Let’s talk about heroes.

I have heroes on my mind because I’m still thinking about Eric Metaxas’s new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  As I’ve already observed, If You Can Keep It is seriously flawed.  Metaxas frequently gets his history wrong, and the theological implications of his argument should trouble any Christian unwilling to equate Christ’s church with the United States of America.  And yet, as I noted, If You Can Keep It still offers some valuable food for thought.  Metaxas’ observations about heroes is a prime example.  Boiled down, Metaxas says that we need heroes but don’t believe in them anymore, and that this is detrimental to liberty.  Let’s think about this.

MetaxasMetaxas’ discussion of heroes fits logically into his larger argument.  He correctly reminds us that the Founding Fathers believed that one of the prerequisites for liberty to survive is virtue, which the eighteenth century defined as self-denial for the common good.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue” with the same meaning in mind.)  Metaxas reasons, persuasively I think, that one important way that a society promotes virtue is by honoring heroic figures who have modeled that quality.  The bad news for lovers of liberty, however, is that Americans “have abandoned the vital tradition of venerating heroes.”  Sometime during the 1960s we “decided that it made more sense to be suspicious of heroes than to venerate them.”  Such skepticism, he warns, “is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably.”

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.  For the moment, I’ll share a quibble, a question, and a concern.  The quibble involves Metaxas’ sweeping generalization that Americans no longer celebrate heroes.  What he really means, without saying so precisely, is that the heroes we choose to venerate rarely model the qualities that the Founders thought were critical to the survival of the republic.  But “heroes” of a different sort abound.  If we define a “hero” as anyone we look up to and wish to emulate, then contemporary American culture is awash with them, it’s just that their character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us as “stars” on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Put differently, they are more or less the kind of role models we would expect of a materialistic, superficial, soul-starved society.

metaxas2Next the question: IF it is true that, on the whole, contemporary American society is suspicious of “virtuous” heroes—the kinds of figures who would inspire us to acts of self-sacrifice in service of a noble cause or a greater good—why is this the case?  This is an enormous question beyond our power to answer fully.  Surely numerous variables are at work, some of them spiritual.  But Metaxas chooses to answer the question historically, and as a historian I think his explanation is probably too simple.  For Metaxas, everything changed during the 1960s.  The heart-wrenching episodes of that turbulent decade—the Civil Rights movement, campus unrest, urban riots, the war in Vietnam—followed in the early 1970s by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon combined to create a massive crisis of confidence among the American people.  We became skeptical of our leaders, and gradually broadened that skepticism to include the panoply of “heroes” from our past that previous generations had honored.

First off, let me say that there’s definitely some truth to Metaxas’ explanation.  As I noted in a recent post, the proportion of Americans who trusted government to do the right thing most or all of the time was a staggering 77 percent as late as 1964, roughly four times as high as in 2015.  There’s no doubt that our willingness to believe those who claim to be devoted to the public good has taken a nosedive, and there’s no doubt that the 1960s were an important milestone in that trend.

But I’ve discovered that most major historical trends have deep roots that may not be readily apparent at first glance.  My suspicion is that there are aspects of American culture that considerably predate the 1960s that are also important to the trend Metaxas observes.  For example, writing during World War Two, C. S. Lewis already found a theme in popular western education that would encourage a skeptical posture toward any and all purported heroes.  His classic The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality and, above all, a powerful indictment of relativism. Lewis described a cultural context that denied the existence of absolute moral values while descrying increasing immorality.  As Lewis put it seventy years ago, we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Other writers have found a declining belief in heroes to be one of the bitter fruits of World War One and the widespread death of innocence that fell across the killing fields of France.  Going even further back in time, after visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that there were aspects of democratic culture in general that might well discourage the “veneration of heroes.”  While popular culture tended to praise the wisdom and virtue of the majority in a collective sense, it chafed against the exaltation of extraordinary individuals.  “The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “the less are they inclined to believe blindly in any man.”

In sum, I suspect the explanation for our suspicion of heroes is more complex than Metaxas imagines.  Whether this invalidates his recommended solution is something I’m still thinking through.

Finally, my concern: In our fallenness, when we do discover heroes from the past worthy of our veneration, it’s often not long before we turn them into idols.  Many of the Christians I have encountered who are interested in the past are unimpressed by the popular heroes of contemporary America and are looking for alternatives.  They see in history a storehouse of authentic Christian heroes to encourage them and their families as they strive to live faithful lives in a fallen world, and I say, “God bless them!”  And yet, there is danger in the quest.  As John Calvin observed centuries ago, the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”

The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example.  This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time.  To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.

One of the reasons that I admire Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide is that Guinness avoids this trap.  (I review it here.)  He repeatedly observes that the Founders were fallible human beings with their own inconsistencies and flaws.  Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  By showing us how far we have strayed from their values, Guinness helps us to examine our behavior and belief with new eyes, and he challenges us to think through and defend why it is that we now behave and believe differently.  He puts us in conversation with the past, without suggesting that its moral superiority is self-evident.

