Ian Matthews reviews a new biography of missionary and Olympic champion Eric Liddell.
There was a time when it seemed Christian publishing ran on the fuel of biographies. As a young Christian more than 20 years ago I was loaned and given story after story of believers who had shaped the world around them in some way. Many of those stories have stayed with me, and many of the subjects became long-dead heroes of faith for me in my own journey. It seems something of a shame that this seems to have died a death - there are not so many books in this category published anymore. However, in this small volume Authentic Media has created something that took me back to those days - and in an Olympic year it seems perfectly timed.
Eric LIddell is someone probably known to most people in the English-speaking world. His life, and particularly his win in the 400 metres at the 1924 Olympics, was immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire which is still a TV favourite. Indeed, I was impressed that the producer of that film, David (now Lord) Puttnam, wrote the foreword to this book. However, not many people will be aware of the much richer and deeper life lived by Liddell, and this book sets out to tell that story.
It starts with an account of his 1924 win - interspersed throughout with quotes and anecdotes from those who knew Liddell, before taking the reader back four years earlier to the year that he entered Edinburgh University to read Pure Science. We get a vivid account of the early years of his athletics training, much of it in Liddell's own words, along with an account of his early successes on the track.
Even in these early chapters the influence of Christianity on Liddell is clearly apparent as is the impact of a number of prominent evangelical movements of the time. His decision not to run on Sundays (which cost him a place in the 100 metres at the Olympics) attracted as much criticism as it did praise, but he stuck to what he believed to be right.
The first half of the book is concerned with the Paris win in 1924 and the immediate fall-out from that. However, in the second half we start to read the generally untold story of his life. Returning to China - where he was born as the on of missionary parents - he found a country undergoing tremendous change with the collapse of the old dynastic rulers, the failure of an emerging republic and the rise of a dictatorship.
The story continues in the latter half of the book through his marriage, fatherhood, travels throughout Europe and returning to China. The story concludes with his imprisonment in an internment camp in occupied China - the amazing story of his heroism and compassion and his death there in March 1945.
Often Christian biographies are accused of having hagiographic tendencies, glossing over ambiguities and complexities. I'm not sure that is the case here - the comments from friends and co-workers give hints of the frailties common to all people. I was particularly taken with the rare photographs included - a nice addition all too rare in modern Christian books.
February 29th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Ian Matthews