7 Men And The Secret Of Their Greatness, by Eric Metaxas
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]
In this excellent book, Eric Metaxas continues his recent move towards biographical history in examining the moral lessons about courage that we can learn from seven great men. He smartly draws from his own body of work, examining seven men of varying degrees of familiarity: George Washington, Wiliam Wilberforce, Eric Liddell (most famous for his part in the story that was dramatized in Chariots of Fire), Dietrich Bonhoeffer , Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Charles Colson. The stories are told with a humane touch, the wit is sharp, and Metaxas spends a lot of time examining the importance of faith to these people and to those they interacted with. In particular, his examination of the athletes Liddell and Robinson shows far more attention to the role of their Christian faith in inspiring their greatness than is commonly understood. In contrast, he balances out the discussion of Pope John Paul II by providing a lot of excellent biographical material about his early life, including his playwriting that I am familiar with. Smartly, he forestalls accusations of sexism in this volume by including a tease for an upcoming work “7 Women” by including a chapter on Corrie Ten Boom that shows his evenhandedness in dealing with the greatness of women as well. It goes without saying that I would like to read that book when it is finished as well.
In terms of its contents, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the approach of the author. Metaxas gives credit to those who helped him with his research and makes smart use of his own existing research for his previous bestselling biographies about Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer. He also uses definitive biographies of others, and autobiographical material where it is available. He does not hide from examining the moral complexity of those whose greatness he praises. There are no plaster saints here: Bonhoeffer’s involvement in conspiracy and his relationship with a teenage girl are admitted openly, as is George Washington’s quandary as a slaveowner in the 18th century American South, Wilberforce’s youthful indiscretions, and Jackie Robinson’s immense problem with his temper. Although the accounts are not exhaustive, they are honest, which makes the author’s praise all the more to be appreciated and treasured. Nor are these characters portrayed as impractical in their sainthood. Instead, all of them participated in the hustle and bustle of a principled involvement with the wider world around them, being involved in the larger moral and political issues of their time, wrestling with the means of how to achieve their moral aims and help further the interests of righteousness and justice.
Where the book particularly shines, though, is in demonstrating the immense courage of these seven men, and the faith that allowed them to withstand the difficulties of their lives, and the apparent frustration of earthly ambitions. This is a theme that repeats over and over again. Washington refuses to participate in a coup against the ineffective Congress of the Articles of Confederation that failed to pay its troops, and then steps down after two terms rather than having a lifetime presidency. These actions help create a culture of restraint that has preserved our Republic from the coups and dictatorships that have been endemic in much of the world. Liddell’s refusal to run on what he viewed (incorrectly) as the Sabbath sets an example of abnegation that serves him well later in life as a missionary in a Japanese internment camp in China during World War II. Wilberforce’s principled stand against slavery, alcoholism, and rampant prostitution (among other evils) made him a great man even if they prevented him from ever becoming Prime Minister. Jackie Robinson’s heroic struggle to control his temper against the bigotry and hatred he faced even as he won accolades as a baseball player and blazed a trail for others to follow. John Paul II rose through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church without being seen as particularly political, being in the right place at the right time to become the first non-Italian pope since the 1500’s. In all of these cases, the frustration of life’s original plans and ambitions led to even greater achievement than was thought possible. There is a lesson in that which can be appreciated by many.
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