Review of 7 Men And the Secret of Their Greatness, by Eric Metaxas Thomas Nelson, 2013 George Washington could have been king. William Wilberforce was on a path to be prime minister. Eric Liddell had a guaranteed Olympic gold medal. All of them walked away. But why? Fresh from blockbuster success of his biographies of Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas returns to the biographical genre that has treated him so well. This time, rather than a full length biography on a single subject, he has written a set of biographical vignettes of great men of faith and sacrifice, individuals who achieved their greatness by sacrificing for a larger cause. Metaxas states that his goal is to address two questions with 7 Men: “what is a man?” and “what makes a man great?” Modern manhood is at a crisis, as most of us recognize. Metaxas writes, “Young men who spend their time watching violent movies and playing video games aren’t very easily going to become the men they were meant to become….[I]t is vital that we teach them who they are in God’s view, and it’s vital that we bring back a sense of the heroic.” Hearkening back to such examples as Plutarch’s Lives and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Metaxas believes that to have strong exemplars of what real manhood is an age old method of training for virtue.
As the title makes clear, Metaxas has chosen seven men for his twenty-first century version of Lives. It’s a diverse collection held together primarily by Metaxas’s personal admiration of those featured. Starting with the Indispensable Man, George Washington, Metaxas highlights the challenges each faced in life, but particularly the temptation of embracing personal success at the expense of what is right. What sets these men apart is their willingness to walk away from obvious personal gain, to sacrifice for principle and the greater good. Washington, having defeated the most powerful military in the world, did something unthinkable: he walked away from power. King George III remarked that if Washington truly gave up the opportunity to rule he would be “the greatest man in the world.” Wilberforce, who made a mission of ending the slave trade in Britain, and Bonhoeffer, who lost his life for plotting to kill Hitler, were obvious choices for Metaxas. Their stories are anchors to the book, and the chapters certainly lure you to read Metaxas’s full treatments. I found the chapter on Eric Liddell equally compelling. Liddell was the subject of the classic movie Chariots of Fire, which highlights his religious faith, particularly his refusal to run in his strongest event, the 100-meter, during the 1924 Paris Olympics because it would have required him to compete on a Sunday. Like Bonhoeffer, Liddell would himself die in a World War II prison camp. It was not the gold medal Liddell won that ensured his fame, but rather the one he refused to win. Jackie Robinson, Metaxas documents, showed the extraordinary courage of self-restraint as he broke the color barrier in baseball. Although taunted and mistreated, Robinson repeatedly turned the other cheek knowing that the ability of other black players to play professional sports could be set back years if he were to retaliate. 7 Men ends with chapters on Karol Wojtyla, known to the world as Pope John Paul II, and Metaxas’s own mentor, Chuck Colson. Wojtyla showed personal courage throughout his life in his opposition to communism, working behind the scenes as pope in his home country of Poland. Colson, who had reached the heights of power as special counsel to President Richard Nixon, saw it all fall apart during the Watergate scandal. It was then he embraced his faith, which led to his well-known prison ministry, a man of power and arrogance brought low to serve those who desperately needed the power of God’s Word. Metaxas is an enjoyable writer, and 7 Men is solid popular biography. Through this surprising collection of admirable men, we find that becoming what we ought to be in life is not a matter of circumstance or background, but, as Metaxas shows, a willingness to sacrifice, perhaps sacrificing that which we might desire the most. It is then that we truly embrace the heroic