Author Eric Metaxas has been described by the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters as “very smart, very funny, very savvy . . . [and] dangerous.” This says nothing about Mr. Metaxas and a lot about Mr. Winters, who was upset that during last year’s presidential race Metaxas criticized the Obama campaign because it “denounced [wealthy Americans] as fat-cats who weren’t ‘paying their fair share’ and whose wealth was ill-gotten gain.” Mr. Winters thinks that never happened, but, even if it did, Republicans lie too!
It is indicative, however, of much left-liberal reaction to a moral, eloquent, conservative spokesman with whom they’d rather not reckon – to one who doesn’t fit the stereotype. Not that liberals ever stereotype.
Mr. Metaxas has previously written some religious books for children and two acclaimed biographies of William Wilberforce (2007)  and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2011) , and his new book, 7 MEN and the Secrets of Their Greatness , includes brief profiles of both the reform-minded English abolitionist and the martyred German pastor. The other five: George Washington, runner Eric Liddell, Dodgers great Jackie Robinson, Metaxas’ late good friend Charles W. Colson, and – most important for readers here – Pope John Paul II.
Although written for an adult audience, 7 MEN may easily be read by teens, and it is highly recommended for that. These profiles are meant to be inspiring, and they are, although I’m disappointed in the author’s use of the excellent word “hero” as interchangeable with the odious “role model.” Jackie Robinson was heroic, and I suppose, therefore, he might serve as a model for kids, but character is such a complex reality that I doubt it.
All of the heroes of 7 MEN were, in more ways than one, strong, and Metaxas writes that “God’s idea of making men strong was so that they would use that strength to protect women and children and anyone else.” They had chivalry, in other words (a subject dear to my heart). This is strength “given over to God’s purposes.” How else do such men found a nation (Washington), end slavery (Wilberforce), turn away from fame (Liddle), sacrifice everything (Bonhoeffer), break the color barrier (Robinson), change the world (John Paul II), and overcome public humiliation (Colson)?
Each man had an almost preternatural resolve to do the right thing. In Washington’s case it wasn’t simply leading the new United States, but also setting an example of restraint – leaving public office and resuming private life. Wilberforce could have been prime minister, but he dedicated his life to freeing Africans from bondage. Liddle stood against king and country to honor the Sabbath, then gave up running for missionary work in China. Bonhoeffer faced the Nazis head on, even leaving safety in America to return to Germany, and was hanged for it. Robinson mostly kept his cool against savage racism, giving up, as Metaxas writes, what few men would: “the right to fight back.” Chuck Colson rose and fell and rose again: “His faith was so strong that he knew the only thing to do was to trust God so completely that it would look crazy to the rest of the world. . . . But he didn’t care about what anyone thought – except God.”
And then there’s John Paul II: “Of all the great men in this book, there is only one who has come to be called ‘the Great.’”
The biographical information about Karol Wojtyla included in 7 Men will be familiar to anyone who has read the work of George Weigel, but Mr. Metaxas, whose background is Eastern Orthodox, nicely captures the essence of this astonishing life: “Every incident, every person he had met, every talent he had been given were helping him along the path God had planned for him.”
Here was a man, more so even than those five extraordinary others, called by God, directed by God, and protected by God.
Given the need to describe the life of Papa Wojtyla in just twenty pages, I don’t know what I would include (or what I would leave out), but Metaxas wisely zeroes in on those incidents that support the premise that the future pope was not only called by God for the historic role he would play, but was also a man who heard the call and never wavered in following it. During World War II, he and friends were hiding from Germans doing a house-to-house search, and as the others huddled in fear “Lolek” Wojtyla prostrated himself in prayer. The soldiers passed by.
When the papal pallium passed to him, he said: “It is God’s will. I accept.”
So strong was the pope’s faith – so clear in his mind and heart was God’s Word – that Catholics of all persuasions took him to be their man. He supported Solidarity; he supported free markets. He spoke about the beauty of love and sex; he never wavered from the orthodoxy of Humanae Vitae. And his ability to reconcile many competing interests within the Church won converts.
Thus Jennifer Bradley of the liberal New Republic would write that after not caring much for the pope early on, she nonetheless attended a papal Mass: “Now my skepticism will have to share space with awe and, oddly, gratitude.”
A fearless acceptance of the Cross, Metaxas writes, was the true secret of John Paul II’s greatness: “He had not sought greatness and had not sought power, but both had come to him as he focused his attention and energy, as Christ taught, on those who were least able to reciprocate.”
Chivalry again. Omnia vincit amor.