This is not Metaxas’ approach, unfortunately.  The heroes that he features in If You Can Keep It are uncomplicated, unflawed, and infallible.  Metaxas’ job is to explain to us their “secret formula,” and our job is simply to go forth and live in the light of its truth.  The result is an American patriotic version of Charles Sheldon’s famous In His Steps and its central question, “What Would Jesus Do?”  Just replace “Jesus” with “the Founders” and you’re ready to go.


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  3. “The result is an American patriotic version of Charles Sheldon’s famous In His Steps and its central question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Just replace “Jesus” with “the Founders” and you’re ready to go.”

    That says what I thought after I read Metaxas’ book but says it so much better. Thanks for the series of reviews.

  4. Jack Be Nimble

    The refreshing thing about my study of the Old Testament is that the people who God calls to do His work such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, etc. are all flawed individuals who, despite their flaws, God is able to use to bring glory to Himself and work His purposes in the world. As Christians wouldn’t it be better to be amazed at how God can work within us as people with decided shortcomings to bring about His will? All a Christian “hero” needs to be is willing to subordinate his/her will to God’s. I taught high school history during the 60s and 70s and, looking back, I am impressed with the civic virtue that these students demonstrated in striving to work for a better society and a better world. I contrast that with the 80s and 90s when the predominant value seemed to be finding a career that would make one wealthy and enable a person to acquire more “toys” than anyone else.

  5. Prof. McKenzie,

    Thank you for your consistently thoughtful posts about history. In regard to your questions below, does our view of Hebrews 11 suggest the extent to which we should have heroes? The writer praises Enoch about whom we have only a sentence or two. As much as Abraham is admirable, he does seem to pimp his wife to Pharaoh. Similarly, Moses is nearly always admirable, but he does commit murder and much later presume to put himself on par with YHWH in securing water from the rock. David is also a mixed character, which Acts 13 characterizes as “a man after God’s own heart.” Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah are not so easily admired, especially the libertine strong man.

    Perhaps the suggestion that history is more of a mirror than a model is correct. When I taught literature at a military institute, I often retreated into the simplistic views that history tells us what happened, but literature tells us what happens. Perhaps Metaxas, whom I mostly admire and heard speak in Dallas with Charles Colson, leans too heavily on history as a model rather than as a mirror in which we finds others quite a bit like ourselves.

    Thanks again for your humble pondering. I am enjoying church history books again after a couple of decades in literature.


    Lewis Toland

    Roswell, NM

  6. As a millennial, I find myself instinctively skeptical of a historical figure who is held up as a hero. So many of the people who were held up to me as heroes growing up, I have found on closer explanation to have had areas of serious corruption. When one is raised to think that the West was the hero of WWII and the Cold War era, and then discovers that political leaders of the former Allied Western nations – while condemning the Nazis for their genocide and the Communists for their oppression – had turned around and used sterilization and other birth control techniques in order to reduce the number of undesirables in their own nations and reduce the populations of third world nations in order to stop the spread of Communism, it makes one slightly cynical about the legacy of the West.

    Yet, I do not think this characteristic of the younger generations is based so much in in a lack of moral standards, but rather in an excess of moral standards in one direction. I have mentioned before how modern rights movements are based, often unknowingly, on the teaching of the Golden Rule. Those who are zealous for equal treatment for minorities are echoing the cry for justice for the weak and helpless in the Bible. In that sense, they have a strong moral code. So whenever they find that a historical figure whom previous generations venerated was a racist or a misogynist, etc. their judgement is inexorable. The hero is utterly fallen. I have even seen this with Biblical figures. In a discussion on a millennial led Christian website, I was considerably startled to see a poster excoriate King David for his opportunism and misogyny. I have seen others cite Paul’s murderous attitude towards believers before his conversion as a reason for not listening to him. This condemnation of heroes for their failings fails not only to recognize that, as Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart – history should demonstrate the potential for each of us to commit evil against our neighbour is so great that the outrage and sorrow over the sins of the past should spur us to examine ourselves, to see if we are perpetrating injustice somewhere – but also fails to extend mercy with our justice.

    I do not agree with Metaxas that we need heroes, not in the sense in which he seems to mean it – that in order for a nation to hold together, there must be a civic belief or faith in its founders. Deification of ancestors and leaders is a pagan civic practice. I believe there is a reason that no Biblical hero is shown to be faultless, except One. God does not give His glory to another. A healthier view of the country of which one is an earthly citizen is better seen in Christ when he wept over Jerusalem and Paul, when he said he could almost wish himself accursed that his fellows Jews might be saved. Such a view towards one’s country shows an unconditional love, that sees the country’s flaws with a clear eye, and sorrows deeply over that knowledge, but that cares for the people of that country and their eternal destiny anyway.

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