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Eric Metaxas (James Allen Walker for WORLD)

Mission to Metropolis

Religion | Eric Metaxas and other New York Christians speak the language of the city to reach a lost tribe: America's cultural elites

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

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.

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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."

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