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Q&A | Eric Metaxas discusses Bonhoeffer, Wilberforce, and his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast

Eric Metaxas is the author of The New York Times bestsellers Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. He is also the host of Socrates in the City, a monthly speakers series in New York. On Feb. 2 he was the keynote speaker for the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. (see "No pious baloney," by Emily Belz, Feb. 2).

Recently, I sat down with Metaxas to ask him about his speech and the dilemmas Christians face in culture and politics.

When did you hear you would give the National Prayer Breakfast speech? What was your reaction? I found out in November. And frankly, I was staggered. It is such an honor. I couldn't believe it. To follow in the footsteps of Bono and Mother Theresa and Tony Blair was no small thing.

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Honest question: Were you nervous? Honestly, I wasn't nervous. I absolutely knew that the Lord had called me to be there and I knew that He would speak through me for His purposes. I had lots of friends whom I begged to pray, because it's obviously a spiritual battle. But I knew God had a purpose and that in the end He would say what He wanted to say.

Did you come up with all your jokes on the spot? You know, I think I came up with a bunch of them the day before and some of them on the spot. I'm pretty quick on my feet and I usually never lay out what I'm going to say. But since this was the Prayer Breakfast, and because they would be translating it, they insisted on seeing a transcript, so it forced me to write down most of what I was going to say.

How did you choose your topic? Did you prepare far in advance? I didn't try to come up with anything really new. I knew I would talk about Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce and share a little of my story [see "A note from Eric Metaxas' early spiritual mentor," by Mickey McLean, Feb. 3], but I really wanted to talk about the idea of dead religion versus real faith in Jesus. I think that's at the heart of the faith, and it's at the heart of why we celebrate Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce. Their lives serve as models and inspiration for authentic faith.

I often hear, especially here in New York, that the Church should not only be actively engaged in culture, but also looking for the approval of the world as a sign of success. What are your thoughts? There is some truth to that. We are called to be involved in the culture and to speak to the culture. Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce show us how by being obedient to God and speaking what He is speaking in love. Their authenticity and courage is what made them relevant. Merely trying to be hip and relevant is the antithesis of being courageous, faithful, and obedient. But you can also go wrong in the other direction and be so deaf to the voices in the culture that you're not able to communicate to them. We need to be in the world but not of the world. That's not original with me, but it's worth remembering.

What about when Christians face hostility? Should they fight back? We have to fight passionately for what we believe and for what is right, but we have to fight God's way. Many people interpret this to mean that we shouldn't fight, but Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce show us how to do it: We are to fight with passion and integrity.

What should be the Christian approach to politics? We absolutely must be involved in politics, but we must never ever make an idol of politics. Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce show a balance on being involved in politics without making it an idol. The worse thing we could do is fall into this false choice that says either that we shouldn't be political or that politics is the whole answer. We must be involved and we must speak out against injustice.

Just as I said at the Prayer Breakfast, when a group is deemed sub-human, Christians must stand up and speak up. Bonhoeffer said it well: "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak; not to act is to act."

What would you say is the most important or pressing issue right now? A biblical view of the human person, what does it mean to see each other as made in the image of God? Ultimately that leads to everything, including a biblical view on the unborn and sexuality. But the most important thing is not necessarily one issue, but rather its how we are involved. We cannot speak the truth unless we speak the truth in love. I tried to model that in my talk at the Prayer Breakfast. We have to speak the truth, but we must not do so from a position of moral superiority-that negates what we are saying. To the extent that we do not speak the truth in love, we are speaking a lie.

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