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Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness

by Eric Metaxas

Last week The Open Table featured a review of Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness. Because that book was so enjoyable and memorable, this week’s review is of the first book that Eric Metaxas wrote featuring short biographies of exemplary people who lived out their convictions, called Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness. As in Seven Women, Metaxas does not want the reader to think that “the list of seven persons is in any way definitive…I simply chose seven people whose stories I found most compelling and inspiring.”

Metaxas has a specific reason for writing Seven Men, and that is to resist the pervasive idea of our time which says, “[No] one is really in a position to say what’s right or wrong. So we’re loath to point to anyone as a good role model. ‘Who am I to judge anyone?’ has almost become a mantra of our age.” He asks, “Can we really believe that some lives are aren’t worthy of emulation?…it is vital that we teach [young men] who they are in God’s view, and it’s vital that we bring back a sense of the heroic. The men in this book are some of my heroes and I am thrilled to be able to share them with others. I hope they will inspire young men to emulate them.”

The seven men that Metaxas has selected for his book are: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), and Charles W. Colson

One man included in Metaxas’ book is a person known primarily from the Academy Award winning movie Chariots of Fire (1981). His name is Eric Liddell (1902-45). Liddell’s part of the story in the movie was this: Liddell was the renowned Scottish runner who refused to participate in the 100-meter race at the 1924 Olympics, even though it was his best event. His country expected him to run and bring honor to Scotland with a gold medal, but Liddell refused to run because those heats were scheduled on a Sunday, which God says is a day of rest. Liddell obeyed God’s command to rest and dropped out of the event. This was a complete shock and affront to his countrymen who then began to pressure Liddell to run in violation of his principles. Liddell did not give in to their demands. But, on Thursday of that week, he amazed not only his countrymen but the world by running, and winning, a record-breaking gold medal race in the 400-meter track competition. In essence, Liddell established his reputation in the sports world forever by not running in the race that he was most likely to win, and running in and winning the race that he was expected to lose. The movie Chariots of Fire captured this powerful story with beauty and passion, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

In Seven Men, Metaxas gives us a history of Liddell’s life that was not included in the movie. The details of Liddell’s back story make it clear that Eric was reared in a family that was given over to serving the Lord in every area of life. Liddell was born in Tienstin, China, to parents who were missionaries there. It was not until he was 5 years old, when his parents returned to Scotland on furlough, that Eric saw his family’s home country. Shortly after this, Eric and his older brother Robert, were enrolled in the School for the Sons of Missionaries, otherwise known as Eltham College, outside of London. They would stay at the school for the next seven years, then go on to Oxford College and the University of Edinburgh. Throughout his school days, Liddell was an accomplished athlete. Metaxas writes, “In his senior year [at Oxford] Eric was awarded the coveted Blackheath Cup (an honor given to the best all around sportsman) and was named the captain of the school’s rugby team. Both awards showed that Eric was not just gifted athletically. This quiet, gentle young man was also very popular with his classmates.” He also became famous throughout Scotland for his incredibly fast track times, earning him the nickname, “The Flying Scotsman.”

After he achieved his Olympic gold medal in 1924, Eric, despite his shy personality, was called upon to speak at Christian events, sharing his faith with thousands of people who came to hear his testimony. Metaxas writes: “Years before, Eric had committed himself to serving God in some way, but it seemed he had few talents other than an ability to run like the wind…Why had God given him this world-class talent? But now he began to see the point, and he was suddenly tremendously grateful for his rare gift.”

When Eric Liddell captured an Olympic gold he did it in a spectacular fashion, which Metaxas describes beautifully in Seven Men. But it is Metaxas’ recounting of Liddell’s accomplishments after the Olympics that puts everything in Liddell’s life in true perspective. After the Olympics, Liddell’s time was spent in preparation for the mission field in China. Liddell also became engaged to Florence MacKenzie in those years, and in 1934 Eric and Florence married and began their life of service together in Tienstin, China. The Liddells were blessed with two daughters while in China. During their years in Tienstin, the Japanese began engaging in acts of aggression toward China, committing atrocities close to and finally in the town of Tienstin. Soon the town fell to the Japanese.

Around 1940, as conditions deteriorated and the dangers increased, Florence and the girls made their way to safety, returning to Florence’s home in Canada. Eric remained in China, ready to minister in any way he could. In March 1943, Eric and all other foreigners around Tienstin were moved to the harsh environment of an internment camp in Weihsien. On February 21, 1945, Liddell suddenly collapsed, slipped into a coma and died. He was forty-three. Metaxas writes,” When news of his death traveled around the camp the next day, the internees we’re grief stricken.”

A fellow internee recalled, “He was known, not because of his Olympic prowess…but because he was Eric… He was the kind of person who was a friend to everyone. And his funeral bore that out. The church wouldn’t hold all the people… The whole camp was closed down. It was a very, very, moving a occasion.”

Eric Liddell’s life and accomplishments are impressive, and Metaxas does an excellent job of telling us his fascinating story in Seven Men. Liddell understood the value of his Olympic gold medal as a means of drawing a crowd, and yet he directed the attention of that crowd not to himself but to Jesus Christ. Above and beyond this, Eric Liddell gave his life for others in the name of Christ, and therefore he has offered an act of obedience that is beyond earthly praise, and well beyond an Olympic gold medal. “[They] suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment… They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,¬†they were killed by the sword…of whom the world was not worthy.” Hebrew 11:37-38

The short biographies in Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness are gifts to anyone who reads them, but even more so to any young person who reads them since they help form one’s moral imagination. I agree whole heartedly with Metaxas when he says in the introduction: “You can talk about right and wrong all day long, but ultimately people need to see it. Seeing and studying the actual lives of people is simply the best way to communicate ideas about how to behave and how not to behave. We need heroes and role models.”