Here’s one that moves me to this day:
The scene is both striking and memorable: a clutch of men running barefoot along a beach in slow motion. The haircuts and uniforms suggest an earlier time. The pace is set, the runners all in a tight pack, a near impossible ballet of grace and muscular limbs. Some of the faces register serious business; others reflect sheer joy in the moment. It’s a cloudy day and as the milky grayness of the sky erases the horizon, one is hard-pressed to tell where the ocean ends and the firmament begins. While high-definition water drops splash upwards from the surf, synthesized music drones and builds.
The camera pans and focuses on the one face whose story will be central to the script. It is a handsomely ruddy face, well-chiseled and with a mop of flailing blonde hair. The viewer quickly deduces this runner is exceptional among exceptional athletes, but it is a quiet confidence that pushes him. Almost reverent.
The runner, Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson), is the subject of Chariots of Fire, a 1981 best picture classic. The life of Liddell is near-perfectly portrayed by the actor who plays him so believably, one would think Charleson was typecast for the role of the God-fearing athlete/missionary. I get gooseflesh when I recall the Scotsman’s impassioned speech to his sister Jenny: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
The story has all the ingredients of a good flick. It was the summer of 1924 and Paris was hosting the VIII Olympiad. Eric Liddell, the fastest runner in all of Scotland, finds out his qualifying heat for the 100 meter race was to be run on Sunday. He quietly and reverently bows out. Surefire gold for his country is lost. On conviction, this man who lived for Christ first and ran second, would not run on the Lord’s Day. His teammates were incredulous. His coaches were up in arms. The powers that be were despondent. Evidently, this had no great effect on Liddell for he is seen in church on the morning of his heat, quoting from Isaiah 40:31,
“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Liddell would, in fact, live to run another day. Though it was for a race he had not trained for, Liddell ran the 400 meter with blazing speed and the wind of God on his back. Impossibly, Liddell won the gold medal despite being tripped and having to make up 20 meters and still flew by the rest of the pack to the finish line.
Though the movie falls short of telling the true drama of Liddell’s life, history fills in the blanks. Two years after winning the gold and bronze medals, Liddell went to China as a missionary. While there, he would be imprisoned by the Japanes during their occupation and would remain in a prison camp until his death from a brain tumor in 1945.
Perhaps you already have this tidbit of insider information, but a few years ago I learned the man who portrayed Eric Liddell in the movie was not, in fact, a follower of Christ at all even though his sympathetic approach to Liddell’s faith almost beg that he be of likesame faith! Turns out, he just “played one on TV.” Not only was Charleson not a follower of Christ, he was a self-avowed agnostic who found God to be a far-off, aloof character, well outside and offstage the drama of his life.
That blew me away!
You know, this isn’t a far cry from how the church role-plays in our time. We can have the best soundtracks, the best costumes and sets, the best storylines, even the best actors! It’s like the modern gospel–say it but don’t live it–has produced its own brand of religious agnosticism where God is “up there, out there, but not IN there.”
How does the apostle put it? Something about a “form of godliness…”?
We have learned that we can memorize the right lines and break into character when it is our cue then break back into our real life persona when the cameras stop rolling. How God—yea, our world—must tire of a brand of Christianity whose followers merely “play one on TV.”
Today I believe God sits in His holy heaven in his Director’s Chair hard at work producing His upcoming masterpiece. His eyes are “roaming to and fro” looking even now to cast a people who are real, sold-out, focused on the Wedding Feast and their Bridegroom Lord, lovesick for Jesus and willing to endure trials that will weaken and decrease them so that Jesus and his power may be front and center of all things.
Man oh man, I want a role in that story.