Righting America

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EricTales: The Story behind the Metaxas Word Salad | Righting America

by Camille Kaminski Lewis

Camille Kaminski Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. (The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal.)  Last year she published an edited volume, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity (Peter Lang); see here for our interview with Lewis about this book. Finally, her latest manuscript – tentatively entitiled Klandamentalism: America’s Most Dysfunctional Romance – is under consideration for publication.

You’d think that a $30,000 speaking fee would get you more than a word salad in doctoral robes. 

But as the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church’s Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina was planning their Inaugural Garnet & Gold Forum for commencement week, enough Eric Metaxas fanboys got the ear of the president that he couldn’t resist. Metaxas would be their much-celebrated speaker at their much-touted event. 

They were expecting 1000 attendees. Mercifully, they got about 150. The price was too high or the draw wasn’t strong enough.

We all know Eric Metaxas by now, right? He’s the boy from Queens who graduated with a B.A. in English from Yale in 1984 whose writing skills peaked with his stint on VeggieTales. Oh sure, there’s a Wilberforce biography and a Bonhoeffer biography in there. And his latest riff on a 1966 Time cover story, Is Atheism Dead?

He really doesn’t want us to forget that.

Salem is his publisher (whose CEO is Bob Jones University Class of 1957 Stu Epperson), and it looks like they are giving him free rein. I mean, some of these titles are cringy. 

But Eric “turned” in 2019, according to his old friend, Phil Vischer. He started sidling up to Ann Coulter and getting book blurbs from Tucker Carlson. 

Eric Metaxas poses with Ann Coulter. Image via Twitter.

Then he’s calling the 2020 election “stolen” and insists that Joe Biden is “DELIBERATELY trying to destroy the USA” [emphasis in original]. He says Jesus was “white,” and the COVID vaccine is evil

And to top it all off, he’s boldly aligned with the 21st-century iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, the Oath Keepers.

Apparently not everyone among my South Carolina neighbors knows about Eric Metaxas’ alignment with the worst Americans because my own church peddled this Garnet and Gold Forum

This isn’t okay. This is not the voice we want to amplify. This is not encouraging courageous living or resting in grace. This is not hope-filled discipleship. And it’s the furthest it could be from loving community.  

Now, Metaxas’ speech at the expensive ticketed event has never been published, but his commencement address the next morning was. I’ve transcribed the whole thing. You can read it here

So, join me, please, in putting on your rhetorical critic’s hat for a few minutes to get at Metaxas’s “drama,” as we call it in the biz. By that we rhetoricians mean that every speech tells a story. There’s a protagonist, or agent, who is motivated to do an action with some agency or means within some scene to accomplish some purpose. Who? what? how? where? and why? – these questions hang together within any discourse. The rhetoric is like a play or a novel. And, according to Kenneth Burke, it gives us clues into a rhetor’s (or speaker’s) motivations. 

Usually, for instance, a President talks about the American people as the primary agent in a State of the Union rhetorical drama. It’s important for that Rhetor-in-Chief to communicate the idea of “we, the People” to get things done. A Reformed pastor would likely talk about God as the primary agent. A Holiness pastor would likely talk about believers as the primary agents. You get the idea. 

On first pass, Metaxas’ commencement speech is an incomprehensible word salad. Metaxas has few cogent sentences in those 51 minutes. 

But I’ve spent the last 15 years studying the rhetoric of Bob Jones, Sr., so I am familiar with narcissistic word salads. And I think it’s productive to unravel them so that we can detect the consequences of their words. In my analysis of 50 years of Bob Jones, Sr.’s public life, I’ve identified his rhetoric as “Klandamentalism.” I created that neologism since I’ve discovered that it’s not that the Klan took advantage of naive Evangelicals in the 1920s. No, the Klansman and the fundamentalist evangelist were one. They touted the same ideology, preached in the same pulpits, and funded the same schools. I have discovered that Klandamentalism starts with a forceful, egocentric singular personality and a small but secret cadre of young, white males who alone act upon their neighbors, employees, families, and nation to “bring them to God” in order to earn their own entry into Heaven. Their actions are immaterial and vague. Their counteragents, on the other hand, are perpetually relegated to the second person persona, “you.” Those counteragents flamboyantly lure the protagonists’ attention away from their heavenly destination. 

You can see the Burkean drama I have just identified there: 

  • Agent = Bob Jones and his cohort of white young men 
  • Action & Agency = Not well defined 
  • Scene = Neighbors, employees, families, nation which are the receivers of the agents’ action 
  • Purpose = To get to Heaven

The key with Bob Jones’ Klandamentalism is that the antagonist is always lurking, always present, always acting in lurid, provocative ways. In the protagonist’s dystopic fantasy, the antagonist is always trying to tempt him away from his goal of Heaven. 

But honestly, I did not expect a Yale-trained cartoon writer to sound so much like my own “Dr. Bob.” It could be a script—a Klandamentalist script.

