Eric Liddell: McSaint

Remember the movie Chariots of Fire, with the Vangelis music and everyone running on the beach in slow motion, where the Scottish guy refused to run his best event in the 1924 Olympics because the heats were scheduled on a Sunday, but ended up winning an Olympic gold medal in a different event? He was born in Tianjin, lived and served in Tianjin, has memorials in Tianjin, and died of an undiagnosed brain tumour as a P.O.W. in a Japanese internment camp near the end of World War II. We’ve been to his house, which is apparently finally being partly restored.

My only beef with Eric Liddell: Pure Gold, the latest Eric Liddell biography, is that I couldn’t get a feel for what kind of guy he was – what it might have been like to interact with him – until near the end of the book after he’d already died. The author desires to present Liddell as an inspirational Christian role model, and this becomes the book’s tragic flaw. Instead of letting Liddell’s inspiring life and character speak for themselves, the author coats the narrative in an artificial layer of Evangelical-ese, going out his way to over-emphasize and massage the aspects of Liddell’s spirituality that resonate in the popular Evangelical market. In the end, the Evangelical gene pool misses out on some potentially beneficial diversity, and the author produces a biography that reads a little too much like hagiography.*

Liddell comes across as so virtually perfect that he doesn’t seem real. The few token flaws mentioned are so minor and forgivable that they just reinforce the impression of an impossibly high degree of saintliness. It chaps my hide all the more because Eric Liddell’s life doesn’t need an author to compensate for it; his story is plenty inspiring and admirable in and of itself. Being able to see that this was a real man with whom we can relate and connect would make the story all the more compelling.

I finally found a pulse on this book’s Eric Liddell near the end, when the author quotes from an unnamed internee’s personal diary, written soon after Liddell’s unexpected passing in 1945:

Liddellhouse2small.JPGHe was not particularly clever, and not conspicuously able, but he was good. He was naturally reserved and tended to live in a world of his own, but he gave of himself unstintedly. His reserve did not prevent him from mixing with everybody and being known by everybody, but he always shrank from revealing his deepest needs and distresses, so that whilst he bore the burdens of many, very few could help to bear his.

His fame as an athlete helped him a good deal. He certainly didn’t look like a great runner, but the fact that he had been one gave him a self-confidence that men of his type don’t often have. He wasn’t a great leader, or an inspired thinker, but he knew what he ought to do, and he did it. He was a true disciple of the Master and worthy of the highest of places amongst the saints gathered in the Church triumphant. We have lost of our best, but we have gained a fragrant memory. (285)

This entry, for me, put some flesh and bones on the Eric Liddell of history, and in a way salvaged the whole book for me. I can look back at the stories and imagine a real, living and breathing brother, teammate, teacher, co-worker, husband, and father, rather than merely seeing a stock Evangelical archetype labeled “Eric Liddell.”

Liddellhouse1small.JPGHistorically, this book opens a window into the lives of missionary families of the day, how family members were often separated by oceans for long periods of time, dependent on written letters for news in an unstable time of civil and world war. The book offers only minimum detail regarding the larger, momentously consequential historical setting of aggressive Western economic imperialism (Liddell lived in Tianjin’s British ‘concession area’) and the brutal Japanese occupation of China. The Chinese people and culture of the time period, and Liddell’s interaction with them, also receive minimal attention. The bibliography is quite impressive; the author obviously did his homework. I just wish he’d backed off a bit and let us hear the story speak for itself.

Rumour has it that there’s an old man who sometimes attends one of the local churches here who actually remembers Eric Liddell, and who likes to give tours to all the related places of interest. Friends of ours did this a couple years ago. We just might hunt that guy down.


*(hagiography – an idealized, overly romanticized, and usually partially-fictionalized pseudo-biography intending to present the subject as worthy of admiration and imitation.)

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