Author Eric Metaxas has written several definitive biographies over the years about such champions of the faith as Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Known as a “scrupulous chronicler who has an eye for a good story,” the popular radio talk show host has consistently told fascinating stories of mortal men who changed the world in the face of evil.
In his latest release, Fish Out of Water: A Search for the Meaning of Life, Metaxas shares his own story of growing up in an ethnically diverse household and the subsequent beginnings of his journey of faith. Along the way he shows readers how all the decisions and mistakes he made put him on a direct path to a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ.
I recently spoke with Metaxas about his new autobiography, how he realized being a cultural Christian wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and a vivid dream that changed everything.
What was the inspiration or catalyst for writing Fish Out of Water?
I’ve always wanted to tell my story of coming to faith. I feel like those types of books really can bless people because you want to see somebody’s process. And I really feel like there are tons of people that have not come to faith or they’ve not made it central in their life. And the stories of people in that process can be really helpful. It was really helpful to me, even after I became a believer, reading C.S. Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy” and other books like that. I just thought at some point, because I have kind of an interesting story, I need to write that book.
Interestingly, you have written many biographies about other people – William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to name two. Why the decision to share your story at this time?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s not like I thought about the timing. I just think my story, in a way, has so many different elements to it. Growing up as the son of immigrants in America is kind of a strange experience. Growing up in the Greek community and the Greek Church was interesting too. It’s just kind of all of this working class stuff, then going to Yale. (Yale) is dramatically different from anything I’d experienced before, how I was thrown into this world, which is really hostile to faith, hostile to the traditional values in which I was raised. It really did affect me.
It affected me in some good ways and in some bad ways. I did drift away from the faith and that’s a central part of my story. We’re living in a culture where universities and the culture tend to pull people away from faith and the God of the Bible. And I wanted to tell that story for other people. I think in many ways, this is a book that I wrote for believers to share with nonbelievers more than any other book that I’ve written. I really think it’s a book that they will want to give to that person who reads books but is not where they are spiritually to help that person understand. This book is for a thinking person who loves literature and has a sense of humor.
In terms of faith, it shows me trying to wriggle away from serious Christian faith for most of my journey and then finally failing spectacularly to do that.
Like so many people, your story is a journey of sorts, one that spans many years. I’m sure writing your own story was not an easy task. There are so many things that you could write but in the end had to leave out. Could you take me through the process how you brought your life together in the 416 pages of your book?
I really did not try hard to give (my story) an arc. I just thought I want it to be fun to read. And if its something’s fun to read, you worry a little bit less about the arc of the story and you let it take you where it takes you. But I think that the stories within the larger story are instructive. Some of them are very funny because they’re true stories and you can’t make this stuff up. I wanted the book to be entertaining and funny but at the same time, ultimately meaningful. It’s not like I was really thinking very deeply about doing anything other than telling my story and sort of trusting God to have a purpose in my doing that.
One of the key components of your book is that you write about being a mostly cultural Christian. What is that and how did if affect your decision later in life pursue a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ?
Generally speaking, being a cultural Christian is not a good thing. In other words, you become inoculated from the real thing because you think you’re already a Christian. Why are you a Christian? For me it was because I’m Greek and all the Greeks are Greek Orthodox. And on Sunday you go to the Greek Orthodox church. So, you’re a Christian, even though you have never heard the Gospel. For me, I had never really been discipled, even though the Greek Orthodox don’t really read the Bible. They don’t really have big catechism. So, I had no clue what I believed, but I figured, well, I’m not a Jew. I’m not an atheist, I’m not a Muslim. I must be a Christian. I think that’s what inoculates you from a deeper relationship with Jesus, because you feel like you’ve already got this excuse. I know that my mother had experienced that growing up in Germany with the Lutheran Church.
I write about this in my (Dietrich) Bonhoeffer book, about cultural Christianity, that it just has no depth and no real understanding. My father experienced this with the Greek Orthodox church. For me, it was something that I never really understood until I really found Jesus. And then you think my goodness, what were they teaching me? And why are all these people going to this church when they don’t have the benefit of knowing the treasure that’s right in front of their noses? Somehow, nobody has really helped them to walk in the fullness of God. And so, it’s something I feel like I understand because I think that a lot of times Evangelicals kind of think that if everybody doesn’t believe the way they do, (that person) must be an atheist.
I feel like a lot of what I write is meant to reach those people to say, I don’t need to convince you the way I would convince a Marxist atheist. It’s not my calling. I don’t try to argue with people like that, but I think there are many people that have pieces of it, but nobody ever explained the bigger picture to them. Frankly, the purpose of my biographies and all of my books is to walk people who are open, but they just don’t know what they should do.
What do you believe had the biggest impact on your personal faith in God?
The biggest impact was being so miserable in the year that I was living with my parents, that I was longing in my agony for something to get me out of my pain and wondering, is there a God out there? Will you give me a sign?
I had friends who suggested that I ask that God would show himself to me. I was thinking, what do you mean? I don’t even know if he’s there, so who am I talking to, to ask Him to show up? Yet, in my misery, I would pray once in a while that God would give me a sign. Eventually He did. And it was in my dream that I write about at the end of the book. It was so powerful that it absolutely changed everything.
Apart from that, I do not know if I ever would have become a Christian if the Lord hadn’t reached me in that way. And when I speak on this book or preach in a church, I give my testimony. The miracle is that the Lord speaks to us in the language of our own heart. That dream that I had wouldn’t have made sense to anybody but me. But He knew the vocabulary of my heart. He knew how to speak to me, and that’s what every father or mother does with their kids. They know how to speak individually to us, even though they’re the same parent, they desire to reach us in a way that wouldn’t reach the other kids in the same way. When the Lord gave me that dream, it just completely blew my mind and made me know He is real. He knows me intimately. He made me and it just changed everything for me as dramatically and literally overnight as possible. And I have simply never looked back by His grace.
Final question, after people have read Fish Out of Water, what would you like your readers to take away from the experience? What is your greatest hope for the book?
My greatest hope for the book is that believers would give it to thinking, reading non-believers and say, “Read this and see what you think.” Some of it is really funny and entertaining. My greatest prayer is that if that were to happen, people who have never encountered the Lord would encounter Him at the end of the book without being prepared for it. In other words, they would encounter Him the way I did. And when you encounter Him that way, without religious preamble, you see Him in a way you haven’t seen Him before. I hope that believers would use it as an evangelistic tool and would not blow the punchline. My hope is they would just say, “This is a book I think you’ll enjoy. It’s gotten some great reviews from literary publications. There’s some spiritual elements, but see what you think.” My desire is that non-believers would read the book because of the literary quality and through that I would be able to help them meet Jesus.