Pan-Roasting ‘A Fish Out of Water’ With Eric Metaxas
The most delightful book I read in 2021, hands down, is Eric Metaxas’ Fish Out of Water. While on the surface a light-hearted coming of age story, it also raises enduring and serious questions for believers. I decided to talk to my old friend Eric, but not to ask him those questions. Instead I asked him some funny ones, because frankly, we all need a break. Enjoy.
You Seem to Have a “Filter.” Do You Know Where I Can Buy One?
John Zmirak: You and I have a disturbing number of things in common. We were both born in the same hospital, Astoria General, some 16 months apart. We both spent our childhoods surrounded by chain-smoking Greek men eating chunks of pork off wooden skewers, from carts that made whole city blocks smell like burning meat.
We both went to doctrinally lite parochial schools. We’re both kind of … travel-sized, though I’m closer to “carry-on,” whereas you wouldn’t quite fit in the overhead bin. But when we got to Yale, you sensibly made friends, worked on a mainstream humor magazine, made valuable career connections, and got voted in as class speaker.
I climbed into a small, muddy cave called the Party of the Right, and generally acted like a Japanese sniper in 1971 who was still fighting for the Emperor. Where did I go wrong? Did you develop your social polish in those years after your parents moved you to a nice house in Connecticut? Also, you seem to have one of those cognitive devices called a “filter.” Do you know where I could buy one? Do they install them in Connecticut?
Eric Metaxas: God makes each of us different. In some ways it’s beautiful and in some ways it’s hilarious. For example what you descry as your lack of a “filter” is something I admire profoundly about you. Although I don’t mention it in the book, I remember you very distinctly at Yale, lo these four decades past! You were the one that all of the aching-to-be-cool people knew to fear and hate. I remember some of my artsy friends denouncing you as “fascist.” And why?
Because you dared to speak truth to people for whom the idea itself had become uncomfortable. Of course in Fish Out of Water I talk a lot about that atmosphere of moral relativity at Yale, and remembering you as a toxic triggering entity in the midst of it — a working-class skunk trundling into the garden party of the proto-Marxist swells — completely cracks me up. You were the cool one, my friend. And I’m not saying that to make you feel better. It’s just true.
Reeking Teachers and Nazi Painters
Fish Out of Water throughout features your memories of your religious upbringing, your drift away from it, and then at the end your miraculous conversion. But I think that’s just a pretext for telling funny stories about smelly Greek grammar school teachers, Nazi painters you got stuck working with, ludicrous travel experiences, and your brief spell as a Bohemian aspiring writer in Manhattan garrets. Am I being unfair here?
Only if unfairness can be fair. Of course I am utterly thrilled (you’ll notice I don’t say “beyond thrilled,” which is an especially insipid cliché) that you were entertained by the stories in my book, because they are all true, all the way down to the syllabic level. And of course they give you an idea what it was to be me, which I hope will help the reader follow my journey as an innocent and naif more closely and attentively.
But I promise that the characters are not exaggerated at all, nor are any of the incidents. Rather all are rendered with a journalistic eye — remember journalism? — for detail, and I’m sure there are many people yet living who can verify what I say. The Nazi painter and his bride are still alive, but our mutual employer told me last year that they have removed to Hungary. Alas!
Is Relativism Day a School Holiday?
You describe a Yale holiday called “Celery Green Day.” Sounds kind of nice, almost appetizing. Please tell us about it, and why it appeals to so many people.
Doing real justice to this curiously named undergraduate confection would really take several pages, so I must apologize for insisting that folks simply read those pages in the book for the full experience. But the short description is that it was a friend’s invented holiday to celebrate subjectivity — the idea that there are many “truths”. There can be something beautiful about it. But in the atmosphere of Yale at that time it is ultimately troubling and telling, not least because such notions often lead to hell and death. Just saying. Why didn’t you ask me to describe Bladderball? Although that couldn’t be done justice here either.
My Lord and My Dogs
My beagles Finnegan and Rayne make occasional, uninvited cameos on your radio show. You told me you didn’t use to be a dog person, until your daughter insisted on getting a cute little foofie dog. Please tell our readers more about my dogs and yours. Do you remember that evening of full beagle immersion, when my twins crawled around on your head as I forced you to finally watch Impractical Jokers? What life lessons has your dog taught you?
How could I forget the sublime (or perhaps even lime) experience of being climbed by your sweet beagles as though I were an Alp or Apennine? When they summitted me, having made their ascent on what I recall was my North face — each serving as the other’s Sherpa in these efforts — I confess that I rejoiced with them, as though I too had clumb along for the journey, if that were possible.
