If you are sick, you can go to the doctor. If you are struggling with someone, you can reason with them or, if nothing else, keep your distance. But what if the person who hates you is your own mind? Where can you go to escape? The Professor and the Madman is a moving story about a mind at war with itself and those who do more than look on.
James Murray, played by Mel Gibson, faces a monolithic task. It’s 1878 and Oxford University Press has been striving for years to complete the definitive dictionary of the English language. Yet its delegates remain dubious a Scotsman without a degree can steer their august project. Murray might not be a professor but has 23 languages at his command. Will they be enough? The English world is awash with imports, jargon and idiom that desperately need defining. So, the Scotsman hits on a scheme to have that world mail him contributions – a ‘dictionary by democracy’. What he doesn’t anticipate, is that his most prolific supplier will be the inmate of an insane asylum.
Enter William Chester-Minor. Sean Penn plays a retired American army surgeon who has fled to London in the hope of out-running personal demons. After killing in a fit of terror, he is committed to Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane.
In a life of horror and rage, the dictionary project offers a ray of hope. Through it, he finds a friend in Murray and a path to purpose and peace – if the world will let him take it.
The revelation that Murray is working with a madman threatens to undermine the credibility of the project. Yet Murray doesn’t argue the equality of all men or the immensity of Chester-Minor’s contribution – it’s his faith that takes centre stage. Murray offers his opponents the need that connects us all: ‘What about repentance, what about redemption? What are you so afraid of – that a bad man could be redeemed?’
The Professor and the Madman demonstrates how our compassion can be blocked by our secret fears. So, like the lepers of antiquity, we drive these unsolvable problems to the margins of society where we can safely ignore them. What we fail to see is our shared problem.
One thing that made Jesus’ ministry so controversial was its attractiveness to society’s least regarded members. Some of Jesus’ contemporaries claimed it revealed his lack of standards or his own debauchery. Jesus’ response? You need to see your sickness before you search for a saviour: ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17).
It’s madness to think we can escape this world without troubles. By contrast, it’s brilliance to realise the solution doesn’t rest with us. Murray is confident he’ll complete his task but the only qualification for the strength he’s drawing on is admitting to God he needs it:
Murray: It’s all by grace alone.
Chester: I wish I had experienced more of that.
Murray: You will, sir. You will.
No surprise, the man who ends up showing Chester-Minor God’s grace, is the man who clings to it himself.
The Professor and the Madman
RELEASE DATE: 20 February 2020
This feature story comes from The Lutheran March 2020. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.