Agent vs. Counteragent

First, the agent or protagonist is plainly Metaxas; he uses “I” frequently in his text just like Bob Jones. Aligned with Metaxas are, of course, his “heroes”—William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Chuck Colson. This is unsurprising. White, Protestant, lettered, and male—these are Eric’s imagined allies. That these people are all dead makes them easily cast as Eric’s wingmen. 

Like Bob, Eric sets up a plain rivalry between himself and his enemies. He says early on that

“there’s [sic] basically two narratives: one is that we, that life was generated spontaneously about 4 billion years ago. Some of the sloshing in the primordial soup, 4 billion years ago created single-celled life.”

Bear with him here. He gets to it eventually: 

“That’s the secular narrative…. the secular narrative, that life emerged from non-life through natural random processes.”

Ten times he mentions this counter drama, this “secular narrative,” crafting an anticipation that he’ll mention an alternative “narrative,” maybe even a “sacred narrative.” But he never explicitly names the “sacred narrative.” Never. 

Instead of a “narrative,” he calls the alternative to the secular—his narrative—“logic.” It’s “truth.” It’s God. It’s stable—static even—and obvious.

But the antagonists’ “secular narrative” defies credulity and “is shifting.” He frames it like a conspiracy that his counter-agents—people like Albert Einstein and Christopher Hitchens—are too weak-minded to resist. “You wanna get tenure,” and “you wanna keep your job,” and “are just longing for the applause of undergraduates.” Additionally, “you don’t want people looking at you funny.” “You”—there’s that second-person persona popping up as if the brand-new Erskine Class of 2022 is among his antagonists. 

Act 

One of the things that shocked me in my research into Bob Jones, Sr.’s rhetoric is that while he is the most frequent actor in his narrative, his actions are negligeable. Some rhetoricians would call them “motion” not “action.” He simply “stands” for the “eternal verities,” as Richard Weaver calls them. And in simply standing, he looks all the more moral (to himself) than his busy and alluring antagonists. 

Metaxas’ “stand” is similar to Jones’. You’re either with him and his small cadre of Christian thinkers or you’re against him. Everything for Metaxas is either-or. 

  • “Either that is garbage or it’s true…. It’s either true or it’s garbage.” 
  • “Either it’s true or it’s not true.” 
  • “Either God created it or he didn’t.” 
  • “We know it or we don’t.”
  • “Is this true or is this just some religious claptrap that some people talk about?” 

In fact, the most frequent verb Metaxas uses is “is”! I have a marked-up version of the transcript, highlighting the verbs in yellow, if you’d like to see it

Jesus who?

The biggest clue that you’re listening to a Klandamentalist, I’ve discovered over the last 15 years, is to look for Jesus in their rhetoric. For an evangelical talking to evangelicals with evangelical trappings all around him, you’d think Jesus would be the primary focus. That’s what they are supposed to do. So, I ask myself when I’m listening to evangelical rhetoric, “is Jesus an actor? What’s Jesus doing?” 

With Bob Jones, Jesus rarely does anything at all. In all forty-two sermons I have unearthed in Marshall, Texas in 1924, Bob Jones mentions Jesus twice. Twice! And even then, Jesus is nothing more than an object of Jones’ preposition—a thing he carries around like a badge of honor.

Metaxas does the same thing. For him “faith in Jesus” is necessary, and the natural world is “pointing to Jesus.” Even Chuck Colson “suddenly encountered Jesus”—the Son of God as a direct object to the bland verb “encountered.” When Jesus is the subject of the sentence—and this is where Eric is not like Bob—Jesus doesn’t act in Metaxas’ rhetoric. He is: “Jesus is Lord,” and “Jesus is truth.” 

Jesus and Eric and Chuck and William and Dietrich—these actors are not doing anything for good or for God. They simply exist. Period. 

Purpose

Now, God does act in Metaxas’ story: “God created.” That is an active albeit past-tense action. Here’s Metaxas at his most coherent and when he reveals the purpose in his drama: 

“God created us for war. We are in a war in this world between good and evil. It expresses itself in an infinity [sic] of ways. There’s [sic] all kinds of evil in the world.”

The Manichean story of good-vs-evil is alluring. Ignore the fact that the Apostle Paul calls Christians “more than conquerors.” In the imagined fantasy between good-and-evil, we can make ourselves our own heroes. Like little kids playing cops-and-robbers, of course, we’re on the side of “good”! And everybody who’s not-us is evil! 

But where’s Jesus, his purported Savior, in Eric’s demagogic war narrative? 

As if he’s throwing a bone to his hero, Metaxas nonsensically repeats Chuck Colson’s favorite Abraham Kuyper’s quotation from Kuyper’s own inaugural address in 1880:

“And Chuck, when he would give speeches almost in every single speech, he would quote the Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper. I know you’re familiar with a lot of Dutch theologians and statesmen, so I wanna be really clear. This was Kuyper I’m talking about. He would quote Kuyper, and he would do this in almost every speech. Abraham Kuyper, around, I don’t know, the late 1880s, said, ‘There is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ who is Sovereign does not say, ‘Mine!’”

