“Chariots of Fire” and the vocation of athletics

“Chariots of Fire” and the vocation of athletics August 15, 2016

A rabbi writing in the Wall Street Journal offers reflections on Chariots of Fire, the 1981 movie about Olympic runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams.  The movie, of course, is about athletics as VOCATION.

Read an excerpt from the column after the jump, whereupon I offer some reflections about it, including the difference between Liddell’s Calvinist understanding of the vocation of an athlete and what a Lutheran view would add.

From Meir Soloveichiks, Finding God in the Olympic Footrace – WSJ:

In the film, [Eric] Liddell’s father, a missionary, tells his son that “you’re the proud possessor of many gifts, and it’s your sacred duty to put them to good use.” His point is that people of faith should sanctify the world around them—not reject it. Liddell’s explanation for why he runs is the most memorable quote from the film: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure. . . . To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt.”. . .

As Leon R. Kass and Eric Cohen reflect in an essay on the nature of sports, the real athlete unites “gratitude for the given possibilities of his being and pride in the achievements that he alone made possible.” . . .
While Americans rightly exult in the achievements of U.S. medalists, “Chariots of Fire” also serves as a reminder that athletics and even patriotism only mean so much. When Liddell is informed that a qualifying heat takes place on Sunday, his Sabbath, he chooses not to compete in that race. The camera cuts from athletes at the Olympics to Liddell reading a passage in Isaiah: “Behold the nations are as a drop in the bucket . . . but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings, as eagles. They shall run, and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” David Puttnam, a “Chariots of Fire” producer, wrote me that the verses were “specifically selected by the actor, the late Ian Charleson, who gave himself the task of reading the entire Bible whilst preparing for the film.”. . .
While most nations now rest on the ash heap of history, the biblical Abraham’s odyssey continues. The countries competing in today’s Olympics come and go, while those who “wait upon the Lord” endure.

“Chariots of Fire” also offers a message for people of faith who have grown troubled by the secularization of society and the realization that they are often scorned by elites. Like Liddell, we may be forced to choose religious principle over social success. Hopefully, however, we will be able to use our gifts to sanctify this world. As Liddell’s father told his son in the film: “Run in God’s name, and let the world stand back in wonder.”

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That quotation, “when I run I feel His pleasure,” can apply to any vocation:  “When I build something I feel His pleasure.”  “When I teach I feel His pleasure.”  “When I farm I feel His pleasure.”  “When I take care of my children I feel His pleasure.”

This, I would say, is one aspect of the doctrine of vocation–glorifying God by exercising the gifts He has given–which is the aspect most usually stressed in Liddell’s Calvinist tradition.

Whereas the Reformed tend to praise the work of vocation for its own sake as giving God “pleasure,” Lutherans emphasize vocation with its gifts as specific ways God works through us as we love and serve our neighbors.

So if being an athlete is a vocation, who are the athletes’ neighbors whom they are to love and serve?

I suppose their team members, their competitors, their coaches. Notice how athletics and athletes can go horribly wrong when these neighbors are NOT loved and served (e.g., cheating, doping, sniping, ego-tripping, etc.).

They also love and serve us, the less talented members of the audience, who can be strangely elevated at the spectacle of their talent.

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