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On Religion

April 29, 2013

Inside the soul of Jackie Robinson

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey knew that the first black player in Major League Baseball was going to go through hell.

That's why the cigar-chomping, Bible-thumping Rickey set out to find a man who would keep believing -- when facing bitter, scathing racial hatred -- that the powers of heaven were on his side. As baseball writers have often noted, Rickey needed someone who could turn the other cheek, as well as turn a double play.

In writer-director Brian Helgeland's new epic, "42," Jackie Robinson states the challenge in blunt terms.

"You want a man," Robinson asks, "who doesn't have the guts to fight back?"

Rickey replies: "I want a man who has the guts NOT to fight back."

The fit was perfect. In Helgeland's script, Rickey offers this churchy equation: "Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong."

That's the stuff of movies, alright, but this kind of faith reference remains somewhat unusual in a Hollywood blockbuster, acknowledged Eric Metaxas, who is best known for writing the global bestseller "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." The problem, he said, is that "42" omitted many other details that would have demonstrated that faith was crucial to the whole story.

There's no doubt that Robinson was a remarkable man, argues Metaxas in his new "Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness." But Robinson was also a remarkably courageous and truly devout Christian man. Thus, he included Robinson's story in a book that explores the faith commitments of George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Pope John Paul II, Chuck Colson and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In the classic "Chariots of Fire," which won the Oscar for Best Picture, the Olympic runner and future missionary Liddell is repeatedly shown preaching, parsing scripture and discussing the beliefs that led to his pivotal decision not to run in Sunday races at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. "Try to imagine that movie without those scenes," noted Metaxas in a telephone interview.

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