Sunday, February 05, 2012

Eric Metaxas at the National Prayer Breakfast, 2012

I just listened to Eric Metaxas's speach at the Washington Prayer Breakfast. Metataxas is the author of a best-selling biography of Bonhoeffer. I am thankful for the truth that he presented, particularly his testimony, his comments about Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer (although he gets Bonhoeffer's theology wrong in his big book on Bonhoeffer), and his pro-life comments. However, rhetorically and logically, the talk was weak.

First, there was far too much humor at the beginning, which made it difficult to make a transition to the more serious material. Some of the jokes worked; some did not. No matter, there were too many of them.

Second, in his "testimony," Metaxas never explained the gospel of Christ's atoning work for us. He emphasized his subjective experience of the living God, but not what God had in fact done for us in and through Jesus Christ. That is no small omission.

Third, Metaxas used the cliche distinction between religion and knowing the living God. Christianity is a religion: the one true religion, which is both a world-view and a life-transforming reality. A few times, Metaxas spoke of "dead religion," which is fine and biblical. At other times he contrasted "religion" with what he experienced and what Jesus taught. That is not correct.

Fourth, Metaxas said that is take a special revelation from God to see that the unborn are persons worthy of respect. He was a bit vague on this, but he seemed to make this something one could not reason about with a non-Christian. This is false. There are perfectly good philosophical arguments against abortion that rely on no uniquely Christian premises. I have used them myself in many settings, and often to good effect. However, God is the giver of every good gift, so we can say that all moral knowledge (justified, true belief) is a gift of God. I'm not quite sure what Metaxas meant.

I salute Mr. Metaxas for speaking in the public square. However, we need to do far better rhetorically and logically.


Mr. Guthrie said...

I agree with you on #4; I wasn't saved till I was 22, but I was pr-life since I was a kid.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Thanks to a reader for pointing out my original misspelling of Metataxas.

The Atheist Missionary said...

I've met Metaxas at Socrates in the City - he hosted a debate (actually more of a discussion) between Peter Singer and Dinesh D'Souza which was quote interesting.

Metaxas is shrewd self-promoter. This post compelled me to share two links:

Metaxas' conversion story:

April 30, 2010 debate between David Boonin and Peter Kreeft on the issue of abortion:

Best regards, TAM.

Dad said...

In defense of Metaxas

Your critiques all seem to ignore the extreme hurdles he had to overcome in this address, especially in establishing good ethos and pathos with the audiences involved. If his logic had been thorough and impeccable it would have never been heard if he were unable to establish credibility and a connection with his audience. Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do in a room full of politicians would be to have people believe you are being sincere and authentic especially when it comes to something like a "National Prayer Breakfast" where people who normally work to come across as secular do their best for a few hours to appear devout. There is an enormous gap between the worldviews represented in that room.

Regarding his humor - I would say that his attempt was not necessarily to simply be funny, but more importantly to be real. Everyone can connect around humor. Even the jokes that didn't "go over" showed that Metaxas wasn't concerned primarily with making a good impression but with being honest. To make those jokes in that setting about those things showed that he wasn't a puppet of one group or another pushing an agenda, but simply an imperfect human who has had an experience with the perfect God. In a public speaking textbook kind of way, there were to many jokes. But if he had given a textbook kind of speech, who would have heard it?

To your second point, I don't see why his "testimony" (why quotes?) needs to fit a prescribed formula including an insider's theological framework. Phrases like "Christ's atoning work" have meaning for Biblically literate Christians and for other groups (LDS for one). To those outside the club it has little meaning. What people universally understand is life change. His conclusion that life change that leads to social change and world change only comes through Jesus was served by her personal story of life change. There is more to the Gospel than the Atonement.

While cliches are anathema to professors and journalists, they serve the rest of the population quite well. In fact they are the original form of "going viral." Ideas don't become cliche if they don't have some ring of truth to them. Your point that religion should not be differentiated from the worship of Christ is well taken at a technical, linguistic level. However, I think those to whom the speech was addressed got the point. The conventional idea of religion is exactly what Jesus came to challenge.

To your final point, I think Metaxas should be given some room for nuance here. He wasn't trying to tell believers that non-believers are incapable of seeing good and should therefore be objects of pity never to be challenged. He was, as I understood it, simply suggesting that our faith should inform our methods of challenge. His writings and life show that he is very much willing to challenge non-belivers and reason with them over moral issues. I felt he was trying to paint a picture of what beneficial public dialogue might look like for a follower of Christ.