Review: Seven Men by Eric Metaxas
by Sean Johnson
In saying, “everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher,” the Lord gave us not merely a fundamental truth about the end education and discipleship, but about the means. As the surrounding context in Luke 6 confirms, the process has a great deal to do with exemplification: anyone following you is going to end up wherever you end up—if you’re blind, that will be a ditch—and your poor vision will perpetuate theirs. In the schoolhouse we are recovering this wisdom (acknowledging that the best teachers do not just dictate accurate information, but model a lifestyle of wisdom and faithfulness); in the broader sphere of life, however, we never lost our innate understanding of it. It has been codified in the concept of the “role model.” Many life lessons are best learned through images and the most vivid images are often human lives themselves. Therein lies one of the greatest values of biography: moral and spiritual formation via exemplification and imitation. And therein lies the greatest value of Eric Metaxas’, Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness.
Metaxas consciously places his Seven Men in the tradition of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans or Foxe’s Book of Martyrs—biographical works intended chiefly to hold up the conduct and character of certain men as examples for readers to emulate (or avoid). He has sketched the lives of seven famed Christian men in order to commend their exemplary behavior to all readers, but especially to young men, who “especially need role models. If we can’t point to anyone in history or in our culture whom they should emulate, then they will emulate whomever.” With that in mind, he has selected seven figures who share the distinction of “Christian manliness,” and recounting their amazing lives in elegant and natural prose.
The lives Metaxas has chosen are remarkable and the men who lived them deserve to be talked about and lifted up as examples of Godly obedience: William Wilberforce and his lifelong crusade to end slavery, George Washington’s refusal to become a tyrant after the war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s outspoken opposition to religious apathy in Nazi Germany, Eric Liddell’s refusal to run his best Olympic event on the Sabbath and his death as a humble missionary to China, Jackie Robinson’s victorious example of Christic submission in the face of slander and violence, John Paul II’s vigor and vocal opposition to the 20th century forces of racism, fascism, and socialism, and Chuck Colson’s shocking surrender to Jesus as he gave up political influence, willingly went to prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, and gave the rest of his life ministering Christ to prisoners. Metaxas laments that hypercriticism has sometimes prevented us from coming into our cultural inheritance as heirs of these great men and their influence. It shouldn’t be ignored that Washington was a lifelong slave owner, for example, or that Bonhoeffer was essentially executed for his role in a conspiracy to commit murder, but in too many cases “We’ve gone from the extreme of being naïve to the other extreme of being critical. Though Metaxas himself usually errors in the direction of the former extreme, he does an excellent job recovering and displaying what was and is most admirable and imitable in these men.
These are not substantive or scholarly biographies so much as they are vignettes, and that seems only partially to do with the length. Metaxas’ longer books on Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, successful as they’ve been, suffer from the same flaws as these seven sketches. He excels, to his credit, at telling men’s life stories in a vivid, engaging way that makes his biographies worthy reads. However, he (formerly a writer for Veggie Tales) has an occasional tendency to over-Evangelicize non-Evangelical figures (like Bonhoeffer, Liddell) and his general vision of history is often myopic. He contends, for example, that the modern contempt/distrust of authority is a direct result of the Watergate scandal. While his instinct to find a connection between the two is correct, he seems to severely over-exaggerate the causal significance of the scandal and fail to apprehend more significant forces at work in earlier decades, even centuries. In another place he claims that until Wilberforce and his friends began their work to change English culture, the “ideas of helping the poor and those less fortunate were essentially unknown” and as a result of Wilberforce’s effort, “those changes have ben with the West ever since.” Again, Metaxas correctly identifies an important historical moment, but wildly overemphasizes its centrality. Not to mention the fact that “helping the poor and less fortunate” is a chief tenant of the gospel, and most certainly known to the West apart from Wilberforce’s work, as important and praiseworthy as it was.
I approached the book with mixed feelings because of what I considered critical shortcomings in his longer works, but the narrowed scope of these biographical vignettes dealt nicely with those problems and suited his project wonderfully. Overall, the aims of the book are all commendable and all successfully achieved. The sketches are well-formed, vibrant, and winning. Seven Men is not critically sophisticated, but it is very approachable and will be an interesting, informative, and fruitful read for anyone, making an especially great gift or recommendation for young people—because, when we are fully trained, we should happily aspire to be like these seven men.
Sean Johnson is a graduate student of Literature at the University of Dallas, hopeful father, and the happy husband of a woman who faithfully keeps his eyes speck-free. A condensed version of this review also appeared here.