Eric Metaxas has been hosting “Socrates in the City“ events in Manhattan since 2000, “examining the Big Questions,” with a little wine and cheese. And not just of the edible kind — Metaxas insists that such endeavors ought to be “fun,” and so he does make his introductions of august speakers funny and punny.
His gatherings have featured such speakers as Os Guinness, Francis Collins, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and Sir John Polkinghorne, and such diverse attendees as Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, Dick Cavett, and Moby the vegan pop star. Now he’s taking the show on the road with a collection of some of the evenings, in the appropriately titled Socrates in the City: Conversations on “Life, God, and Other Small Topics”. He is also author of the monumental New York Times bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce. Metaxas talked with me about the new book collecting some of those talks he calls “treasures.” I bring it to you today because it may just be perfect for someone on your unfinished Christmas list.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why Socrates?
ERIC METAXAS: Three reasons. One, because neither he nor his heirs can sue me for using his name. Two, because he famously said “the unexamined life is not worth living” and I thought that Manhattan of all places could use a forum where brilliant thinkers and speakers thought aloud about the Big Questions, what we like to call “life, God, and other small topics.” Three, because the Socratic method is about asking questions, so we ask the Big Questions and then we have a lot of fun in the Q&A part of the evening, where the audience gets to ask the speaker whatever they like. And finally, because I’m Greek, but that would make four, so we’ll skip it.#more#
LOPEZ: And why “in the City”? Isn’t that discriminating against rural America? Just like you big city elites!
METAXAS: Fact is, I growed up a fur piece from these parts, K-Lo. I come from the hill country o’ Connecticut. Never worn shoes till I was at college. Hyuk, hyuk! I just put on this year citified get-up so as to fool you and yourn at NRO. It ain’t nothin’ but a big ol’ act, is what it is. But now I seen the light and I’m a-comin’ clean! Shazam!
Um, to be serious. You will likely remember what Mr. Buckley once said about preferring to be governed by the first two-thousand names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard College. That hypothesis applies here. Some of the least grounded and introspective people in the world are urban and cultural elites. Socrates in the City was meant to be something of a corrective on that score. Cultural elites are likely more in need of hearing about the ancient truths. On the other hand, the very raison d’etre of this book is to bring these great talks — and they are great — to a wider public. So anyone with postal delivery can now join the fun. (N.B. Buy some as Christmas gifts today!)
Was my using “raison d’etre” too elitist for you? Be honest.
LOPEZ: What are you thinking about in your self-consciously pensive cover photo?
METAXAS: I was thinking that friends would mock me about it for the rest of my life. Was I wrong? But honestly — and this is the truth — that photo actually is not me. Well, to be perfectly accurate it’s me and it’s not me. Let me explain.
When I saw the printed cover of the book I noticed something was wrong, because in the original photo there had been a hemi-demi-semi-quaver of a smile flitting across my face and a twinkle in my eye. But somehow these were missing from the cover photo! I am not kidding. What in the world could have happened? Had I gotten botox before the photo shoot and forgotten all about it? I was mad to figure this out.
Finally I got to see the before and after shots, and — this is not a joke — the publisher had airbrushed out some of the laugh lines in my face! So in the airbrushed version I look serious and a few years younger! Airbrushing? You’d think this was the cover of Elle or something. So of course I insisted they re-insert my laugh lines in the next printing. That is absolutely not a joke. In the next printing, it should look a lot more like me, for what that’s worth. By the way, the real me is a dead ringer for Dog the Bounty Hunter. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but I really do have more character in my face than that mannikin who is currently on the cover.
Anyway, thanks for pointing out the most uncomfortable thing about the book. I’ll get you back somehow. It might take me years, but I will get you back.
By the way, I have to say that using this photo was the publisher’s idea, because they felt that I was the “brand” of Socrates in the City. But without that evanescent smile and twinkle in my eye, it’s just not me and it’s just not Socrates in the City. As I say, we’ve had this fixed in the next printing. I’m really not kidding about this.
LOPEZ: Why be so jokey? UFO cult? Do you ever worry you’ll lose the more serious minded reader?
METAXAS: But that’s the point of this book, to be a fun grab-bag of profundity and fluffiness. After all, gravitas can be greatly improved with just the right seasoning of levitas. Think of it: What’s funnier than throwing a cream pie at a glowering bust of Goethe? I ask you.
On the other hand, if someone only wants to read the serious talks, they’re free to do so, of course. They can skip the silly introductions and go straight to the meaty talks by the Nobel Prize–winning physicists and philosophers. But if someone just wants to have a few laughs, they can read the intros, all the while pretending to be reading the meaty essays. Let’s face it, the reason people will buy this book is to impress their friends with how brainy and deep they are. That’s what makes it the perfect gift, too. Did I mention that this is perhaps the finest gift item you’ll ever come across?
