For the Glory

Tim Challies recently reviewed For the Glory, Duncan Hamilton’s new biography of Eric Liddell, who is best known for his 1924 Olympic gold medal in the 400 metres, after refusing to run in the race he’d planned to run in when to do so would have involved running on a Sunday. His Olympic story has been famously told, of course (with a generous helping of artistic license, it turns out) in the film Chariots of Fire. I bought a copy of For the Glory on the strength of Challies’ review and finished it last week. I wasn’t disappointed.

I took real pleasure in Hamilton’s skill as a writer. Biographies run the risk of being rather dry, but For the Glory makes for compelling reading, with the past coming for life through Hamilton’s careful and lively attention to detail, whether it’s the description of an old photograph, the thrill of a race, or the squalor of the civilian internee camp in China where Liddell lived out the final years of his relatively short life. As Challies mentioned in his review, Hamilton’s recounting of Liddell’s famous race is splendid. I knew what the outcome would be before I started reading, of course, and I’ve had the thrill of watching it numerous times in Chariots of Fire. Yet Hamilton tells it in such a way that I still felt excited simply by reading his prose.

I can’t resist mentioning my favourite line in the book, which is Hamilton’s description of the clothes the English athletes had to wear to the 1924 Olympics: “The team went to the chicest city on the globe in outfits that looked to have been cut by a myopic tailor with a grievous grudge against both them and the Games.”

But of course, what stands out so much more than Hamilton’s brilliant prose is the man about whom he was writing. As Challies says, “Hamilton’s telling of Liddell’s life is uniformly positive, perhaps because he simply couldn’t find any major blemishes.” To me, this is fascinating, since Hamilton certainly doesn’t seem to be a Christian himself. Furthermore, he’s written other sports biographies and so, one assumes, he did not set out to write a hagiography of Eric Liddell. And yet, not only does he fail to highlight any moral failings in Liddell, but his deep admiration for the man is evident throughout. It’s not that Hamilton is incapable of criticising people—the acerbic comments he directs towards the British Olympic Association and the London Missionary Society prove that he can criticise with the best of them—but simply that he does not feel that Liddell deserves any such censure.

Reading Hamilton’s account, I can only agree and stand in awe at such a man. No mere mortal is perfect, of course, but one can’t help feeling that Liddell was about as good as any sinful man could be. It’s not just the principled stand at the Olympics for which he is best known, or even that he left the possibility of further fame—not to mention all the money he could have made—for the mission field. It’s not even how he poured himself out for others from morning till night while imprisoned in the internee camp, thousands of miles from his wife and children. It’s that love, gentleness, humility, courage, and determination pervaded his life, in the small things as well as in the momentous ones. His final words, “It’s complete surrender”, were not spoken glibly. They were the story of his life.

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All the Light We Cannot See

It’s August 1944. The small French town of Saint-Malo is besieged, bombs raining down from the advancing American forces. In the attic of a tall, narrow house, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure is hiding, clutching the jewel that the Nazi prowling below is so desperate to find, and which she herself, being blind, has never seen. Elsewhere in the town, eighteen-year-old Werner, a German soldier, is trapped underneath the remains of the Hotel of Bees.

Those six days in early August are at the heart of this Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Extended flash-backs throughout the story tell the tale of Marie’s and Werner’s respective growing-up years and the way in which, before they ever met, their lives had become connected.

At fourteen, Werner is unexpectedly given the opportunity to attend Schulpforta, a Nazi boarding school. As a talented orphan who is destined to work in the mines that killed his father, he sees this as a way to escape, an opportunity for a brighter future. While at Schulpforta, he becomes friends with Frederick, a quiet bird-lover entirely out of place in such harsh surroundings.

“Do you ever wish that you didn’t have to go back?”, Werner asks Frederick once, while they are enjoying a brief holiday, Frederick still bruised from being beaten up by the boys at the instruction of the commandant.

For Frederick, though, that’s not the question:

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

And Frederick replies “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.”

But it is Frederick, not Warner, who—when the boys are taken outside one winter day and given buckets of water to dump over a prisoner tied to a stake in the courtyard—refuses to do it.

As a result, the commandant and the other boys make Frederick’s life one of torment, ending with him being beaten up so badly that, some thirty years later, he still needs to be spoon fed, and spends his time drawing spirals on paper.

But the memory of Frederick’s decision comes back to Werner when he, too, must make a decision in Saint-Malo in 1944:

Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feet—I will not—Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down. Werner who watched Volkheimer wade into house after house, the same ravening nightmare occurring over and over and over.

Bolstered by that realisation, he makes his choice too, but if you want to know what that choice is, you’ll have to read the book.

All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully-written, heart-breaking story. It’s not a book of neat, smiling resolutions. After finishing it last night, I sat in bed and cried.

