The scene is easy to recall. A group of young athletes in slow-motion, running on a beach, to a Vangelis score. The camera finds the beatific face of a young Eric Liddell, and the Chariots of Fire magic washes over you once more. It’s a great movie and a powerful story—the story of a unique Olympian, a conscience-driven Christian man, who was very fast and felt God’s pleasure in that fastness.
Yet here is the remarkable truth: Chariots of Fire did not tell the most engrossing part of Liddell’s remarkable life. This is left to Duncan Hamilton and his new biography, For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr. Hamilton’s book spans the full spectrum of the Olympic champion’s life, allowing us an extended look at Liddell’s work as a missionary in China. The world might like the athletic heroism best, but Christians will find Hamilton’s portrait of Liddell’s sacrificial labor deeply stirring.
Hamilton is well known in the UK as an award-winning sportswriter. This nearly 400-page text amply demonstrates his talents, as not a word is wasted, and many an opportunity for a fresh metaphor taken. For the Glory fits self-consciously in the vein of true tales like Unbrokenand The Boys in the Boat, and belongs in their company for its dramatic power. Like the camera at an Olympic event, we rarely linger long on any one aspect of Liddell’s story; Hamilton keeps the pace at a fast clip, and his cut-glass prose focuses our attention squarely on the champion.
‘Each One Comes to the Cross-roads’
The biography is not hagiography, but it is deeply appreciative of Liddell’s character and example. While some readers might want more critical distance, the reason for the authorial sympathy becomes evident: Liddell was not merely a good man. He was a great man. He believed deeply, trained conscientiously, preached movingly, smiled frequently, and ran courageously.
Liddell lived life to the hilt, but not in the modern “I am tenaciously dedicated to my own hedonic brand” kind of way. Liddell’s vision of an all-out life was to assess his options, count the cost, and then take the most risky step in the name of Jesus Christ. The calculation was a simple one: “Each one comes to the cross-roads at some period of his life,” Hamilton quotes Liddell as preaching, “and must make his decision for or against his Master.” This Christocentric logic made great sense to Liddell, even if it made little sense to the world. Liddell faced fierce skepticism for his attempts to live out his faith, whether in his famous decision not to run on Sundays or his withdrawal from competition in order to answer the missionary call.
This example can help inform contemporary engagement for believers. Much effort is made today by younger evangelicals to get the cultural backflip just right, to strenuously befriend unbelievers while never offending them with over-stressed Christianity. Liddell’s was a more straightforward approach. Drafting off of the Sermon on the Mount, his favorite section of Scripture, he stood for his convictions without flinching while loving his neighbor without hesitating. The resulting model of Christian witness is as simple as it is inspiring.