NEW YORK CITY-Ameeting begins at the Union Club in Manhattan, one of those elegant places with a rotunda, columns, three-tiered crystal chandeliers, marble floors, oil paintings in gilt frames of distinguished-looking gentlemen, and gold and blue swag drapes. Two hundred guests sit on upholstered empire chairs as host Eric Metaxas admonishes them: "This is a traditional club with traditional rules. Also, I might add, no spitting."
One month later the meeting is at the University Club, another uptown institution with chandeliers and oil paintings. Some journalists stereotype evangelicals as hicks who spit, people who do not belong in elegant settings-but 240 evangelicals and friends of evangelicals, most in dark suits or serious evening wear, are here to hear Francis Collins, the physician-geneticist known for leading the Human Genome Project, talk about his life and his faith.
Collins has establishment credentials-Ph.D. from Yale, medical school at the University of North Carolina, a pioneer hailed by presidents and CEOs. He speaks at first of how scientists are connecting more and more genes to particular diseases, of how medicine will be revolutionized as individuals learn precisely their personal risks and then take pharmaceuticals tailored to them individually.
But then Collins speaks of how as a doctor he saw that some people who faced death were at peace-and he recalls thinking, "I would not feel that way. I would be terrified." Then a patient asked, "Doctor, what do you believe?" Collins says he had to admit that "my atheism had not been based upon real consideration of the evidence." He began to read widely, and he finally concluded that "atheism is the least rational of all choices."
Collins has the audience paying rapt attention as he talks about noticing "pointers to God from nature." The first, so obvious that we often overlook it, is that "there is something instead of nothing." The second is that we, people, exist because of, among other things, "the precise tuning of 15 physical constants-if you tweak their values by a tiny fraction, it doesn't work." He decided it would require more faith not to believe in "a designed universe" than to see it as God-made.
Collins concludes by explaining that at age 27, without the faith to be an atheist, he became a follower of Christ, helped by C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity: "It changed my life." Some questioners ask why and how Collins defends both the Bible and theistic evolution (see "Dialogue with Darwinists," Feb. 14, 2009), but the emphasis is on the change in Collins and the prospective change in many Manhattanites.
Honoring and promoting such change is one goal of Socrates in the City, a series of such gatherings now in its ninth year. Eric Metaxas, 45, the man who started the series and keeps it going, is bilingually able to speak both Elitese and Evangelise. In college he edited the Yale Record, the nation's oldest campus humor magazine. He went on to write more than 20 children's books and videos and to write for Chuck Colson's Breakpoint and for Veggietales. Recently, he has authored thoughtful books on William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, clever apologetics books-like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask)-and a new children's bedtime book, It's Time to Sleep, My Love (WORLD, Nov. 15, 2008).
Metaxas purposely schedules Socrates in the City events in gorgeous rooms in Manhattan's private clubs and usually starts them with a wine and hors d'oeuvres reception: He wants to "create a comfortable place for people trying to think more deeply about the big questions. We don't push Christianity, and certainly don't conclude with comment cards asking people to 'make a decision.' To do that would be to destroy the trust we have built up with the people who come to our events without fearing an uncomfortably 'religious' atmosphere."
The roster of Socrates and the City speakers over the years has included British theologian N.T. Wright, NYU psychology professor Paul Vitz, former ABC science correspondent Michael Guillen, human-rights advocate Caroline Cox, and First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus, who died last month. They have spoken on provocative questions like the one to which world-renowned physicist Sir John Polkinghorne responded, "Can a Scientist Pray?" (His answer: yes.)
Metaxas notes that Socrates in the City audiences at first were largely evangelical but now include many "who are either only nominally Christian or not particularly Christian." He doesn't like thinking in either/or terms, though: He argues that "to enter the mainstream culture and engage it, evangelicals have to stop the binary behavior-I'm speaking to a believer or a non-believer-and realize that there are many shades of gray."
Metaxas has learned over the years that many non-evangelicals are "open to presentations on faith issues" but are part of "unreached people groups" such as natives on some Pacific islands or in South American jungles: "As brave and diligent souls have over the last two millennia risked their lives and lost their lives, and have studied obscure grammars and translated the Gospel of John into the dialects of vanishing tribes, so too we today ought to humbly set ourselves to the noble task of bringing the gospel to these elites."
That may seems strange to those who walk Manhattan's streets and see church buildings on many corners, but many of the churches have become liberal social clubs where sophisticated savages talk about foreign hearts of darkness without examining the condition of their own hearts. Metaxas nails a second point: "We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that, simply because they live in America and speak English, these cultural elites have heard the gospel already and have rejected it. If the gospel has not been translated into a language that they understand, and if it has not been brought to them by people with whom they have some cultural affinity, they have not heard it."
