose to evangelical fame later in life.

For years, Metaxas struggled financially as a writer living in Manhattan, contributing to VeggieTales, writing children’s books, apologetics books and then biographies.

But then Metaxas’ 2011 600-page biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was executed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, took off, selling more than 600,000 copies.

The book led to an hourlong meeting with former President George W. Bush, who gave him high praise for the book.

“It was the honor of my life,” Metaxas said. A letter from Bush hangs in Metaxas’ Upper East Side apartment where he lives with his wife, 14-year-old daughter, and 4-pound Yorkshire terrier/Maltese named Georgie. In another room, a framed letter from Woody Allen to Metaxas sits propped up on a stack of books. Allen called Metaxas’ humor pieces “quite funny.”

The Bonhoeffer biography led to an invitation to speak at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast. During his speech, he said former President George W. Bush had read “Bonhoeffer.” He then handed a copy to Obama and said, “No pressure.” Obama nearly left the breakfast without the book but went back to his table to grab it.

Eric Metaxas' biography led to an invitation to speak at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast, an event that hosts the President each year. Photo courtesy Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas’ biography led to an invitation to speak at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast, an event that hosts the president each year. Photo courtesy Eric Metaxas


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Metaxas seemed surprised by the prayer breakfast’s effect.

“It somehow did something to how people saw me as a voice in the culture,” he said.

At 5 feet 8 inches, with Harry Potter-like glasses, Metaxas does not fit stereotypes easily. He speaks quickly with energy and quick wit, but he suffers from chronic fatigue, something he manages by running regularly.

Born in Queens to a Greek father and a German mother, Metaxas grew up in Danbury, Conn., and graduated from Yale. He was raised in a Greek Orthodox home and still visits every Easter, singing the Divine Liturgy in the choir with his father.

An interdenominational evangelical, Metaxas has jumped around the church scene in New York. He attended David Wilkerson’s Times Square Church before shifting to Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Since 2001, his family has attended Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church. Metaxas says he attends his church because of the theologically conservative leadership in spite of national leadership, “which has like Wile E. Coyote sped off the cliff with single-mindedness and speed.”

Before “Bonhoeffer,” Metaxas wrote a biography of William Wilberforce, an 18th-century English leader in the movement to abolish the slave trade. He said he had never thought about writing a biography.

“It’s a genre I was looking forward to skipping,” he said.

The summer after he became a Christian at 25 years old (a conversion he wrote about for Christianity Today magazine earlier this year), someone gave him Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship,” considered a Christian classic. Because his mother is German, he decided to explore Bonhoeffer’s story.

“Wilberforce, because of his faith, stood up for African slaves,” Metaxas said. “Bonhoeffer, because of his faith, stood up for Jews. That’s Christianity to me.”

The “Bonhoeffer” biography almost died before publication, though. HarperOne wanted to publish a third of the book and delay publication, so Metaxas gave back the advance, a painful decision as he and his family struggled to continue to live in Manhattan. An editor from Thomas Nelson agreed to publish the book, which slowly picked up steam as endorsements rolled in.

“Six-hundred-page biographies of German theologians aren’t known to fly off the shelves,” Metaxas said. “That Thomas Nelson was willing to publish it as I had written it was almost miraculous, if not actually miraculous.”

He sometimes receives criticism for connecting Bonhoeffer’s Hitler situation to modern-day America. A Christian Century review suggested Metaxas hijacked Bonhoeffer for his own purposes. For instance, Metaxas will compare the Holocaust to abortions in the U.S. His wife, Susanne Metaxas, directs the Midtown Pregnancy Support Center in Manhattan.

“At times, he tends to overdo things,” said John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, an admirer of Metaxas who sees a grain of truth in the critiques. “It would be misleading to say he has simply framed ‘Bonhoeffer’ in a way that plays to current culture war conflict. That’s not true, but that’s part of it. That’s one thing that he’s going to have to wrestle with in the next stage of what he does.”

Metaxas responds to his critics by suggesting they had “bitter animosity toward evangelicals and conservatives.”

So if a comparison to Colson doesn’t work for Metaxas, who does?

William F. Buckley, founder of National Review, Metaxas suggested. Buckley wrote novels, edited a magazine, had a TV show, and played the harpsichord.

“I’ve given myself permission to be broad,” Metaxas said.

Metaxas has captured the attention of some Catholic leaders, including Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.

“Eric disarms people with three qualities: a quick mind, a vivid sense of humor and a genuine zeal about his faith,” Chaput said. “He knows how to move an audience and reach across denominational divides.”

In 2000, Metaxas founded a series called “Socrates in the City” where he interviews leaders, mostly Christians, on the culture. Tickets originally started at $12 but have gone up to $35. The most recent gathering was a gala on Metaxas’ 50th birthday. Tickets ran from $250 per individual to $10,000 for a table of 10 at the Union League Club, a private social club in Manhattan. Metaxas knows how to keep an audience’s interest, weaving cultural and political references together, his friends say.

“He has this amazing ability to get you laughing and then on the turn of a dime say something devastatingly important and serious and insightful from a theological perspective,” said Greg Thornbury, the new president of The King’s College in Manhattan.

For now, Metaxas begins work on “Seven Women,” a book that will have short biographies of seven Christian women. In addition, he’s developing a mainstream TV talk show but said negotiations are still underway.