It’s a poignant reminder of the meaningless loss of human life that war entails. Of the sickening brutality of the Nazis. Of childhood innocence destroyed. These are nightmares that hardly bear thinking about. But there is also the blessed relief of beauty, goodness, and love.  The beauty of the sea, the shells at Marie-Laure’s fingertips.  The tender care of a father for his blind daughter. Courageous decisions and self-sacrifice. It’s a masterfully-crafted book. But be warned: it’s a painful one too.

Milton, Garlic, and Other Thoughts

Yesterday I finished the last assignment for my Late Renaissance British Literature course. Apart from my final exam, I’m done! It’s certainly been a worthwhile course to take.

Here are some points that this period of literary history can highlight:

1. If you want to communicate effectively, pay attention to how you say things as well as what you say. Content is crucial, but don’t forget form. (And yes, alliteration can add emphasis.)

2. Clear thinking and beautiful expression do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they make breath-taking partners in the dance of literature.

3. An excellent poem may unite striking imagery, effective rhythm and rhyme, and rich content—and make it look effortless. But it’s not. (Unless you are very talented, perhaps. But how would I know?) Try writing a poem that doesn’t sacrifice the form to the content or the content to the form and then tell me how you did. I’ll try not to rub it in.

4. Basic human needs, desires, and struggles don’t change all that much in four hundred years.

5. My vocabulary is diminutive.

6. If you don’t understand it first time around, try reading it again.

7. Milton is rather too enthusiastic about throwing classical allusions around—like a chef that overdoses on garlic. But if you can get past that pungent smell, he serves up some gourmet dishes.

8. Shakespeare is deservedly famous, but there’s more to Renaissance British Literature than Shakespeare. We have such a rich literary heritage, but I think that most of us miss out on most of it.

9. On the other hand, you don’t have to stamp “good” on a piece of literature just because it’s old.

10. Having to read things can be an enriching experience. I don’t know if I’d ever have read through Paradise Lost on my own initiative, but I’m glad that I had to.

Martin…

Martin?

Why, Martin Luther, of course!

The other day SJ and I watched a film  based on the life of Martin Luther.  It’s been a while since I’ve read much about Luther’s life, so I can’t say how accurate it was down to the details. (Actually, I take that back: Wikipedia kindly provides a list of inaccuracies. So long as we can assume the writer or writers know what they’re talking about, all is well.) I did think Luther on screen was considerably better-looking than Luther would have been in real life, but that’s hardly surprising. More surprising was that that most famous of all phrases in Luther’s life, “the just shall live by faith” was not mentioned once. While the film shows clearly that Luther trusted in Christ alone for salvation, it’s a bit strange that what we, looking back, consider to be his life’s battle cry, was not included.

That being said, I appreciated the film very much. It was well produced and acted and it made me think. Rather than giving you a plot outline, let me share some thoughts that it prompted and that SJ and I chatted about.

One striking thing for me (and this may sound a bit silly) is seeing historical characters looking so, well, real, and in such real settings. To remember that they’re just like any other person today (if rather more strikingly dressed). It’s not that I suffer from any doubt, theoretically speaking, that people such as Luther were not real people, but I guess somehow I forget it on a more practical level. Even a book cannot give the vividness that a film can here. I’m more of a book person that a film person, but even with a book, these people can still feel far away and impersonal. With a film, the flesh-and-blood-ness is harder to forget. They’re people, just like us, who coughed and sneezed and laughed and hugged and hoped and dreamed and feared and had bad hair days and all the rest of it. All the humanity of it. Of them.

And when you really realise they’re really real (not to repeat my words or anything) then you can better see how brave they are, and wonder whether you could be that brave too. Of course, Luther at the Diet of Worms (such an unfortunate name) is brave, but what struck me was the German electors, who told the Emperor that sooner than give up their faith, they would kneel before him for him to cut off their heads—and kneel before him they did, man by man. The emperor didn’t take them up on their invitation, but that doesn’t negate their bravery. (Apparently all the electors kneeling is one of the inaccurate parts. Ah well—it makes a good film scene and makes me think all the same.)

Such bravery in the face of great opposition. How small my own problems are in comparison! Sure, I have hard things to deal with, but no one has threatened my life yet because of my faith. Not even close. I have it so easy.

I have to mention the sweetest part in the film, almost at the very end, when Luther thinks that his enemies are about to pounce on him. He turns to his wife and says, “I am so happy to have been loved by you, Katherine von Bora.” Isn’t that precious? He does not tell her he loves her, although undoubtedly he did. It’s not about what he’s done at all. He is simply glad that this woman has loved him. There seems a humility in that which touches me. The undeservedness of love.

(Two cautions if you’re considering watching this particular film: there are some unpleasant scenes of dead bodies after the peasants’ revolt and a brief scene of a martyr being burned. Also, one of the men looking at Luther’s 95 theses on the church door takes God’s name in vain.)

I am glad that I do not have to face Luther’s challenges. I am glad to be reminded of what he and other brave men and women faced and overcame.

We are in their debt.