Eric Metaxas’ book, 7 Men And The Secret Of Their Greatness, is an educational read, and it is designed to be that way. As the title suggests, it is an examination of seven different men, with specific emphasis upon their unique contribution to the world because of their faith in Christ. The seven men highlighted are George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Charles Colson. In addition to chapters on each of these, there is an interesting introduction in which Metaxas argues that the idea of manhood is really in his sights. He writes that he wants the book to not talk about manhood, but instead be one that, “shows it in the actual lives of great men” (Introduction, xiv). The book comes in at 211 pages, including a healthy notes section and topic index.
On a personal note, I am incredibly jealous of the photograph on the book jacket. I included it here, from his Amazon page. I someday aspire to have such a manly, regal, well-put-together author photo. Maybe. Someday.
The most significant strength of this book is the actual history of the individuals. Particularly strong are the chapters on Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Eric Liddell. Even though I’d read about these people before, Metaxas displays the faith these men had, and how it impacted their decisions, better than anything else I’ve seen.
Another strength of the book is its readability. Metaxas has written biographies of both Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer (for a review of that book, click here), but both of those are major efforts. These chapters, however, are crisp, to the point, yet they miss none of the essence. Indeed, it felt to me that the book was written with middle schoolers in mind. That is how easy it is to read.
There are weaknesses, though. I did not like the chapter on George Washington. Metaxas overplays his hand here in what I think was an attempt to appeal to patriotic book buyers. A second weakness was the last chapter. Metaxas, to his credit, freely admits his close connection to Charles Colson, but this connection colors his view. I am not saying the chapter is bad. The weakness is not in the writing or in the power of Colson’s testimony. The weakness is that Colson’s life does not measure up to the other men in this book. A third weakness is that he doesn’t give us valuable insight into what might be these men’s weakness. Jackie Robinson had a temper and Eric Liddell might have had a messiah complex, but Metaxas washes any analysis of these weaknesses out of his hero stories. The truth is, manhood (and womanhood, for what its worth) is really more about overcoming our weaknesses, and facing them straight on. His book would have been better if he’d included more of this.
Those who would enjoy this book the most are people who love history and biographies. I can see where it would be a great book for students, particularly students in a Christian learning environment, or maybe a Christmas present for a boy who loves to read.
5 responses to “A BOOK REVIEW OF ERIC METAXAS’ 7 MEN”
Well, we agree to an extent about this book. I found it a bit shallow and I agree that his chapter on GW was a bit of pandering to the patriotic. I was disappointed in this book. But he set my expectations pretty high when he wrote his book on Bonhoeffer. That book was excellent.
Good review of a so, so book.
agreed–bonhoeffer was an exceptional book. this particular effort by metaxas feels shoehorned and not as organic. i still think it is good, and is better than most compiled biographies, but it is less than his earlier efforts.
I was very disappointed (and angry, really) that Metaxas’ book on Bonhoeffer totally ignored a lot of information from his writings that did not conform with the image of Bonhoeffer he wanted to create. Here are a few examples:
When he was an assistant pastor in Barcelona in 1928, Bonhoeffer told his congregation unequivocally that the Bible is filled with material that is historically unreliable. Even the life of Jesus is “overgrown with legends” and myth so that we have scant knowledge about the historical Jesus.
Despite the heavy emphasis on calling people to radical discipleship, Bonhoeffer never showed any interest whatsoever in “converting sinners.” He did not believe that the salvation of souls was a central theme of Scripture, declaring in a 1935 sermon, “We must finally break away from the idea that the gospel deals with the salvation of an individual’s soul.”2
In Letters and Papers from Prison he reinforced this, stating that he did not think Sheol, Hades, or Christian redemption were metaphysical realities that exist somewhere in the past or will exist in the future. Rather, they are pictures of that which exists in the here and now.26 During his time in prison, Bonhoeffer complained that the New Testament was too overgrown with “redemption myths.”
in his Christology lectures in 1933 Bonhoeffer claimed, “The biblical witness is uncertain with regard to the virgin birth.” Bonhoeffer also rejected the notion of the verbal inspiration of scripture, and in a footnote to Cost of Discipleship he warned against viewing statements about Christ’s resurrection as ontological statements (i.e., statements about something that happened in real space and time).
Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who continued to believe in the validity of higher biblical criticism, who praised Rudolf Bultmann when he called for demythologizing the New Testament, and who in his prison writings called for us to live “as if there were no God.” In 1944, toward the end of his life, Bonhoeffer admitted that he was a theologian who “still carries within himself the heritage of liberal theology.”
I will confess that, largely due to two factors, I cannot easily get behind a recommendation of a historical work by Mr. Metaxas. One of these reasons you may have at least a little sympathy for (although I suspect, given your praise of his Bonhoeffer, you’ll disagree). The other you may find more problematical.
The problematical one is one that makes me suspicious of Mr. Metaxas overall. He is the son of a Greek father, and he grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church. But he converted to Protestantism. I have joked once or twice on the Twitter that he does not pronounce his own name correctly (he puts the accent on the wrong syllable). After having just read your post on Thanksgiving, I cannot help but connect it to this, as Mr. Metaxas is an odd example of heritage gone wrong or just plum abandoned. I do not expect Protestants to become Orthodox. In fact, I think in many cases (perhaps even most) it is best that they remain in the heritage that they grew up in. You, for instance, belong quite well, as far as I am able to gather from our friendship online, to the Baptist tradition. I cannot imagine you becoming Orthodox, and, although I do of course believe that the Orthodox Church is the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, I do not think that you have any need of conversion to Orthodoxy. I think I prefer you as a Baptist. Conversion in the other direction, however, troubles me deeply.
Now take that for what it is: perhaps it will seem to color the rest of my commentary. I should hope I am objective in this, though. Mr. Metaxas’s book on Bonhoeffer is not a serious work of history. I think his grasp of the German language is poor, and he wasn’t doing much in the way of primary sources anyway: he relied heavily on secondary sources. That is, he was not doing the work of a historian so much as the work of someone summarizing the work that other historians had already done, and not doing so in an especially rigorous way. The man is a celebrity. Perhaps this is useful for a large audience (but I think that a sadly cynical view of how people can learn history), but there are better ways to learn about Bonhoeffer than from Eric Metaxas.
In any case, please forgive the lengthy comment. Perhaps his 7 Men thing has its merits. Seeing the name Metaxas in my news reader, anyway, perhaps just struck a verbose nerve. 🙂
virgil, no need to apologize for lengthy replies. as far as i know there is no rationing of digital ink. i know very little about metaxas, and obviously do not bring the same emotive connection to him that you do. i did like the bonhoeffer book, but for me it was gravy, because i had studied so much of bonhoeffer previously. i still think ‘cost of discipleship’ should be required reading for just about everyone. you are correct when you note that metaxas is a celebrity, and perhaps that is why his 7 men book fell a little flat with me. it felt more like a celebrity using a ghost writer than it did a real writer writing, especially the first chapter on G.W. and the last chapter on colson. thanks for reading and commenting, and have a happy thanksgiving.