I say this is “nonsensical” because it disagrees with everything else Eric is saying. If Jesus actually rules over all the earth like Kuyper claims and Colson and Metaxas repeat, there is no war against evil. The war is over. It is finished. That’s the Point

And within this romanticized war, Metaxas and his cohort fight by “bringing” Jesus into the battle (emphasis mine): 

  • “If it’s true, you’re gonna have to bring it out into the whole world.” 
  • “So as you go into the secular world, it is your job to bring the truth of God into every sphere in which you travel.” 
  • “Does who he is—-do we allow that to enter us in such a way that we bring it wherever we go? That we bring his truth and his love and his goodness and his justice, everywhere we go, no matter what we’re doing? Being an activist or in a lab—whatever you’re doing—he wants us to bring him into that, to be forces of redemption and life in a world of brokenness and death.”

And this is where a rhetorical analysis reveals a rhetor’s inner logic. For Metaxas, Jesus is sovereign but only if “we allow” him to be. Only if we “bring” Jesus-as-fact “into the secular world.” That’s plain—we “go into the secular world” from our logic-ruling world. There are two worlds for Metaxas: “Logic” and “truth” where Jesus reigns and the “secular world” in which we have to “bring” Jesus. They are hermetically sealed off from the other so that Jesus cannot reign without Eric and Company.

So the rhetorical drama here is this: 

  • Agent = Eric Metaxas and his cohort 
  • Action & Agency = Being and bringing and allowing Jesus 
  • Scene = Secular world of brokenness and death 
  • Purpose = Redeem

Thus we—not Jesus, but we human beings joining Metaxas’ cohort—can redeem. We have sovereignty over the Lord of all creation. We hold the power. It’s all in our hands. Who wouldn’t love that kind of supremacy?: 

“If you give your life over to him, you only then begin to know what joy feels like, what meaning feels like, what purpose feels like. He created you literally for that. But because he created you in his image, he cannot and will not force you to acknowledge it. You have total freedom because you’re made in his image. You’re so a glorious creation that you have freedom to reject him or to accept him.”

Jesus sits quietly in our formal (logical) dining room waiting to be invited into the secular rumpus room where we live our lives…if we let him. It’s all up to us. 

No wonder Metaxas likes this story.

I suppose he clues us in right at the beginning with his opening metaphor: 

“The charge to anyone who says, ‘I’m a Christian’” is to live out our Christian life in a secular world. But it is not defensive. It’s not like, ‘OK we’re gonna put an ice cube in and we’re just gonna pray that it melts slowly.’ No, we’re gonna pray that the ice turns all the other water to ice. We’re going on offense. When you bring your Christian faith, if you have real Christian faith, into a world that is unaware of the Christian faith, the demons tremble. Now if you have some fussy religious faith, the demons are fine. But if you bring Jesus into the world, I just want to tell you, folks, the world is hungry for that…”

“Hungry for that,” he says. Not Jesus, but for a “real Christian faith” offensively “brought” into the world. 

The strange ice cube metaphor proves Metaxas’ complete Klandamentalist drama. What kind of action does an ice cube do? It chills, of course, but only temporarily. It can’t do much alone either. Somehow, curiously, Metaxas imagines a simple, singular ice cube freezing everything around it “offensively” rather than melting defensively and slowly. It’s such an insipid and capricious alternative to Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light

Is it any wonder then that Eric Metaxas has aligned himself with the white nationalist war-peddlers like Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, and the Oath Keepers? All of them imagine a conflict between themselves and a pernicious and secret evil which tempts them to destruction. All of them cast aspersions on education and science. All of them imagine themselves as the singular heroes of their own stories. 

Eric Metaxas with Donald Trump. Image via Twitter.

All of them are another variation of Klandamentalism—white nationalism cloaked in religious rhetoric and patriotism. 

The problem is that these people don’t remain simply being and bringing and allowing. This was Kenneth Burke’s warning to us in 1938. Sometimes they take up arms for insurrection. Sometimes they inspire others to do the same. Klandamentalism’s appeal in the 1920s warns us about its appeal to us in the 2020s. Corruptio optimi pessima—the corruption of the best is the worst. Kenneth Burke explained it as “the corrupters of religion … are a major menace to the world today, in giving the profound patterns of religious thought a crude and sinister distortion.” We have to “find all the available ways of making the” Klandamentalist “distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of [t]his kind in America be unable to” continue their “swindle.”

We have to take their rhetoric seriously because it’s never merely an incoherent word salad. We have to transcribe it, mark it, and analyze it so that we can understand how their drama fits together. 100 years ago, Klandamentalism created my alma mater. We need to do better this time.

This is our anti-Metaxas battle.