[Read an excerpt from Eric Metaxas's book here]
GODSPY: I know that you're one of the main writers for Veggie Tales. How did you like writing for kids?
ERIC METAXAS: I love writing for children! But writing for children is difficult because they are an exceedingly demanding audience: they demand that you speak clearly and entertainingly and because of their lack of sophistication and guile they can't be fooled by pseudo-sophistication and pseudo-entertainment in the guise of profundity and substance and wit and humor. They want the real thing and it had better be the real thing or else.
But the flip side of this is that because children don't bring pretense and pseudo-sophistication to the table you are able to speak to them openly and honestly without much fear of them rolling their eyes and saying, "That's fine for you, but you'll never get ahead in the REAL world thinking that way." Kids haven't been ruined by the world the way many adults have. They haven't wandered as far from Eden generally, and they can remember what it was like a bit better. For them it's a real memory, as it were, and not some hokey myth they are trying hard to get enlightened beyond.
Who are you trying to "reach" with your book? What kind of people do you think will NOT be reached by it?
The ideal audience for this book is everyone reading these words right now. In fact, whoever is reading this right now is so absolutely who I had in mind they should visit amazon.com immediately and buy between 20 and 50 copies. Right now, before they run out! Yes, you! You!! Go go go...
I found God in a dream—or he found me.
Okay, but seriously. I wrote this book for the widest possible audience. Anyone with a pulse and one good eye. It's for almost anyone because I find that everyone has the same questions about God and the world and themselves, and almost everyone has had a hard time finding satisfying and uncomplicated answers to those questions. I've had so many conversations with so many different types of people along these lines, and it really is amazing how universal the questions are and the lack of good places to get answers.
And the response to the book has been simply amazing, across the spectrum. Blue-collar types and university professors have loved it, which thrills me. I think the humor has a lot to do with it. People like to laugh—that's just a universal, everyone likes to laugh—and so everyone seems to be pleasantly thrilled to find a bit of humor in a place they aren't used to finding it. Or maybe people do see humor and God mixed, but usually in a way that is scornful of faith, that makes fun of faith. So it's a bit shocking and refreshing to find God and humor mixed in a positive and uplifting way—not Up With People positive and uplifting, but positive and uplifting nonetheless. It's a kick in the head, but the good kind. The kind that makes you say "Hey, the buzzing is gone... thanks!"
Can you describe your own journey to faith? Why don't you start with college, since that's where I know you from. Did you have what you call in the book a "road to Damascus moment", or did God just kind of pester you until you finally listened?
I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church and saw the best and the worst of it all, just as most Christians in America probably have in their churches. When I was twelve I had a genuine experience with Jesus, but no one ever followed up on it with me, so it sort of faded and disappeared for the most part. At the end of high school I briefly hung out with some friends in a charismatic Catholic group, and I knew it was real, but I didn't really engage very much. In college I started out going to the Christian group on campus, but I never mentioned it to anyone. It was a big dark secret. And then when I started hanging with the hip, literary crowd I knew I had to make a decision, had to choose between two things. Either choose the God of the universe who had created everything that existed, including me, and who loved me more than I could imagine—or choose publication in the pretensious college literary journals of that time—and all the clove cigarettes I could smoke. Naturally I rejected the Author of the Universe and got my poem published. And some Gitane cigs. Was that so wrong? Anyway, I got the poem published.
I was dying to get answers to all of these questions. I wanted someone to justify the ways of God to me.
Oh, you wanted me to start with college. Well, you remember Yale in the early eighties—if ever there was a place that was not exactly two thumbs up on the God-and-faith stuff, that was it. The definition of sophistication and success was someone who cavalierly dismissed old-fashioned biblical faith as something that went out with the Scopes Trial—or with Josephine Baker and Sigmund Freud. It was a non-starter. Which is really sad. You'd think a place whose motto is Lux et Veritas would at least give the faith of its founders a fair hearing. Alas, no.
And so I wandered out of Yale and into the wide world with nothing much to sustain me, soulwise. I tried my hand at the literary life—Yaddo and the Macdowell Colony and all that jazz—and finally crawled back home a couple of years later with my tail between my legs and a milk crate of albums and a ratty box of dog-eared paperbacks of Marcuse and Gunther Grass. Those were dark times.... My parents weren't about to congratulate me on my "trying to find myself." Get a job, they said. I did. And while at that menial job I met a man of real faith in the God of the Bible and after about twenty lunches I saw the light. Well, honestly, it didn't happen like that. The conversations helped me a lot, but you can get closer and closer to something and still never get there. In a way that's what it's like trying to get closer to God. At some point he really has to come to you.
And that happened?
Yes. Actually I found God in a dream—or he found me. It was during that time of having all those lunches with my colleague, trying to figure out all of this stuff and not really getting anywhere. One night Jesus came to me in a dream and it was very real. When I woke up he was basically still there, and he's been with me ever since. No kidding. So don't tell me dreaming is a waste of time! It's the best move I ever made, hands down.
I think up until that time I really, really wanted to know if God was real, if the God of the Bible was the real God, but I didn't think you could know. I didn't think it was possible for an intelligent person to be sure of such a thing. But then suddenly I knew, without the shadow of a doubt. I knew that he was real and that he loved me and had a plan for my life and would be with me forever. And almost instantly I started hanging around born-again Christians, the folks I would have avoided like the plague earlier. And I discovered most of them were the most wonderful people I could have ever hoped to meet. They were full of life and good humor and joy and intelligence, nothing like I'd been led to believe. I think most serious Christians are like that, the ones I've met, anyway. So today I do all I can to be around serious believers, whether Catholic or evangelical or whatever.
If you hang around people like that, who know God personally and live like they do, it's bound to affect you positively. We cannot be Lone Ranger Christians, as someone has said. We need each other. It's utterly vital to the life of faith.
