Around Christmas, Mark Lanier becomes like the teetotaling Baptist brother of infamous party host Jay Gatsby. Every year since 1994, Lanier’s 35-acre estate in northwest Houston is opened to thousands of colleagues, political connections, family, and friends. Visitors survey the landmarks: a replica of a 6th-century Byzantine chapel, a theological library modeled after seven Oxford libraries, and a Noahide menagerie that includes lemurs and kangaroos alongside their more pedestrian counterparts like sheep and goats. Guests ride a model train among other carnival rides brought in for the event, where Sting, Bon Jovi, Rascal Flatts, and prescandal Miley Cyrus have all performed for as many as 10,000 people.
And like Gatsby, Lanier is shrouded in mystery. I first meet him at a dinner in his home, part of a weekend of events culminating in a lecture by Lanier himself. He welcomes 100 of us one by one, flashing a boyish grin and tossing his hair back into place. Virtually everyone at dinner knows only pieces and rumors. I meet college friends of Lanier’s who are visiting his estate for the first time. Dining across from me is an elderly couple who met Lanier when they accidentally pulled onto his property thinking it was a park. We are jovial, dazzled by the opulence and enjoying an unusually cool Texas evening beneath the colonnade. Everyone has heard about Lanier’s Christmas party to end all Christmas parties. But what is the meaning of all this, few can say.
Lanier, 53, is ostensibly one of the nation’s most successful trial lawyers, known for convincing judges and juries to award his clients astronomical sums. The Lanier Law Firm was behind a landmark case against pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. in 2005 where a judge awarded $253 million in damages for the now-withdrawn pain medication Vioxx. Earlier this year, another of Lanier’s clients won $9 billion in a drug-related suit, making it the seventh-largest judgment in US history. National Law Journal has listed Lanier on its list of the nation’s top lawyers at least four times, while Texas Monthly has called him a “super lawyer” more than once.
But those who only have seen Lanier while he spars on Fox Business’s Varney & Co. know half the story. A lifelong Christian, Lanier says practicing law is not his main calling. It is studying the Bible and teaching Sunday school at Champion Forest, a Baptist megachurch in the Houston suburbs. His class draws a weekly attendance of 1,000, who are handed dense study packets on topics ranging from church history to string-theory physics.
“People don’t realize I’m doing [law] because it pays the bills and is kind of fun, but I’d much rather be reading that,” says Lanier, pointing to an abstruse book written by an Old Testament scholar. We’re sitting opposite each other in his office in the east wing of his eponymous library, surrounded by dark-stained bookshelves. An imperious high-back black chair bearing the Texas State seal looms off to one side, opposite a painting of Lanier and wife Becky’s five children. On the exposed-brick wall behind Lanier are sketches commissioned for a series of Byzantine paintings that now adorn the ceiling of his chapel. Off in another corner is a framed medal and certificate of induction into the Order of Antonio José de Irisarri, one the highest honors from the President of Guatemala. (Lanier’s Christmas parties double as fundraisers for Guatemalan charities; his contributions have been so substantial that the Laniers received the honor from President Otto Perez Molina himself.)
Mere seconds in Lanier’s office—a library within a library, really—is all it takes to grasp Lanier’s devotion to study. When I ask what he’s currently reading, he pulls together the works of John Milton; a transcription of the Nuremburg trials for a lecture this evening; and the third edition of Engineering Tribology, part of his research for an upcoming suit involving an artificial hip implant. Lanier is known to spend 500 hours or more mastering a topic before a single deposition. He reads anything that will improve his craft in a courtroom, including marketing and communications techniques. He studies neuroscience to try to duplicate visceral experiences like motivation in the minds of a jury. In a corner of the library above an antique book press hangs a framed page from an original King James Bible. It’s from the Book of Joshua: “Loose thy shoe from off thy foote, for the place whereon thou standest is holy.”
Lanier understands his legal work as deeply Christian. When he spoke out against tort reform in 2003 to state lawmakers, he was trying to fix what he thought an egregious injustice: a proposed medical malpractice lawsuit cap of $250,000, with an exception for “economic losses,” or damages awarded based on the plaintiff’s potential future income. Since a wealthy banker stood to lose more than a teenage girl in the inner city, Lanier found the proposed bill reprehensible. It costs $250,000 just to push such lawsuits. At the least, he reasoned, put in an exemption for abortion providers so that underprivileged teenage girls who are victimized can get access to a decent lawyer.
