I have always wanted to be a part of an audience in which the speaker ends by leading an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” I think the experience of singing that hymn with my fellow classmates, congregated together for the last time, would be a moment to cherish.
Eric Metaxas had the same idyllic vision, and at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast he concluded his message by leading President Barack Obama and 3,500 others in the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” As I watched on YouTube, the camera slowly zoomed out from the podium, the song built as voices joined his, and by the time the blind can see, nearly everyone in the room had risen to their feet. The room was charged with raw feeling — a rare and special moment. And Metaxas, in his strong but slightly off-key voice, created it. His ability to create memorable moments like this is what would make him a phenomenal commencement speaker for Hillsdale College.
I first encountered Eric Metaxas in my spare half-hours with every child’s favorite vegetables, Bob and Larry. While his “Veggie Tales” scripts have brought laughter and the Gospel to children for more than a decade, the popular historian’s gripping biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have inspired people around the world. They tell the stories of two men’s uncompromising belief in the sanctity of human life. Wilberforce fought the British government for the liberty of black slaves and Bonhoeffer fought the Third Reich for the lives of Jews. Today it is difficult for us to understand the mindset of a world that believes it is acceptable to enslave people based on skin color or to exterminate an entire race as subhuman.
But Metaxas, in his enormously successful speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, drew attention to the fact that the horror of the Holocaust is not buried in some remote and irrelevant past. It happened only a moment ago. And the same tidal wave of collective thought that allowed so many to remain comfortable in silence then, allows people to grow complacent on behalf of the unborn today. Voicing his convictions in the presence of the most powerful pro-choice politicians in the world (President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi), Metaxas showed his own willingness to defend the dignity of all persons, “unto the least of these.”
Not only does Metaxas’ mission involve the fight for the basic rights of a human being, it also involves the cultivation of life and liberty into the pursuit of happiness. In his lecture series “Socrates in the City,” Metaxas said, “The object of life is not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul … and you reflect that maturing of the soul when you care more for other people than yourself.” This “maturing of the soul” is at the heart of Hillsdale’s own mission. When giving the testimony of his conversion to Christianity, Metaxas said that it was his encounter with the Great Books that launched his journey in the discovery of truth and meaning. Literature, he said, is a “window into human nature,” and it is part of Hillsdale’s mission to get its students to see through that window.
Along with Eric Metaxas’ character and depth of conviction comes another characteristic that undoubtedly qualifies him for the job. He is, to borrow Woody Allen’s words, “quite funny.”
The day he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, Metaxas had a problem. It was his wife’s birthday. And, being a smart husband, he knew better than to let it go unacknowledged. But she was shy, and he also knew better than to throw her under the spotlight while on national TV. His solution? Announcing it was his wife’s birthday, but gesturing to Pelosi sitting next to him on the stage. Judging by body language, I’d say the joke didn’t go over quite as well with her as it did with the audience. Although he had clued her in on the joke previously, she clearly didn’t care to take advantage of this opportune comic moment.
Maybe I can’t blame her, but still, anyone who has the pluck to call Pelosi “sweetie pie” on national television is a worthy candidate for any college commencement address.