“I tease him that he has multiple personalities,” said Wilson. “I told him his bad doppelganger had taken over his Twitter feed when he tweeted positive things about Rick Santorum. He’s not this one-sided predictable figure. The same is true of evangelicals as a whole.”

14 Comments

  1. Good journalism should be absolutely clear. When you say “credited with keeping Christians engaged in politics and culture through books, radio and other outlets,” what you mean is, “credited with keeping . . . politically conservative, evangelical Christians . . . engaged in politics and culture. . . ” Metaxas does not speak to or for all segments of Christian America. This is clear in the rest of the article, but one can no more make a blanket statement about “Christians” than about any other large demographic.

    • Tracy, following your own line of reasoning, you cannot force the statement to mean that he only relates, or speaks to, “conservative, evangelicals.” It is quite clear from the rest of the piece that Metaxas is not bound to certain sects of Christians (as you mentioned). And to suggest that only Americans are impacted by him was equally as limiting. Ms. Bailey was correct in her broad use of “Christians” because it reflects the “interdenominational” quality of Metaxas’ work that is trying to be communicated. Of course it cannot be implied that one man is able to connect to, or represent, ALL “segments” of the Christian faith…We’re still waiting on the polling results to clear this up…

    • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      Article author

      Hi Adam, thanks for your note. Perhaps it’s a bad habit from reporters like me to try to see comparisons and parallels. I tend to think it helps people put others in perspective. I think we find that in history: xx leader paved the way for xx leader. I don’t know if Metaxas would be where he is without Chuck’s (and others’) help. For those who aren’t Christian, I hoped to help explain how Metaxas got to where he is, and I think Chuck was key. Thanks for reading and engaging.

      • In addition, it had been widely rumoured that Metaxas would take over Colson’s ministries, i.e, become the “next Chuck Colson.” Ms. Bailey would have been remiss if she did not address those rumours.

  2. Philip Daniels

    What the article fails to mention is just who published the Christian Century article. While I understand that Christian Century can be a little daft usually and that they have their own ax to grind, the criticism of Metaxas’ biography was pretty sound. In addition, it is most important to note that it was written by Clifford Green. He is considered one of (if not the) top Bonhoeffer expert in the English language. He is the editor of the multi-volume Fortress Press editions. Obviously the Liberals are not happy with Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer, and Green’s assessment is spot on. But conservatives too have trouble with Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer as Richard Weikart demonstrates by listing the areas of divergence between Bonhoeffer and “American Evangelicals” (read: fundamentalist Evangelicals). But Bonhoeffer is more complex than any cardboard cut-out Bonhoeffer; just as American Evangelicals are more complex than they are often painted.

    As a Lutheran myself, I began to read Bonhoeffer in high school. Ethics changed my life. It helped me understand “the fall” and wrestle with the great sin in my life: pride. Bonhoeffer was a mentor to me and perhaps I feel kind of like the hipster who sees a beloved underground band suddenly catapulted to fame. The more I read Bonhoeffer the more orthodox he sounds and the more there seems to be a desire to make him less orthodox and more American (be it right or left). Can we just allow a Christian to be a Christian? That is my problem with Metaxes, he writes well and edits poorly. I would recommend learning from Bonhoeffer and not people trying to sell him as “one of us.”

  3. Metaxis “was raised in a Greek Orthodox home” yet “became a Christian at 25 years old.” Are we to presume either that he was faking it as an Orthodox Christian, or that the Orthodox are not Christians? This disconnect reminds me of an Evangelical in a Spanish class, who was preparing for a stint as a missionary to Spain. When I pointed out that 90-odd percent of Spaniards are Catholic, she said, “Oh, they’re not Christians.”

    • Jake, I don’t believe we are to assume that he was “faking” it in the Greek Orthodox church, although I have read other interviews with Metaxas where he touches more completely on his attitude of non-devotion and complacency while attending as a child and young adult. He also had a period while at Yale where he essentially fell away from any sort of belief in God and basically became agnostic, so there is room for at least a re-dedication experience there. However, I think the main point is the difference between the Orthodox beliefs and the Evangelical stance. Whereas evangelicals believe that scripture alone can stand upon its own authority and can be interpreted by the individual, the Orthodox church trusts in the combo of the scriptures as defined by the first seven ecumenical councils and the concept of Holy Traditions. In addition there is the orthodox practice of the Eucharist, and etc. Orthodoxy rejects predestination, immaculate conception, and differ on other doctrinal issues like the idea of gradual salvation. Now if I’m wrong on any of these details feel free to correct me, but the point is not whether or not Greek Orthodox Christians are “saved”, or classified as Christians, the point is that there is a vast difference of doctrine between the two groups. As a result of Metaxas’ luke-warm, at best, belief in the Greek Orthodox faith as a child (such belief being noted as worse than unbelief in Revelation 3), he sites his conversion experience as occurring later in life, at which time he “converted”, or decided to align himself based upon scriptural examination, with the Evangelical Christian doctrine. There is no disconnect here, just as you would not claim a disconnect if a Shia Muslim became a Sunni Muslim. The question is not whether or not they were previously followed a brand of “Islam.” The question is that of doctrinal correctness. In this case doctrinal correctness regarding salvation.

    • My impression–no I haven’t studied this–of the Orthodox is that they’re predominantly legalistic in their faith, rather than trusting solely in Jesus Christ for salvation. I’m certainly willing to be proved wrong, though.

      That said, Metaxas could have been raised in a thoroughly biblical home yet without embracing Christ for himself before he hit age 25. No inconsistency there; quite common, in fact.

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