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.
Liddell was not a perfect man, of course. Hamilton covers his lengthy separation from his family with a clear eye. Married in 1934 to the untiring Florence, Liddell fathered three children. He loved his wife and kids, but as Hamilton notes, his first priority was the work of missions. This meant lengthy periods of separation as Liddell worked in Siaochang and later Tientsin. The work was always grueling, and China in the 1930s and 1940s was a very fearsome place indeed. Liddell was often robbed, frequently hungry and dirty, and regularly accosted by officials seeking to impede his work.
After a point, Liddell’s visits home ceased altogether. As Japan’s war machine pressed into China in early 1941, Liddell parted with his family, sending them to safety in Toronto. He said goodbye to his loved ones, kissed them, and then walked away, never once turning around. He could not bear the parting, according to his daughters, and he likely intuited at that moment that he would never see his family again. It is often loved ones that must pay the steepest bill for missions work, a sobering reality.
After his heartbreaking goodbye, Liddell returned to the work of missions. His was a deeply practical existence, and For the Glory is an action-driven book. At times in Hamilton’s account, we want more of the thinking behind the living. We know that his theology depended to some degree on the controversial views of activist and evangelist Frank Buchman, but we do not receive any lengthy treatment of Liddell’s conception of the “glory” of God for which he labored. In part this is because Hamilton does not linger long on theological matters, and in part it is because Liddell himself focused on daily discipleship. More coverage of Liddell’s conversion and understanding of the gospel of grace would strengthen For the Glory.
Liddell is often called a “martyr,” and in a sense he was. But he did not depart from his family to die in a fiery blaze. For the Glory particularly excels in its final third, as it recounts, page by foreboding page, Liddell’s last two years of life in a Japanese prison camp, Weihsien. Hamilton records the bitter taste of this new home: “The laws of God seemed to lie far outside its walls because within them there was only the chaos of almost 1,800 internees crammed in a space barely 150 yards long and 200 yards wide.”
For the missionary, there would be no grand stand for Christ. Liddell lived as a kept man. He taught math and science, having come to China initially as a teacher. He did none of the stunning things we hear about in inspiring chapel sermons on missions, and all of the anonymous things that everyday life as a Christian involves. Liddell boiled hot water so it could be used. He played soccer with lonely children. He built shelves for the camp prostitute shunned by others. All these things and more Liddell did, day after day. In them, his character shone. He was the only man who did not “demand favors” in return for his service, according to the prostitute.
This last matter might seem like merely a detail, but it is not. The happy similarity of For the Glory to Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat speaks to a cultural hunger in our time for courageous, virtuous manhood. Ours is a postmodern age in which gray areas and antiheroes get the product placement; ours is a gender-neutral age in which many young men lack any compass for the passion and restlessness they find surging within. In the example of Eric Liddell handed down to us by Duncan Hamilton, we get a sense for what a man can become when Christ gets ahold of him.
Liddell’s life was in no way wasted. His day-to-day faithfulness, his putting others before himself in the image of Christ, made a tremendous difference (John 15:13; Eph. 5:25-32). This was his purpose. The man who had it all before him—a gold medal, a lush Cambridge position, the chance to sample every delight the world spreads on its poisonous banquet table—gave it all up in order to love others. In return, “He was loved by everyone,” as one inmate said after Liddell died in February 1945. This was a universal sentiment in brutal Weihsein.
Hamilton’s dramatic story calls men today to shirk boyhood and take up the gospel banner pried from Liddell’s hands by a deadly tumor. Beyond this, For the Glory reminds every believer of the upside-down nature of the Christian life. We who do not have the world, who are so steadfastly ignored by the profile-writers of the New York Times, so easily crave it; Eric Liddell, who held the keys to the earthly kingdom in his hand, did not want them.
His chosen path involved a race, but there was no slow-motion in it, and there was no soundtrack behind it. There were no hefty medals to win, and no crowds cheering. Early in his life, Liddell saw his Savior walking the Jerusalem way, headed to death. This fleetest of athletes, beloved by his countrymen, left the track and followed his Lord. He moved to a distant, storm-tossed country to spend his days in inglorious toil and continual hardship so that others might know Jesus. It is as simple as this: Liddell gave up the glory of man, and embraced the glory of the cross.
I would not doubt that his story, beautifully told in For the Glory, will lead many more young men and women to do the same.
Owen Strachan is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the coauthor of The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them (Christian Focus).