When I first was becoming an observant Jew, I found it difficult to wear a yarmulke (skullcap) in public. The head covering identified me as an Orthodox Jew. Although I was growing religiously I still wanted to blend in and not be different from my peers. So I struggled inwardly. Sometimes I wore it; sometimes I donned a baseball hat, and sometimes I did not wear a head covering. My religious ambivalence came to the forefront when I accepted a role in our high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I played the part of Peter Van Daan, Anne’s romantic interest; and in one climactic scene near the end of the play, I had to embrace Anne and kiss her. From an Orthodox perspective, this was a no-no, but I was full of myself and my acting ability and did not pass on accepting the part or the kissing that went along with it.
The play was presented on Friday night, the Sabbath, as well as on Saturday night and my synagogue rabbi came to see the play on Saturday night. I sensed an oncoming crisis. I was going to kiss a girl publicly in front of my rabbi. What to do? The answer: I did it and my face turned beet red from the embarrassment. Trying to live in two disparate words was impossible for me, and that play became my last foray into acting in a play with a co-ed cast. My approach to my growing religious observance was inconsistent, and it was not until years later that I had the courage and wisdom to live a consistent religious life in which my actions in life mirrored my ideology. Which is why I became enamored with Chariots of Fire.
I first saw Chariots of Fire, a drama about the nature of sports, the competitive drive, and the consistency of religious convictions in 1981 when I myself was running five or six times a week. The film is about two men who are running in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a young Scottish preacher, and Harold Abraham, a very competitive British Jew. The story chronicles their journey to Olympic glory, and in the process contrasts the lifestyles and worldviews of these two men.
We first see Liddell participating in a community get-together in the Scottish highlands. Having served as a missionary in China, he is a celebrity in his hometown because of his holy work on foreign soil and because of his running prowess. In an impromptu run, Eric competes with the local runners. As he rounds the track, the camera captures him in slow motion, running as if possessed by a divine spirit. Eric compares running in a race to participating in the race of life itself, both of which require concentration and energy to succeed at the highest levels. He feels that his power as a runner comes from the “Kingdom of God” within him, and this enables him not only to win races but to soar in life as well.
His mentors recognize that Eric’s ability to influence people and to move them spiritually is directly connected to his notoriety as a runner. They advise him to run in God’s name and so use his talent to bring more people under the canopy of faith.
His sister discourages him from running, fearing that it will take him away from his missionary work. Eric, however, tells her that God made him for a purpose and also made him fast. He poetically expresses his innermost feelings when he tells her that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure and that winning a race is way to honor God.
This notion of sports competition as being emblematic of life is underscored in a scene which depicts Eric delivering a sermon in church focusing on passages from Isaiah, Chapter 40. As he speaks, images of Olympic competition mirror the Biblical phrases that he utters: “He giveth power to the faint….they that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary.” The sum total of all these images brings home the message that ultimately God is the source of all power, not man.
The crux of the movie occurs when Liddell is asked to compete on Sunday, his Sabbath. He has to wrestle with his desire to compete and win on the one hand, and his desire to be faithful to his religious beliefs on the other. In the end, he places principles before personal gain. Moreover, he understands that all his strength comes from God, and that all his earthly activities should express his connection with the divine.
In Jewish tradition, there is the notion that whatever we do in this world should be done to glorify God. In the classic text, Ethics of the Fathers, it states: “All that the Holy one, Blessed is He, created in this world, He created solely for His glory.” The rabbis deduce from this that even mundane acts can acquire sanctity if we perform them with the right attitude. Eating can be a mitzvah (a good deed) if we eat to nourish our physical bodies in order to be strong to serve God. Sleeping can be a mitzvah if we sleep in order to give our bodies needed rest so that we can rise like a lion on the morrow to do God’s work. It is this mindset that exemplifies the character of Eric Liddell. He sees life as an opportunity to serve his Creator, and he sees his running achievements as emanating not just from his own efforts but also from God’s personal involvement in his destiny.
In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell reminds us to place spiritual integrity over worldly glory. In his penultimate race, we see Eric running as if possessed by an inner spirit. As he runs, we hear his voice echoing his earlier comment to his sister: “Where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within. God made me for a purpose. He also made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure.”