Eric Metaxas is the New York Times bestselling author of “Bonhoeffer” and “Martin Luther” His most recent book, “Seven More Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness,” looks at the lives of heroes such as George Whitefield, George Washington Carver and Billy Graham. He is the host of “The Eric Metaxas Radio Show,” a nationally syndicated show aired in 120 U.S. cities. Metaxas lives with his wife and daughter in New York.
Some people are either bored by biographies or don’t see them as vital because it’s not their story. What is the danger in a society that forgets heroes of the past?
“There is almost nothing more important to a culture than celebrating its heroes, those people who have sacrificed so that we can have what we have,” Metaxas said. “It gives us a proper sense of gratitude and humility, and of course it inspires us toward similar greatness. There is simply no question of that. You can’t read about a great life and not be moved and inspired by it. And every healthy culture needs heroes. We have been derelict on that score in our culture. Young people especially are deeply hungry for figures whom they can emulate. A society that forgets its heroes inevitably devolves into chaos. So yes, we desperately need to remember our heroes and celebrate them.”
Why do you think examples of great men seem to have become scarcer?
“It’s become something of a trend over the last 50 years to focus on the negative. It was once fashionable to speak of heroes and heroism and nobility and dignity and sacrifice, but the 1960s really dented that narrative very badly. And of course, Vietnam and Watergate confirmed our cynicism, but we have to know in that way lies madness and all kinds of bad things. We need to give our younger generation people they can look up to and don’t need to mention every bad thing that person ever did. Human beings aren’t perfect, but to point out the worm in every apple without being able to appreciate the other apples is a kind of cultural disease. Hollywood has given us anti-heroes and has been a big part of the problem—and social media has made it much worse yet—so we need to do whatever we can to fight against it.”
Sometimes we look at great men and women and feel discouraged rather than inspired because we aren’t doing anything extraordinary. What would you say to people with that perspective?
“God looks at every single person in the same way, and He only expects that we do the best we can with what we are given. For some people, being a hero means being a loving and self-sacrificing father or mother or spouse. And that’s more than enough. We are meant to be inspired to great acts, but those great acts might be in small things. Greatness is not about achieving things the world will goggle at. That can be very self-serving. ‘Look at me and how great I am!’ True greatness is about humility and a desire to bless others. We can all do that, and frankly, we were all created to do that. That’s why we’re on this planet. So these stories are simply meant to inspire us in that direction in our own lives, wherever we are.”
How do you decide what heroes to choose for your book? What character qualities or actions define a hero?
“For me, it’s all about self-sacrifice. And actually that’s how the New Testament defines love: agape love. It’s an action, not a feeling, and it means giving of ourselves to bless others. Heroes have always done that, but how I choose whom to include is impossible to say. It’s very subjective. There are scores of people I could have included, but I only put seven in each book, and at some point you simply have to choose.”
These men weren’t perfect and, like the rest of humanity, had some real flaws. Why does that not disqualify them from being great, and how can that encourage us today?
“The cancel culture in which we live today is a sign of deep cultural sickness. All human beings have flaws. When we focus on those flaws, it says more about us than about them. And when we find the one thing about someone that we don’t like and we think that one thing wipes out all the good that person has done, we are missing the reality of the situation. If we have humility about our own lives, we won’t be so quick to criticize others and denigrate what they have done that is good. And we also need historical perspective. Judging people by our own standards can be a trap because someone in the future will judge us just as harshly.”
One of the heroes in “Seven More Men” is Billy Graham. What made Graham stand out among the evangelical leaders of his time?
“Billy Graham was a phenomenon and preached to more people over the decades of his life than we can imagine. He was charismatic and bold and straightforward, and the number of lives that were changed as a result of his life cannot be measured on this side of eternity.”