There are a handful of non-Christian movies that the Christian culture has embraced over the years. These are movies seen as largely inoffensive to our sensibilities with an easily-digested Christian subplot. We have accepted these movies often because the Christian in the film looks pretty good and speaks in generalities that we approve of. Many of these movies please Christians because they are meant to please everybody and offend none. Every once in a while, though, one of these “Christian-approved” films turns out to be not merely spiritually challenging and faith affirming, but also pretty compelling films.
Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire has long been one of those films that finds itself referenced in sermons and Christian non-fiction. It’s understandable to see why. We have an inspiriting true story about two track stars competing in the 1924 Olympics. One of them is Jewish, and has encountered a great deal of prejudice over the years. He runs as a way of proving his worth, not just to his critics, but to himself. The other is a devout Christian – the son of missionaries – who runs for the glory of God.
“The glory of God.” This is the kind of motivation that Christians can hear from a character and nod their heads approvingly. But what does it mean to do something for the glory of God, and what can Christians learn from this engaging film?
There are two themes to unpack for Christians, one emphasized much more than the other. The first is the idea that anybody can do God’s work. It’s not just pastors and missionaries that God calls to carry out His will. Each of us is uniquely called to carry out our part in His perfect plan. Certainly, in 1924, when the story takes place, such thinking was possibly scandalous. As everybody knew, there were the higher callings, and then all the other ones. The clergy were doing God’s work, and the rest of us were just killing time until it was time to go to Heaven.
Over the years, that thinking has been largely discarded by the church, and good riddance. Christianity has always been something of an equalizer. God knows how many hairs are on our head, whether we’re rich or poor, man or woman, clergy and layman. For a man to decide that he can best honor God by pursuing those gifts given to him by God is to really understand the nature of blessing, and what we are expected to do with those blessings.
This theme is often seized upon by members of the church to reassure themselves that what they’re doing – either as their job or their passion – can be blessed by God and they don’t have to feel ashamed of it. “We can be just like that runner in Chariots of Fire! We can glorify God in what we do and are good at! Now let’s get out there and do it!”
Hold on, now. That’s where the second theme comes in, and it’s one that is often overlooked as we feel inspired by the film. There is a sentiment that a character’s father lovingly conveys. “You can praise God by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Don’t compromise. Compromise is the language of the devil. Run in God’s name and let the world stand back and wonder.”
We hear that line and are thrilled. We can’t wait to live in God’s name, and let people stand back and wonder, even if we’re just peeling a spud. Except there’s a lot of stuff in the middle there that we tend to forget about. The part of peeling a spud “to perfection.” There’s the part about compromise. It’s about not merely doing something, but doing it to the best of our ability.
This is where we Christians start to get a bit hazy. Perfection is hard. In fact, it’s impossible. But, of course, something being impossible doesn’t let us off the hook. Moral perfection isn’t possible, yet we’re still expected to hew and close to that as we can. And, thankfully, we have the Bible to always look to in order to see examples of what we’re supposed to do. We have a blueprint.
There’s not always a blueprint for our lives as clear as the Bible. It’s clear what I’m supposed to be as a husband, and what I’m specifically not supposed to do. But what if I’m a software engineer? What does it look like to pursue perfection and not compromise in that situation. Part of dealing with other people is compromise, right? Sometimes you have to compromise to get things done.
These are reasonable questions to be asking, and the answers can be hard. In Chariots of Fire, the Christian character actually steps down from missionary work for a time so that he can better focus on his running. This may seem like the exact opposite of what we’re called to do. After all, won’t he make a much more obvious impact for God if he quits running and pursue mission work? Possibly, yes, but he doesn’t feel called to that. Not yet, anyway. Right now, God is calling him to be a runner, and that means anything that might distract from that – anything that might get in the way of glorifying God with excellence – must be gently pushed to the side.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean ditching our moral and spiritual convictions. These are the things motivating us to pursue perfection in the first place; it would be ridiculous to abandon them in that pursuit. Even the runner observes the Sabbath, which actually upsets those in authority. Discernment is needed to understand the difference between a responsibility what a mere obligation. One must always be upheld, while the other can be postponed, if not discarded completely.
This is the hard stuff, because it’s different for everybody. Career choices, familial responsibility, personal conviction. Nobody knows the details of these things except for us and God, thus prayer and wisdom are required as we sort through them. And patience. Patience is important, because perfection is very rarely acquired quickly. Unless you’re some kind of savant, it will require years – maybe even decades – of practice and preparation to get where you feel you need to be in order to truly say you’re glorifying God.
Many Christians feel that the fact that they feel called to do something means they already have everything they need to do that. This is particularly common in the arts, specifically film. One Christian after another has entered into the world of filmmaking with no concept of how a good film is made. So they go about simply making the film, convinced that whatever they produce will glorify God.
God is seldom glorified through mediocrity, which is what many of us that feel called settle for. But, mediocrity costs nothing; that’s why it’s so easy to achieve, and why it’s so tempting to be contented in. Perfection – and the pursuit of it – costs our time, effort, and often our pride. Almost immediately, we come to realize that hearing God’s calling isn’t the end of our talent, but often only the beginning. We see that we have a long way to go, and that can be a painful realization.
But it is this realization that will not only push us to be better, but to rely on God as we press on. The deeper we understand our own limitations – even within something we’re good at – the humbler we’ll be. Humility is always a good place to be when attempting perfection; it necessitates our having to step back and make sure we’ve done everything we can, and leave no stone unturned. And, as much as we like to believe that things will miraculously work out (and sometimes they do), preparation goes a long way in insuring that they do.
Chariots of Fire shows us that God can use anybody for His glory, of any race, sex, or class. This much we’ve already come to believe. But it also shows us that to be used for His glory is a process; one that requires dedication and hard work. And while we might not always win the literal race, we can cross the finish line with our heads held high, knowing that we did everything God commanded. We will have been good and faithful servants, and we won’t slow down until we reach God’s open arms.