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How do you solve a problem like Metaxas?

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

{axis b. figurative. The ‘pivot’ on which any matter turns (Oxford English Dictionary)

I’m always on the lookout for someone reasonably thoughtful who has an argument for angles different from mine. Of course, there are many such people around, but in this oversized bullhorn we call The Age of Social Media, they’ve actually become harder to find. Today, shouting and subterfuge are the preferred methods of communication, so someone who might otherwise come across as thoughtful just ends up sounding like a blowhard. Provocation sells.

Which brings me to the recent interview in The Atlantic magazine of Eric Metaxas, radio host, author, and conservative provocateur, who makes a parallel between today in America and Germany in the 1930s. He also mentions Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not surprising since he wrote a “600-page book” (he reminds the interviewer) on the man, which reads more like a novel than a nuanced biography of the complicated figure. But in Metaxas’s defense, he sought to rescue Bonhoeffer from what he calls the “obscurantist agnostic dungeon” that previous historical scholars and theologians had apparently put Bonhoeffer in, and Metaxas also writes for a more general audience that prefers to have difficult ideas (and people) neatly packaged in what might be called compelling narrative. Note, for example, the title of his book: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. (You expect John le Carré might have written the Forward, but, alas, le Carré isn’t even mentioned as the obvious inspiration for the title of the book.)

Needless to say, I found the interview interesting, as I’d recently made the same equivalence between America today and Germany in the 30s (though my point was the opposite of Metaxas’), and I’d also quoted Bonhoeffer. Metaxas’ point in the comparison was to interpret the Jan. 6th “event” on the Capitol as America’s version of the Reichstag fire, which was a fire surreptitiously set by pro Hitler arsonists on the Reichstag (Germany’s equivalent of our Capitol) a month after Hitler became Head of State so that he could use it as pretext to clamp down on dissent. In other words, according to Metaxas, the Democratic apparatus and co-conspiratorial mainstream media were using this “event” as a pretext to start limiting freedoms and demonizing Trump and his supporters (presumably with Biden’s blessing). In other words, the liberals were the Nazis.

If this parallel takes a minute to wrap your head around, it’s completely understandable. Take the minute, because the comparison is more akin to a parallax than a parallel (parallax being the effect where an object’s position seems to change when viewed from different angles, like how something appears to move right or left depending on which eye you close when you’re looking at it). The majority of people in this country, if asked which party reminded them more of the Nazis, would say the Republican party, since, well… the Neo-Nazis actually are a part of the Republican party—or so they claim. In 2018, in half a dozen state and national races, the Republican Party’s candidates were card-carrying Neo-Nazis or known white supremacists. The Republican party, understandably, disavows the connection, but the connection persists in most American’s minds. The other reason Metaxas’s parallel is hard to compute is because the Reichstag fire was set a month after Hitler rose to power, whereas the Capitol insurrection happened a little less than a month before Trump stepped down (and not willingly, I might add). And, I also might add, there was nothing surreptitious about who took part in the attack on Capitol. Flags were carried, banners were erected, and chants were shouted, all in the name of “Trump.”

Metaxas, billed as “America’s #1 Bad Christian” (he has a soft spot for provocative PR) goes on to say that “God is on our side” in the fight against (presumably) liberals like Biden and his supporters who plan to take over the country. And it’s a fight he’s willing to “die for,” he says—and, one wonders, kill for, too? Like Bonhoeffer planned to do to Hitler?

The axis upon which all of Metaxas’ positions seem to turn, whether related to Bonhoeffer, Luther, Wilberforce (he wrote books on the latter two, as well), or the state of the Church and/or Union in general is a calculated self-promotion. It isn’t an accident, for example, that when he recently Tweeted this equivalence between Jan. 6th and the Reichstag fire, he took the opportunity to promote his book:

If this isn't our ‘Reichstag Fire’ I don't know what is. For details on how a govt can use an event to consolidate power, see my BONHOEFFER book...

And in the Introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of that book, Metaxas writes:

Something about art—even the art of historical narratives like the one you hold in your hands—transcends time, magically pulling us away from the pinched present and into a larger realm of eternity.

High praise, indeed… for one’s own book.

In other words, much of what Eric Metaxas says and writes is conspicuously aimed at gaining maximum attention for himself. It’s what I call the Metaxas Axis. He is a provocateur by disposition, and everything he says is intended to provoke in an effort to draw attention ultimately back to himself. In another place on his Twitter account where he promotes his books (again), he limns Dirty Harry: “Purveyors of unpleasantness will be blocked. Make my day, punk.” Metaxas clearly sees himself as a bad-ass. The trouble with this type of bravado’ed self-promotion, of course, is that one’s persona quickly eclipses one’s person, so that, soon enough, we’re not sure who exactly we’re dealing with, the man or his image. (The same dynamic exists with Trump, by the way.) But perhaps more importantly—and disturbingly—people like Metaxas no longer seem to know the difference themselves between their true character and their auto-generated caricature. As C.S. Lewis once warned, “Be careful who you pretend to be. You will become that person.”