Metaxas notes that "these people do not speak the same language as thatched-haired evangelists on TV, nor do they know anyone who knows anyone who speaks that language. It is a foreign tongue, and they are deaf to it. . . . Surely a God who would have us humble ourselves and pray for demon-worshipping cannibals would have us humble ourselves and reach out to pro-choice television anchors, too."
By reaching out to those anchors, Metaxas suggests, evangelicals are also defending their own families and cultural values: "For good or for ill, it is the cultural elites who determine much of what goes on in the rest of the culture, who can . . . determine what we sneer at and what we ooh at and ahh at. . . . They tend to have the TV pulpits and the Conde Nast photo spreads. And the folks in Topeka who watch them . . . don't. You've heard of trickle-down economics? Let me introduce you to trickle-down culture."
So Socrates in the City has a nationally significant task, and it's not alone in ministering to middle-aged urban professionals. Muppies also race to meetings of the New Canaan Society (NCS), founded in 1995 by Goldman Sachs partner Jim Lane as a small men's group in one of New York's Connecticut suburbs. NCS now has expanded into Manhattan, New Jersey, and other parts of the metropolis.
Young urban professionals, meanwhile, often head to Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a 20-year-old institution that has five meeting times on Sunday in uptown venues, including auditoria of Hunter College (east side) and the Ethical Culture Society (west side), neither of which shares Redeemer's values. The average Redeemer attendee is barely older than the church; 20-somethings also attend Redeemer church plants in Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and other New York environs. Redeemer also sponsors a Reformed University Fellowship chapter for New York colleges and a Gotham Fellowship program that shows young professionals how to live and work as Christians.
Other theologically conservative churches are also emerging in Manhattan, and evangelical educational groups are also layering the gospel; for example, The King's College has classrooms and offices in the Empire State Building, and The Geneva School takes students from pre-K to grade 8. Metaxas sees the synergy between and among such institutions beginning to approach one of the most famous networks in British history, the Clapham network that 200 years ago led the London battle against slave trading and then slavery itself.
Metaxas notes that the Claphamites "fought hard to win souls to Christ, and just as hard to fight suffering and poverty and injustice in Christ's name. And they realized that to be successful in either of these, they needed to be deeply devoted to Christ as well as fully engaged in the culture around them." One common evangelical goal these days is to be "in the world, but not of it," and the Claphamites were both: "While they spent much time together and prayed much, they knew God had not called them only to fellowship and endless prayer meetings, but to go out and to do His work outside those meetings, in the marketplace."
Wilberforce is a role model for Metaxas because he was both deeply religious and delightfully witty-"ardently evangelistic, always thinking of ways to bring those he knew to think about the state of their souls . . . but he never came across as a dour moralist; all who met him thought him winsome and full of joy." Metaxas insists that Wilberforce and his friends "were not mere culture warriors, trying to climb over the ramparts to take control, but rather were already insiders who knew how to behave like insiders, and who would do their best to change things from within. They knew how to move in their high circles of influence; knew the unspoken language of those circles; and knew when to push and when not to push and whom to ask about this or that, and whom not to ask."
Metaxas concludes that Wilberforce and his friends knew that London was "not their true home, but they did what good they could there because ignoring their culture meant ignoring those trapped within it, including the suffering and the poor." The Claphamites themselves derived benefits from work alongside those who did not share their faith: "Their faith itself became more robust, relevant, and real. It had to be so, since the reforms they were trying to effect depended on their making their case in the public sphere. . . . If they had come across as merely odd religious fanatics, their success would have been seriously hurt."
Metaxas has sharp but true things to say about contemporary evangelical tendencies to complain about American culture but not do anything about it, either because "getting everyone saved" was the only important Christian activity," or because of Left Behind beliefs that the world would soon be ending: "This tactic has the double disadvantage of being unbiblical and not working. Indeed, it has backfired badly, because without Christians involved in it, the culture only got worse."
Metaxas also criticizes those who "hide in a separate Christian subculture" and "lose the ability to communicate effectively with those who are outside. We . . . become less and less able to speak to those who are different from us. That, of course, is the enemy of evangelism. We grow more and more fearful and suspicious of those outside the camp, until we slowly begin to think of them as a hostile 'other' whom we must destroy, rather than broken and exiled parts of our own selves, whom we are commanded by God to heal and restore."
Exiled parts of our own selves . . . and exiled parts of our own country. As suspicious Christians more and more abandoned "worldly" centers of influence, Metaxas notes that New York City "slid farther into secularism, and farther from the values of the rest of the country. And because of the rise of the media culture in the last 50 years, the influence of these increasingly secular cultural centers only increased. People who thought they could hide in small towns far from places like New York found that their children were going upstairs to watch their own TVs-and getting the values of New York and Hollywood elites anyway."
And a takeaway zinger from Metaxas: "We are sinners, too, in need of God's grace. Or did we think we could get to heaven simply by not watching HBO?"