LOPEZ: Must we talk about these small things? Wouldn’t be better if we just did them? Lived good examined lives?
METAXAS: The two go together. Thinking deeply before acting wisely is like eating a hearty breakfast before you go out ploughing in the fields. One fuels the other. For the love of Mike, who wants to plough for hours on an empty stomach?
LOPEZ: Has Socrates in the City helped you understand suffering, really and truly, with all its pain?
METAXAS: Certainly, yes. That’s the point. On the other hand, Socrates in the City events — and this book — are only meant to begin the conversation. They are meant to whet the appetite. You cannot solve the world’s problem in a 40-minute talk, but you can begin the conversation, you can start people on the right path. It’s always been my hope that after attending our events and hearing our speakers — or reading what they had to say in this terrific book — people will want to go deeper, to read other things by these speakers. No kidding, the talks in this book will help people. We can joke around, but the fact is that people are looking for answers to the big questions, and where can they find those answers? They’re not going to get them from watching Brian Williams or Geraldo.
LOPEZ: How about evil?
METAXAS: I’m against it. You?
LOPEZ: Has Socrates in the City made you a better father?
METAXAS: As I say, these talks are so inspiring that you can’t help but want to be a better person. That’s for real. That’s the whole point.
LOPEZ: Has Socrates in the City made you a better Christian?
METAXAS: Well, it’s certainly meant to do that, and I think that it really has. God tells us to love him with our hearts, souls, and minds. And I really do think that that’s the point of Socrates in the City, for those who are already believers, to help them love God with their minds. To help them see that God wants us to think more deeply about the big questions, about life and the meaning of life and who we are and where we are going.
LOPEZ: This is deep stuff, decidedly. Why not go for a lighter Christmas gift or read?
METAXAS: Weren’t you accusing me of being too jokey a few minutes ago? Have you forgotten that in one of these intros I compare Chuck Colson to Chaka Khan? Or that in another I talk about Michelle Obama throwing a shoe at Hillary Clinton? And by the way, it was Dennis Kucinich’s shoe. He got it at a leprechaun swap meet. And did you forget about the part where I tease Sir John Polkinghorne about being a knight and wearing a suit of armor at the podium? Have these things meant nothing to you?
LOPEZ: Os Guinness is your favorite, isn’t he?
METAXAS: I love all my children. But if it weren’t for Os, Socrates in the City wouldn’t exist. He really helped us get started and for that I will always be grateful. But in terms of which of these talks I like the best, there is no way to say. Honestly, it was so hard picking the talks for this book, because we have had so many tremendous ones. In the end we picked what I would call the most representative talks, the ones that get at the big questions most directly. But we had to leave out so many gems! If this book does reasonably well, we will have to do a volume two ASAP.
Actually the only talk in this book that makes me uncomfortable is the last one, since it’s by me, and again, that was the publisher’s idea. They felt that many readers knew me from my Bonhoeffer biography, so it was important to include that in the book. As with the botoxed photo on the cover, you can see that I lost that argument.
LOPEZ: Don’t you get tired of people talking about civility?
METAXAS: Aww, shaddap, willya?! I’m sorry. That was terribly uncivil of me. Honestly, the answer is no, I don’t get tired of people talking about civility. I think it’s utterly crucial. The greatest temptation for people who are right about something is to forget that in being right you must still be civil to those who might not be right. And if you are uncivil, you somehow negate the rightness of your point. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. So we don’t only fight for what is right, but we fight in the right way. We don’t stoop to the level of our enemies. In my biography of Wilberforce, I talk about how he fought passionately, but he treated his opponents with civility. In some measure, that was how he won. He showed by the way he was fighting his battles that God was with him in the battle. Let it be a lesson to us. God commands us to treat others as we wish to be treated. It’s not a helpful hint. It’s a command.
LOPEZ: What do you wish you had asked the late Fr. Neuhaus that you didn’t?
METAXAS: “What’s the capital of North Dakota?” That’s the one question that burns in my breast, that cries out for an answer, if there be one! That I failed to ask it will haunt me forever. Why must you remind me of this lapse? Why?!
LOPEZ: What’s the #1 most important insight revealed in the collection?
METAXAS: You mean besides the fact that we are a UFO cult masquerading as a sophisticated Manhattan speakers series? Or that the mother ship will be coming at midnight to pick us up? Or that the aliens who are taking us to their planet have written a book about how they want to use their advanced technology to help humanity and it’s titled To Serve Man?
Well, I guess, besides all those things, the single most important insight is that To Serve Man actually turns out to be a cook book — yikes — ergo we maybe shouldn’t get on that ship. I don’t want to tell anyone how to live, but I’m not getting on that ship. I’m just saying.