A New Biography of Eric Liddell - For the Glory

I read biographies because it puts me in contact with better men and women, most of whom have died and whose lives can be measured with more accuracy and finality than the living. This is a sanctifying process, since it humbles me to recognize my own weakness in comparison to the greatness of others.

When it comes to the recent biography of Eric Liddell, For the Glory, I have found a man whose sandals I am unworthy to untie.

Liddell has been immortalized in contemporary culture with the Oscar winning movie Chariots of Fire. That film tells the tale to Liddell’s relatively short running career which cultivated in his surprising world record and gold medal finish in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Previously, when I thought of Liddell, I always heard the synthesizer playing the familiar theme and thought of giving up a chance at more gold medals to honor sabbatarian traditions. The movie ends with a brief, abrupt epilogue that indicates that the hero died in an internment camp in China during WWII.

Another picture emerges in other biographies I’ve encountered. The YWAM biography and other simplified biographies written by Christians paint a portrait of a saint, telling a powerful story for an audience looking for a Christian hero. Danny Akin has preached a sermon using the life of Eric Liddell as an extended illustration.

I expected these sorts of biographies to paint Liddell in a positive light as the protagonist in a compelling sports movie and as a great missionary who died for the cause.

When I picked up Duncan Hamilton’s recent biography, I was expecting a much less flattering picture. A missionary biography written by an apparent non-believer with no clear Christian sympathies printed by a secular publisher is bound to find all the dirt and put it out so everyone can see it. I expected to find private details with hints of suspicious activities at every turn. That, however, is not the case.

The portrait of Liddell that emerges from this volume is of a man whose serious, meticulous devotion to God was rewarded by such a degree of sanctification that he was able to risk his life for Christ without thinking twice. In fact, the man once pushed two wounded men in a wheelbarrow through the countryside filled with Japanese aggressors because they would have otherwise died. He faced harassment, theft, confiscation of his property, and separation from his wife with a good attitude for the sake of the cross. The picture Hamilton paints is one of a saint who did great things for the Lord with a gracious attitude and without neglecting the other good things in his life as a consequence.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One focuses on Liddell’s childhood through his Olympic victories. These chapters line up well with other biographies I’ve read and generally support the well-known story that has been seen on screen as Chariots of Fire. Part Two explores Liddell’s work as a missionary in China, including his courtship of his wife, his continued athletic efforts, and his focus on doing the work God called him to. An interesting wrinkle to the legend of Liddell is that he didn’t absolutely reject the possibility of running in another Olympics. His faith was not a call to asceticism. Rather, it was the British Olympic Committee that failed to engage a man who might have won the U.K. another gold. This section was largely new ground for me and very engaging. Part Three expands on Liddell’s life in the Japanese internment camp, about which much less has been known than about other parts of Liddell’s story. Hamilton conducted a host of interviews of other internees to expand the available information about a great hero of the faith.

What Hamilton has done here deserves notice. He took a Christian hero whose story has been told before and he made it better. Hamilton added to the field of missiology by writing a careful history of someone who has been celebrated widely. He did this without slipping into dismissiveness of Liddell’s convictions or snarky digressions about the foolishness of his faith. Hamilton should be praised for adding a critical work on Liddell that doesn’t fall into the too common trap of attacking the biography’s subject in order to add interest. There are no “daddy complex” narratives or secret abuse allegations. What the reader gets is honest history told exceptionally well.

Even if missionary biographies don’t keenly interest you, this book is worth your time. Hamilton writes so very well. His retelling of Liddell’s life story is detailed but lively, carefully crafted but not pedantic, honest but complimentary. In short, this is a great book that deserves to be read and widely.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.