WASHINGTON – Eric Metaxas has had a year now to grasp the success and incredible impact that his biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, has had on millions.
But even after a year, the bestselling author is still finding it hard to soak it all in. One thing he's clear minded about, however, is that the acclaims have little to do with him and everything to do with God and the man who lived what he believed.
"Bonhoeffer was an utterly brilliant theologian but he believed in the God about whom he was talking and he believed it because he lived it. And he was forced to live it because he was living at a time when it was harder for somebody as brilliant and as intellectually honest as Bonhoeffer ... to avoid the big questions," Metaxas said Thursday.
Metaxas was in Washington, D.C., to receive the Canterbury Medal, the Becket Fund's highest honor in recognition of courage in defense of religious liberty.
Previous recipients included Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, and Princeton professor Robert P. George.
Congratulatory video messages were sent by Colson and to everyone's surprise, former president George W. Bush.
Humbled by the messages and the award itself, Metaxas responded, "There is no way for me to adequately respond to the encomia with which i have been so recently lauded. This is all too much, so if I seem unequal to it, that's because I'm unequal to it."
Of course, the award likely had to do with the 20th century German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom he based his biography on, the author acknowledged.
He joked, "[One] way that I can deal with this is by knowing that if I had written a biography of Charlie Sheen you wouldn't have picked me."
But joking aside, he said, "If you write a halfway decent [book] about a really really great human being, that kind of changes the equation. Without any question, I stand up here able to take this in because I know I'm really accepting this award ... for Dietrich Bonhoeffer."
Coming out of his first successful biography, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, Metaxas hadn't planned on writing another biography. But he knew he would write about Bonhoeffer – whom he heard first heard about from his Episcopalian friend in 1988 – if he did decide to pursue it. And he did.
"It was extremely difficult to write and I can say bluntly that I've never prayed harder in my life. I was crying out to the living God, asking Him to help me and to guide me because I knew that I was not equal to this if He was not helping me," the Yale graduate admitted.
The 1988 conversion
Metaxas was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church.
"But then I went to Yale," he said, describing the Ivy League university as "an aggressively secular environment."
After entering the university with a very open mind, he left the campus as someone who didn't believe in something as "parochial or corny" as the idea of truth.
"I was sure that to be sophisticated and wise meant that the idea that there could be a God who loved us, that the Bible is the Word of God ... simply couldn't be true."
While pursuing his writing career, he realized he couldn't ignore the hard questions. That is when he met an Episcopalian – "who turned out actually to be a serious Christian," he said to laughter.
After several months, in the summer of 1988, Metaxas summed up his conversion this way: "I went to sleep sure that you couldn't know and I woke up sure that I knew that Jesus is Lord and the Bible is true and all of these things that I hoped might conceivably be true were actually true."
He became convinced that "there is a God who created the universe, who loves every single one of us with an infinite love that would crush us if we could take it all in."
That was when he was introduced to Bonhoeffer – when his Episcopalian friend handed him a copy of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship.
Bonhoeffer – the real deal
At a time when he was looking for authenticity – and not the phony religious life that many people lived – Metaxas was taken aback by this German theologian who stood up for the Jews in Europe and against Hitler during World War II all because of his faith in Jesus Christ.
"To think that there was a man who stood up, who spoke out against what was happening because of his faith in Jesus Christ, this was a revelation to me," Metaxas recalled. "It was sort of the first really positive thing that I heard about Christianity probably in 10 years."
Essentially, this was a man who lived what he preached and what he believed. And in so doing, he was sent to a concentration camp and then executed (by hanging) in 1945 for his involvement in plans to assassinate Hitler.
"When real evil raises its head, a life lived in obedience to the God of the Bible is the only answer. That's what it is to be the church," Metaxas said.
Honoring Bonhoeffer, the author highlighted, "This is a man for whom there is no daylight between what he says he believes and his life. That's the point. It's not about what you say and what you believe. The question is do you really believe it? Are you living it? You can't fool God with good theology."
Bonhoeffer was the real deal, he added. "Let's be honest. That's harder to find than we'd like to admit."
"That's what religious freedom is all about. It's not just about we get to worship the way we want. But what it really means is that I am free to die, I am free to live for others, I am free to give my life away. That's the freedom that God gives us. God gave us His life so that we could do that for others."
"God gives us everything and so He expects us to live differently," he stressed.
As a recipient of a high honor, Metaxas used the opportunity to challenge fellow Christians.
"Are you living what you say you believe?" he posed.
"Bonhoeffer, when he went to the gallows, he wasn't wringing his hands thinking 'darn, if only I would've done this, if only I would've done that.' Bonhoeffer went to the gallows with the peace of God because he knew that he obeyed God."
"God desires that each of us live that kind of life," he said. "That would change the world. Let me recommend that to you."
Metaxas, whose previous works include Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask) and several books for Veggie Tales, is currently in Augusta, Ga., where he is scheduled to speak at Westminster's commencement ceremony and at First Presbyterian Church's adult Sunday School class.