Genius and Insanity

One of the most fascinating movies I saw in 2019 was The Professor and the Madman, a biographical drama colored by mystery and murder . . . but most of all—pathos.

This moving drama records the appointment and passion of James Murray, who was hired to finish compiling and editing the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, known today as The Oxford English Dictionary. Professor James Murray, a brilliant, self-taught linguist who spoke six languages and had a working understanding of at least fourteen more, became obsessed with the project, which burgeoned into a phenomenally difficult (and practically speaking, virtually impossible) job.

The project was begun in 1857; Murray was hired for ten years starting in 1879; but, in reality, the dictionary was not printed in its complete form until 1928, more than seventy years after the project was first envisioned!

First, I want to share a few “fun facts” about languages I’ve learned through studying, and then I want to share a few thoughts about the movie. There are more than 6,500 languages spoken throughout the world, but almost half the world’s people speak primarily 10 of them: English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, Standard Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, and Indonesian. Among these languages, English is the most spoken language in the world, and it’s also the Number One trade language around the world, so it’s worth learning! English is “the language of the sky,” and every pilot must be able to identify themselves and communicate in English.

Jennifer Ehle as Mrs. Ada Murray, Dr. Murray’s wife

Interestingly enough, English is also considered by many to be the language with the most words/meanings, although that’s hard to define. English has over a million words if you count the various meanings of each given word. For instance, the newest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary takes 60,000 words to define the 430 various usages of “set.” Also, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) defines 616,500 words, but there are hundreds of thousands of words that are not included, many scientific or borrowed from other languages but not in common enough use to be considered uniquely English, various forms of slang, compound words, and on and on! If you count tenses, plurals, etc, the list goes on seemingly ad infinitum (or at least ad nauseam).

Hope you didn’t mind that rabbit trail, but all this to highlight both the importance and the difficulty of the task assigned to Professor James Murray!

As another side light, the movie had an exceptionally gifted cast, including Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and the film was done with painstaking care to detailing the truth (except concerning the madman’s romance), stunning cinematography, artistic sensitivity while retaining historical integrity, and a deeply moving theme of seeking redemption.

The movie was the brainchild of Mel Gibson, and he took more than twenty years in research and development, but it ended as a painful disappointment to him, which seems tragic but almost fitting, since Professor Murray never saw the completion of his beloved dictionary.

I don’t want to spoil the story and suspense, but the underlying pathos of the movie concerns the brilliant help that Professor Murray receives from Dr. William Minor, a retired American army surgeon who helped with the completion of over 10,000 entries but was in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum and considered criminally insane. Among other provocative themes, The Professor and the Madman has stirred me to even greater compassion for the mentally ill.

The “Madman” is haunted by the need to somehow redeem himself and find forgiveness for sins. What he does in the movie is beautiful, and I loved learning the story, but there was also a deep sadness that I don’t think God intends. Sin is terrible, and terribly wrong, but there is no sin beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. Although we have to live with the regrets and scars from our sins, God invites us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. When it comes to giving and receiving forgiveness, we can extend forgiveness to those who’ve hurt us, but we can only humbly accept forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. Most of the time, no amount of effort can take away the pain and loss (although we should do everything we can to restore and make right the wrongs we’ve committed).

In the final analysis, our sins can only be atoned for by the blood of Christ, who died to pay the penalty of death we deserve. By accepting his sacrificial death in our place, we receive eternal life through Him. That will not “settle the score” between ourselves and those we’ve hurt in this life, but that will grant us forgiveness and eternal life in Christ. It should also make us humble and able to forgive those who sin against us . . . passing forward the gift of mercy and forgiveness to others.

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God
is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

There is a Redeemer
—Keith Green

There is a redeemer
Jesus, God’s own Son
Precious Lamb of God, Messiah
Holy One

Jesus my redeemer
Name above all names
Precious Lamb of God, Messiah
Oh, for sinners slain

Thank you, oh my father
For giving us Your Son
And leaving Your Spirit
‘Til the work on Earth is done

When I stand in Glory
I will see His face
And there I’ll serve my King forever
In that Holy Place

Thank you, oh my father
For giving us Your Son
And leaving Your Spirit
‘Til the work on Earth is done

Please share your thoughts too!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.