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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness’

- - Monday, May 13, 2013

SEVEN MEN AND THE SECRET OF THEIR GREATNESS
By Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson, $24.99, 210 pages

Eric Metaxas' project here, in limning the notable lives of seven Christian men, is to hold up all seven as models of right behavior and commitment. He senses — well, I mean, how could he not? — that "young men 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 ... They will drift. They will lose out on the very reason they were brought into this world: to be great, to be heroes themselves ... it is vital that we teach them who they are in God's view, and it's vital that we bring back a sense of the heroic."

"Seven Men" isn't exactly what used to be called "a boy's book" — Horatio Alger, the Rover Boys, the G.A. Henty novels, "Treasure Island" even: adventure tales demonstrating the virtue of pluck, gallantry and stick-to-it-iveness in the face of danger.

Mr. Metaxas' real-life heroes do in fact demonstrate those manly virtues; however, they do so inspired, directly or indirectly, by Christian conviction. As Eric Liddell, famous from the film "Chariots of Fire" as the Olympic runner who would not compete on the Sabbath, asked rhetorically: "Have you learned to hear God's voice saying, 'This is the way, walk ye in it'? Have you learned to obey? Do you realize the tremendous issues that may be at stake?"

With Liddell it was all for Christ. So with William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian heroes celebrated by Mr. Metaxas in recent popular biographies — the former as anti-slavery prophet, the latter as voice of conscience for the German people under Hitler.

The Christian bona fides of George Washington and Jackie Robinson, while real are less widely remarked, yet Washington's life of devotion and worship — he was Anglican — reinforced his almost other-worldly dignity, courage and sense of duty. With Robinson, faith in Christ led to the self-control so vital in the face of taunts and insults that flew at him like beanballs as he racially integrated major league baseball.

The two other men in "Seven Men" are Pope John Paul II and Charles W. Colson. John Paul"s "extraordinary ability to communicate humbly and humorously and clearly" made all the more effective his extraordinary moral courage, first manifested during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The Parkinson's disease he contracted toward the end of his stewardship made him painful to look upon — the hero rendered nonheroic; except that appearances deceived. "[H]e was now seen as a man who was forced to rely more fully on Christ for all things, in the physical as well as in the spiritual realm. And he was loved all the more for it."

Mr. Metaxas once worked as a writer and editor for Chuck Colson. His admiration for the man has a special and personal quality. Not that Colson, founder of a great and famous Christian ministry to prisoners, was incapable of inspiring from afar, having risen (counselor/hatchet man to President Nixon), fallen (six months in prison for obstruction of justice) and risen in a wholly new and unexpected way as Christian convert and friend of the fallen.

Colson became perpetually busy in extending the right hand of fellowship both to prisoners who accepted it and to the fast-diminishing number of those who slapped it away. As with Liddell, it was all for Christ. Colson was a "human tornado" who aimed — like Wilberforce — at the moral reformation of his society, through the agency of Jesus Christ. As Wilberforce had crusaded against bondage in the form of chattel slavery, finally achieving slavery's extirpation in Britain's empire and colonies, so Colson warred against bondage to sin. Jesus Christ had saved him — changed his life. The Lord, as the Good Book promised, could do it for all.

"Seven Men" — brisk and bright, conversational and accessible, surely, to most 14-year-olds — is a book far more evangelical than scholarly. I don't imagine it took much time to write; it will take more time by far to sink into readers' consciousness. The countercultural battle Mr. Metaxas tries to start here is large, with the enemy — morally indifferent secularism, more and more hostile to Christianity — in possession of the battlements. He doesn't say so, but one intuits he must sometimes liken 21st-century America to the 18th-century culture that his hero Wilberforce found it necessary to surmount in order to procure freedom for the slaves. The battle, it seems, never ends — a powerful reason for recruiting all the heroes you can lay hands on.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.