All the way through the Atlantic interview, Metaxas inexplicably makes connections where they don’t seem to fit and represents the opposite of what such a connection might be expected to show. In another place in the interview, he says:

When you start pushing people around and telling them what they can say—and they better say, ‘Heil Hitler,’ loudly—that should be a warning sign.

He’s not talking about Trump here, by the way, but he might as well be. Isn’t Trump, after all, the one who demands complete and total allegiance from his followers and brooks no dissent of any kind? Cross Trump and you get fired. And that’s when he’s feeling generous. And isn’t he the President who told Neo-Nazis and the Proud Boys, et al. to “Stand back and stand by”? And this is where Metaxas makes the connection, later in the interview, to present day America and Germany in the 30s: “If you didn’t go along with the party line, you would be demonized.” Again, he’s talking about the Democrats, but wasn’t that exactly Trump’s modus operandi? Anyone who disagreed with him was demonized, cast into the outer darkness. Hasn’t Trump, in fact, turned this sort of demonization into an art form? No one in modern politics or culture does it as much as he. Except, perhaps, the Far Left. And Eric Metaxas.

In a now-infamous op-ed he wrote for in 2009, entitled “Jesus Nearly Banned at White House Inn,” Metaxas compares the Obama White House (and, not so indirectly, Obama?) with Herod. The offense? One of Obama’s aides had foolishly suggested leaving the creche out of the manger, an admittedly stupid idea, and one that Obama did not countenance. But guilty by association, you know.

And speaking of, Chief Religion Correspondent Lauren Green opined back during the Obama Presidency that Metaxas showed how Bonhoeffer’s legacy was “the untold dangers of idolizing politicians as messianic figures.” Sheesh… where has Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer been hiding these past four years?

Again and again, Metaxas makes the opposite equivalency that most people in this country (and the world) would make. He says that it’s our right as Americans to question things, but then demonizes those who question the legitimacy of the Far Right’s wild election conspiracies (conspiracies, by the way, because they remain unproven). The short interview provides many such examples. When asked by Emma Green, “Do you see yourself as a rebel against elite consensus?” Metaxas answers:

I wasn’t in D.C. for the Capitol riots. But I was blown away at how instantly anybody who supported Trump—which is, you know, half the country—was demonized as potential white domestic terrorists. I just thought, Holy cow. What am I, in Nazi Germany? This is really sick. That’s not what we do in America.

Note the verbal sleight of hand? He accuses one half of the country for demonizing all Trump supporters by comparing that half to Nazi Germany. It’s an odd verbal tic of his, one that he commits again and again in a sort of “rob from Peter to pay Paul” rhetorical device. A little later in the interview, Metaxas excoriates the Democratic establishment for using the Capitol riot to demonize “anyone who would support Trump” and then adds, “We don’t do that in America, but then scarcely a breath later adds, “That’s what the Nazis did with the Reichstag fire.” Implication understood: “Don’t demonize me… you Nazi!”

When someone says the opposite of what most people would expect him to say—or he means exactly the opposite of what most think he means—then one wonders if the problem in translation lies not so much with the audience as with the speaker. Metaxas doesn’t appear to know where he’s coming from, and as a result, everything he says comes out like it was spoken on Opposite Day.

Over and over again, Metaxas decries what he says is the Left’s ugly habit of demonizing the opposition: “The point is, in Germany, if you didn’t go along with the party line, you would be demonized,” and then adds, “We’re kind of getting there. Even a millimeter in that direction is too close for comfort for me.” Even a millimeter in that direction? How about Trump’s eagerness to go a couple hundred miles in that direction? No American president, to my recollection, be they Republican or Democrat, has demonized the opposition more often, more consistently, and more recklessly than Donald J. Trump. Indeed, this is one of the principal reasons his supporters treat him like a messiah, because he poses any disagreements in the classic good vs. evil binary, which is so attractive and convenient to roll out in matters of grave importance, as it stops all conversation, ends all debate, and silences all objections. If one is dealing with evil, after all (the rationale goes), best to just snuff out the evil.

This is the essential conundrum with the likes of an Eric Metaxas: you can’t triangulate his position on anything because it begins and ends in himself. Yes, he’s a predictable conservative saying predictably conservative things, but he also fashions himself a Yale-trained historical scholar, which, the last time I checked, is the ultimate trump card of the liberal elite. Pun intended.

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