As for my sweet Georgie — who is an eight-pound, ten-year-old Yorkshire/Maltese mix — let me be perfectly clear: there ain’t nothing “foofie” about her. She can run and leap like a hart, and growl like a wolverine, too. But there is a grace and bonhomie to her that is boundless and deeply affecting. So yes of course she has made a dog-person out of me, and the lessons she teaches me are too many for enumeration. Georgie gives me so much joy that I rarely even think about the penury of growing up without a dog, just as when arriving in heaven we probably will be so smitten with the overwhelming presence of God that we will almost certainly forget the questions we had for Him.
I should say — as I think I do in the book — that my parents, being European immigrants who suffered hunger during and after the war, did not understand that in America the idea of “a boy and his dog” is something fundamental. I didn’t get a minibike either, no matter how I begged. But on the animal side of things we had two goldfish and then two aggressively cute turtles and then a guinea pig and then the infamous and ultimately obese cat who got mega-blasted by a skunk in the middle of the bleak Connecticut midwinter, engendering a positively nuclear super stank that is still something I cannot make any sense of, no matter how I try and try. I’ll be scratching my head over that episode forever.
Why Aren’t You Rich? Then I Could Cadge “Loans” From You
In a normal, non-totalitarian country (say, America 25 years ago), Fish Out of Water would be a massive best-seller, and your share of the movie rights would have bought you an apartment in Manhattan. But we now live in a cancel culture, and your dogged advocacy of pro-family causes, orthodox Christianity, and election integrity in 2020 changed all that. Now you’re interviewing cranks like me and selling pillows. Are you bitter?
The denouement and climax of my book describes how just after my 25th birthday Jesus knocked me upside down — which is to say right-side up — in a dramatic and life changing miracle. That experience convinced me in the deepest way imaginable that knowing Him and serving Him was the only thing worth doing, so however He chose to arrange things in terms of my future career would not only be all right, but would — I knew — be best. So if it ever pleases God to let me have the giddy flush of unencumbered mainstream celebrity, that would be nice. But if not, that’s infinitely more than nice. I have the funny idea that living in heaven for eternity will be even better than being J.D. Salinger or, God forbid, Norman Mailer.
We Qualified as “White” Just in Time to Hate Ourselves
In the 1920s, neither you nor I would have qualified as “white” by the definitions of the likes of Margaret Sanger. Now people who still support her eugenics organization are demanding that we internalize white guilt and embrace Marxist “Anti-Racism,” which is just a fancy way of saying “Kill Whitey.” Ain’t life funny?
Of course I obliquely talk about this very thing in two chapters in the book. In one I remember my father’s story about the value of a penny. After waiting tables in midtown till ten pm he went to board an uptown bus home and realized he only had fourteen of the fifteen cents required. He knew the bus driver might not take kindly to a swarthy Greek-accented young man asking to be excused paying full fare, so he walked the forty blocks home.
In another chapter I remember being a student at Trinity College in Hartford — before I got to Yale — and being made to hear an African-American poetess hold forth in a way that I felt had been calculated to expand the horizons of the privileged white students in my honors humanity class. And I remember feeling awkward, knowing that my parents were working-class, and that both of them had been discriminated against for their nationalities over the years, and wondering why I was being subjected to this ham-fisted indoctrination.
Swimming Upstream in the Sewage
Your parents as immigrants from East Germany and a Greece afflicted by a Marxist-led civil war tried to inoculate you against Communism. They loved America naturally and effortlessly. How can parents today share such wholesome views with their kids, who are swimming upstream against a roaring Niagara Falls of intellectual sewage?
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Yes, a veritable frothing cataract of gaggy excrement. Quite. But I highly recommend that parents ignore the madness unfurling all around and simply carry on as though none of it were true, which — happily — is the case. If we expose our kids to Capra movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and to poems like Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and to books like yours and mine, for example, I think we give children all they need to see what you and I see. That the Emperor, as it were, has no clothes, but rather struts nakedly and preposterously before history.
There Are No Atheists in Hell
Your new book, soon to be published, is called Is Atheism Dead? Please tell us about it. Especially your research methods. Did you interview many dead atheists? What did they say? More seriously: Do you think atheism for many is simply wishful thinking?
There are no dead atheists, John. Once an atheist dies he is inevitably confronted by the fiction of his unbelief — and lo! He doth believe! And how doth he! But I am truly so excited about this upcoming book that I hereby exhort all the good and gentle folk reading these words to pre-order it immediately. There are things in it that will shock people, and anyone who wishes to continuing swimming in the swamp of Atheism must take the greatest care possible not to peek between this book’s covers, for in the moment that he does, his grim philosophy of death will surely die.
A Final Greek-Irish Fistfight
That meat I used to get from souvlaki carts: Was it really pork? Or just “catch of the day” from the alleys of Queens?
You sure know how to hurt a guy. The Greeks you denigrate in your high-handed Irish manner are my people, and when 25 centuries ago your forebears were wearing animal skins and using manure as cooking fuel — and engaging in cannibalism, hotshot — my noble Hellenes were producing the greatest drama and poetry and philosophy known to the world. So there. That being said, do you know what a Pine Marten is?
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”