Lanier’s suggestions were ignored. He fielded the usual criticisms: litigation was ruining the medical profession; trial lawyers had a huge stake in keeping litigation as deregulated as imaginable. One politico from the red-as-Christ’s-blood state questioned Lanier’s faith, speculating whether a lawyer could also truly be a Christian.
“I represent widows and orphans, and I cry out for justice for the underprivileged masses. Jesus would have been a plaintiff’s lawyer,” he says. Lanier is used to beating people to the punch. His strategy is to outthink his opponents by developing answers to questions that they’ve not yet formulated, questions that recede past the vanishing point of the horizon of their worldview.
Putting Faith on Trial
A few hours after our chat in his office, Lanier will deliver a lecture based on his book Christianity on Trial: A Lawyer Examines the Christian Faith (InterVarsity Press). The book began as a teaching series at Champion Forest based on the J. B. Phillips classic Your God Is Too Small. A friend encouraged him to publish, and what emerged was a book about proving the reasonableness of the Christian account of reality, written by a man who proves the kinds of things in a courtroom that scientists can’t prove in a laboratory.
“Mathematics measures mathematics. Chemistry measures chemistry. But they don’t measure, ‘Do I love my wife?’” says Lanier. “So you want to do that, you can prove it, but you prove it the way you do in court.” For Lanier, the schism between scientific fact and spiritual faith comes down to a disagreement in the terms of the argument.
Lanier says people of faith have been asked to measure a mile in ounces. Since at least the Enlightenment era, they have faced the full-court press of historical-critical claims against Scripture: from Thomas Hobbes to Immanuel Kant to Friedrich Nietzsche to the Jesus Seminar of the 1980s. Recent secularists have wielded neuroscience as a challenge to spiritual life: Faith is nothing but a predeterministic cocktail of genes and juices! The onslaught of skepticism has taken a heavy toll on Christian college students, a full 70 percent of whom drop the faith sometime during their freshman year, according to LifeWay Research. (Some do return.)
“I believe Christianity can hold up to the highest level of academic scrutiny,” Lanier says, showing how a top-shelf lawyer might be better suited than a faith-filled scientist to fight the good fight. Put faith under a microscope, and you’ll determine there’s nothing there; put it on trial, and you might restore faith to its respectable, reasonable standing.
His unique contribution to current apologetics is precisely his vocation as a lawyer. He insists that the tools best suited to prove the truths of Christianity are the same as the ones used in civil court. Lanier routinely convinces juries that his—beyond a reasonable doubt—is the stronger of two arguments.
“It doesn’t mean there’s no doubt,” he says. In Lanier’s line of work, 49 percent doubt is still the “greater weight of credible evidence,” enough to prove truth to a jury. In one chapter of his book, he “calls to the stand” noted psychologist B. F. Skinner and linguist Noam Chomsky, along with the ancient voices of Cicero and Matthew the Evangelist, to examine whether it’s reasonable to expect the God of biblical proportions to reveal himself through Holy Writ. From the testimony of these “witnesses,” Lanier demonstrates that language is the quintessential human distinctive, and that communication takes place through a medium. If we assume that God has the power and interest to communicate with humankind, then is it more reasonable to believe he would use ESP over that which science continues to prove—namely that humans are fundamentally verbal beings? “Our minds and conscious thoughts are hardwired for language,” writes Lanier. “Accordingly, we might fairly expect God to use language in communicating with people. It is what people are prepared to hear and understand.”
Lanier’s passion for credible faith has grown alongside his success as a plaintiff’s lawyer. As a teenager, he took an aptitude test that indicated he was suited for three vocations: trial lawyer, preacher, or politician. He had already been studying college-level ancient languages and teaching his siblings how to study the Bible.
“My oldest memory is of Mark teaching me Scripture,” says Holly Roberts, Lanier’s younger sister and a 20-year veteran of Bible Study Fellowship International. “He’s the single most influential person in my spiritual walk.” Lanier used to give Roberts quarters for memorizing verses. He taught her the Shema, the classic Jewish creedal confession, when she was 6.
Lanier pursued debate through college, routinely winning national championships, while working on a bachelor’s degree in biblical languages and teaching the Bible at his campus ministry. When he had completed his undergraduate education, two options lay before him: he could continue on to law school or teach at a local church. He turned to Ken Dye, a pastor at his home church.
