A Fish Out of Water: A Moving New Memoir by Eric Metaxas
At once an absorbing confessional memoir, a work of faith, a comedy and a literary achievement, Fish Out of Water by Eric Metaxas is one of the best books I’ve read in 2021. Gorgeously written, fun and spiritually enriching, deeply literate and hugely entertaining, it will appeal to everyone from academic scholars to those looking for a great beach read.
Metaxas is a nationally known Christian speaker, thinker, author and broadcaster. Born to a working-class immigrant parents, Metaxas grew up in Danbury, Conn., and graduated from Yale. Fish Out of Water lovingly (and sometimes scathingly) recounts his childhood in the quirky, earthy, cigarette- scented world of Greece-obsessed Greeks in Queens. Then he gives us a lyrical picture of a fairly idyllic youth in rural Connecticut, where a ravenously curious young man encounters nature, the sites and legacy of the American founding, and later has a brush with … the creepier side of late 1970s sexual mores.
Next Eric follows his youthful intellectual and literary ambitions, which goad him to transfer to Yale. There he discovers at the heart of American elite education, amidst all the stained glass, Gothic vaults, and WASP flummery, a vast and bottomless void. It sucks him in. He wanders and struggles. He hits an existential wall, and almost hits bottom. It’s there that he finds … Our Lord.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Greek
As a young college student Metaxas already had a hungry, questing mind. He devoured Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Greek tragedy and more modern writers like Faulkner and Anthony Burgess. He devoured, and tried to imitate, the fiction master John Updike. The tug-of-war between his aesthetic aspirations and the humble leap of faith required in Christianity plays out with genuine suspense. Eric has the touch of a great novelist. He’s also self-deprecating and funny.
Some reviewers have claimed that Fish Out of Water takes too long to get to the religious theme of conversion, but that’s just not true. Question of faith and conscience run through the entire story.
Growing up, the Greek Orthodox church loomed as a monolith in Eric’s life. But not one that sparked deep faith. “Most Greeks we knew were Biblically ignorant, but still had a built-in respect for God and the church’s authority,” Eric explains.
Why a Stick a Fish on a Minivan?
Young Eric had little connection to believers who’d encountered Christ as a living reality, instead of a cultural treasure. He once saw the chrome fish on the back of a car, and was puzzled. His father explained that this was from the Greek word ixthys, meaning “fish.” The early Christians used this word as an acronym — Iesus Xristos THeos Ymon Sotir. It stood for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Our Savior.” At the time, what impressed Eric about this was its connection to … the Greek language. He still had a long way to travel.
In one of the book’s most powerful passages, Metaxas recalls bullying a weaker kid in fourth grade and how to this day his conscience bothers him about it. “I still remember the feeling of wanting to bully him, who was probably the only one weaker than I. But asking why I did this — when my parents had never countenanced anything like that or modeled it around me — is like asking why Adam and Eve a the apple.” He still remembers the bullied kid standing by himself at the bus stop: “That image haunts me and haunts me, but I am glad that it does because I understand now that it should.”
A little later Metaxas found himself curiously looking at a found copy of Good News for Modern Man, a 1970s edition of the Bible. Then getting freaked out when he saw The Exorcist.
Questions of morality, conscience and ultimate meaning weave organically throughout Fish Out of Water. It is a tribute to Metaxas’s gifts as an author who understands foreshadowing and subtlety that he doesn’t feel the need for a huge cinematic reveal moment — well, at least not until near the end of the book.
A Fish in the Ice
Metaxas graduated from Yale in the 1980s. By then he had absorbed big ideas and read all the great writers, but found himself personally, spiritually and financially adrift. In lieu of faith or even theology, he treasured an abstract, New Age/ Jungian idea of the soul as something like the “collective unconscious.” He visualized it as a core reality buried deep under layers of ice.
What helped crack the ice? Metaxas recounts reading M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie, in which Peck, a Harvard psychiatrist, confronts the reality of evil. “If real evil existed,” Metaxas asks, “there must be an alternative. Would that be God?” Intrigued, he read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Ideas about Christianity were swirling through his head. But his heart was still uneasy.
Then, in 1988, God moved. As Eric first wrote about this in Christianity Today:
One night near my 25th birthday, I dreamt I was ice-fishing on Candlewood Lake in Danbury. I believe my childhood friend John Tomanio and his father were with me. I looked into the large hole we had cut into the ice and saw the snout of a fish poking out. (Of course ice-fishing is never this easy.) I reached down and picked it up by the gills and held it up. It was a large pickerel or perhaps even a pike. And in the dazzlingly bright sunlight shining through the blue sky and off the white snow and ice onto the bronze-colored fish, it appeared positively golden. But then I realized that it didn’t merely look golden, it actually was golden. It was a living golden fish, as though I were in a fairy tale.
And suddenly I understood that this golden fish was ixthys — Jesus Christ Son of God Our Savior — and that God was one-upping me in the language of my own symbol system. I had wanted to touch inert water, to touch the so-called “collective unconscious,” but he had something more for me: this was his Son, a living Person, Jesus Christ. And I realized in the dream that he was real and had come from the other side and now I was holding him there in the bright sunlight and at long last my search was over. And I was flooded with joy.
Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C.