Instead of going on and on and on about the horrors of hell, we should be going on and on and on about the glories of God.
I noticed that in your book you take on objections to Christianity that fall into two categories: One, political/historical issues—the Crusades, Inquisition, elements of sexual politics such as feminism and homosexuality. And two, existential questions—the "why" of human suffering, the question of Hell, the emptiness of a life lived without meaning or the hope of meaning. Which sorts of objections do you find are most prevalent and powerful now?
I think it completely depends on to whom you are talking. Some people just want to rehearse their grievances about history and complain about how terrible God is, but aren't really interested in hearing about who God really is. But I know that a lot of people really do have a hunger, and they bring up all of these objections because they really do want answers. I was like that. I was dying to get answers to all of these questions. I wanted someone to justify the ways of God to me.
How convincing do you find Pascal's wager? To me, it has always been the best argument—the most practical and convincing....
Is Pascal still trotting out that old chestnut? You'd think he'd get a new one by now. Ha. But seriously, I'm not sure what I think of Pascal's wager. I think most people aren't necessarily looking for logical arguments. That's part of it, but they want more ... they want to get the bigger picture. Logical arguments for God are important, but some people simply are unmoved by them, as I think I was back when. I wanted to see God, to taste and smell and feel and touch him. I wanted to encounter him. Of course people encounter God in different ways, but he created us, so he knows how to talk to each one of us. The question is, Are we open to him communicating with us? That's what we have to worry about.
Somebody asked me this just last night—and it's a question I asked Fr. John Hardon many years ago, to no satisfying answer. If sin brought death into the world, was that just for humans? I mean all those dinosaurs with those gaping jaws and sharp teeth—they weren't vegetarians, right?
There are some things we can't know for sure, and whether there were carnivorous mega-lizards before the Fall might be one of them. On the other hand, I'd say there logically couldn't have been. Perhaps the fall took place before there were ... I can't pretend to know the exact date, although everyone knows it was on a Tuesday, just before tea time.
In your chapter on Hell you take a line pretty similar to C.S. Lewis', which is that to go to Hell you have to really WANT to go there, to consciously reject God's mercy—in other words, you probably won't go there for sins of weakness, as long as you're not proud of them. Is that a fair account of what you're arguing?
This argument didn't seem to quite satisfy Lewis—who was tempted by the idea of universal salvation... something the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggested we could hope for—Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things has suggested that this theory might well be correct. Do you think there is a problem with the idea that any sin by a finite creature bound by time merits infinite, eternal punishment? That God continues to keep a contingent being in existence for the sole purpose of suffering, so as to satisfy His own sense of injured Justice?
We cannot be Lone Ranger Christians, as someone has said. We need each other. It's utterly vital to the life of faith.
I'm sorry ... I was thinking about something else. What?
This objection troubles many people ... because we don't like to think of God that way. When people start talking about Hell, I think it does more to drive people away from believing in God in the first place than away from committing sins. Or they start HOPING God doesn't exist, but fearing that, in fact, he might.
That's something I've concluded, that we've got our focus all wrong. Instead of going on and on and on about the horrors of hell, we should be going on and on and on about the glories of God. He's so glorious anyone would be a fool to even think of risking an eternity without Him. He's so wonderful He's worth anything we could ever do or give up doing. We need to know that and tell others about it. God really is the best thing ever, and all else is a pile of cheap Mardi Gras beads in comparison.
I noticed that in the book you address the rather vapid images our culture has of angels, heaven, and salvation itself. Why do you think we have such an easy time creating vivid images of Hell, but not of bliss? Why do most people only read Dante's Inferno, but skip the two hopeful books?
There's no question that it's easier to depict horrors than happinesses. There are many reasons for that, one of them being that to degrade what already exists is easy, but to create something more beautiful than a flower or sunset is impossible.
I've always wanted to ask a Protestant this: If you don't believe in Purgatory, that is, in a state of transformation that happens after death which prepares us for Heaven, then what happens to the human soul which is penitent enough to be saved by God's grace, but full of vile habits, old weaknesses, vices, etc. Do we just take those with us into heaven, but God ignores them because (as Luther put it) Christ "covers our sins like dung covers snow"? Or are these imperfections somehow removed? And if yes ... how does that differ from Purgatory?
Let me be blunt: I have no idea. I think it's entirely possible something like Purgatory might exist. If C.S. Lewis could believe that, I certainly can. Whatever it is, it is. I have no beef with reality. God created reality, so I'm all for it.
People encounter God in different ways, but he created us, so he knows how to talk to each one of us.
It seems that the greatest obstacle to practicing Christianity for many young people concerns sexuality. When people got married at 16 and died at 35 or so, waiting until marriage for sex and not getting divorced seemed a more manageable proposition. Nowaways, when we get married later and still have trouble staying married ... What do you think is the answer? Maybe earlier marriage, and lower expectations? Is Christianity really possible in the post-modern world, given how people live now—at least in the Blue States?
Christianity is only possible in community, meaning that it cannot be practiced outside of the context of scads of other Christians, just as serious and more serious about it than any of us is. If we are surrounded by people of serious faith it's bound to rub off on us. And let's face it, people of serious faith are merely reflecting reality, merely reflecting God's truth. By looking at God's truth and living in as much proximity to it as possible we make it harder for the lies of the culture-including and especially sexual lies—to pollute our minds and souls. We need to surround ourselves with innocence and love and beauty to combat the extremely pervasive images and messages of ugliness and confusion all around us. So the short answer to your question is that Christianity is always possible, and uxoriousness and all kinds of faithfulness are always possible. God never ever calls us to anything that's not possible. But if we're only hanging around people who can't imagine any of these wonderful things, we make it pretty much impossible for us to imagine and live out those things.