Dye, with a deep Texan drawl, is reluctant to take credit for Lanier’s success. Still, “You can’t underestimate small conversations,” says Dye. “I think he would have become a lawyer, but sometimes you need a nudge.” During a 30-minute meeting back in 1986, Dye pointed out that Lanier would be miserable as a preacher, since he didn’t exactly toe the denominational line on a few doctrines. Besides, Dye told him, if Lanier were to succeed at practicing law, he could teach Sunday school and pay his own way to pursue his passion. To a 20-year-old Lanier, that sounded like sage advice. He went on to law school at Texas Tech University, and continued to pore over Scripture.
The Best Case
When his personal library outgrew his home, Lanier dreamed of building his own theological library. The library, completed six years ago, is designed to hold 100,000-plus books. Though it sits within Lanier’s gated compound, it’s open daily to the public and serves seven area seminaries. Its roster of guest lecturers and scholars has included Richard Bauckham, N. T. Wright, D. A. Carson, Alister McGrath, and Justice Antonin Scalia. Each lecture is accompanied by a weekend of discussions and luncheons to give attending scholars and laity alike a haven to think, doubt, and believe.
And the library is magnificent. The two-story-high stained glass windows, iron spiral staircases, and window seats are all factual imitations from Oxford libraries. The library boasts the private libraries of a dozen notable biblical scholars—each kept completely intact and separate from the larger collection of more than 130,000 volumes and 20,000 articles and journals. Each of the scholars’ libraries is displayed neatly in its own recess with a name plate above, a detail that preserves an intimate sense of presence and continuity between scholars past and the students who now amble through the stacks.
“Mark is the only one who takes books out,” says Charles Mickey, the library’s director. “He’s studying all the time on his private plane. He doesn’t waste a minute.” (His law firm has offices in Houston, New York, and Los Angeles, and Lanier’s schedule is a dizzying succession of depositions, cross-country flights, awards banquets, trials, and short bouts of sleep.)
Mickey has the affable poise of a retired golf pro. But he is actually Lanier’s former campus pastor. Mickey has stories that span Lanier’s life, which he recounts while giving me the tour.
Lanier’s library also houses a number of artifacts, each with a charming story tied directly to the library’s founder. To wit, the mosaic: Just hours before the inaugural lecture, Mickey had hastily erected a replica mosaic, handmade by Jordanian women, only to learn that Lanier had purchased it without knowing what the Greek inscription said. Tapping Lanier’s vast connections, Mickey was able to enlist the help of a monk from St. Catherine’s monastery atop Mount Sinai to provide the translation. Fittingly, the inscription is a note thanking two lawyers who had funded a baptistery.
But the mosaic is not the most valuable artifact in the library. Neither are the exact replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls in their mind-boggling detail (every stain, smudge, or strand of deteriorating leather precisely like the originals).
The most valuable artifacts in the collection include a pair of original-edition King James Bibles, both open to Ruth 3:15, to demonstrate that one is a “He” Bible, the other a “She,” according to a mistranslation in the earlier of the two editions; the C. S. Lewis collection, comprising 60 first-edition books as well as handwritten letters; and, the most valuable, the “Lanier shard,” a scrap of papyrus from the Dead Sea Scrolls containing broken text from the Book of Amos.
Before long, I enter the cruciform chapel with hundreds of guests for Lanier’s lecture. It’s the culmination of the weekend’s events, and in some ways, of Lanier himself. The parties and celebrities, the library and its artifacts, the chapel and the Sunday school class, the honors—all of Lanier’s life spirals like a cosmos from a big bang between two basic elements in his being: the staggering success in his legal career, and a passion for God.
We file into pews, extra seating extending into the transepts. After an introduction from former federal judge Ken Starr and a performance from Catholic singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot, Lanier climbs to the lectern. A giant screen (used for Lanier’s PowerPoint presentations, now studied by many law students) conceals the apse but not its depiction of a Coptic Christ returning in judgment to acquit the saints and damn the rest.
As Lanier delivers his best case for a reasonable faith, the chapel has become a courtroom, the aged pews an oversized jury box. Wearing a striped suit, red tie, and pocket handkerchief, Lanier thunders from the lectern, his arms spread wide. Suddenly his roles have blurred. Is he a lawyer? A preacher? Both? Here it’s unclear. But one thing is clear: With everything within him, Lanier is vying for the truth of the gospel in a case against the skepticism of our age.
Bret Mavrich is an award-winning journalist who writes about God in the world. He lives near Pittsburgh with his wife. Follow him on Twitter at @BretMavrich.
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