I love going to the movies, even though it is no easy matter these days to find at the local multiplex thoughtful compositions that engage the Christian mind. I am not even asking for a screenplay free of gratuitous gore and silly, vulgar language. I am just seeking a film that actually presents its audience with one or two challenging ideas.
Not long ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a film in director Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, which was inspired by Sylvia Nasar's award-winning biography of the mathematician John Nash. Although by no means an explicitly Christian story—or even, in conventional terms, a religious one—the film's narrative provides a vehicle for elucidating important Christian principles.
John Nash, as millions of people now know, was a brilliant graduate student at Princeton back in the 1940s, when, among other accomplishments, he invented an analytical tool now known as the "Nash equilibrium." This discovery, for which Nash received the Nobel Prize in 1994, turned out to be one of the foundations of modern game theory, with application to everything from arms control talks to pricing goods in a competitive market.
It is also consonant with profoundly Christian ideals.
Here's why: the Nash equilibrium posits that there are circumstances in which we are better off if we settle for something other than that which we most desire. This may be counterintuitive, but the mathematical proof (which is available for a general audience in William Poundstone's excellent book, Prisoner's Dilemma) is quite elegant. Indeed, the implication of the Nash equilibrium is that sometimes the entire community is better off when we choose not to pursue that which we want most desperately.
Isn't there a Christian parallel here? So much of Christ's teaching is about self-control, and so much of the Christian life (exemplified, say, by Paul's letter to the Romans) is recognizing how we serve God's ends by pursuing his purposes rather than our own fervent passions.
What gives both film and book their poignancy is that Nash, having made his great discovery and climbed to the top of his profession, slipped slowly into paranoid schizophrenia. Sylvia Nasar gives his descent impact by the cool, almost clinical detachment with which she describes it; Ron Howard takes the opposite route, inviting us into Nash's madness until we, too, find ourselves unable to distinguish delusion from reality.
The Christian conversation that the film should spark involves Nash's escape from the clutches of his mental illness. No, there is no conversion, no turning to the Lord when all else has failed. But, in describing his battle with the hallucinations that plague him, Nash explains in the film that he had to put his mind "on a diet." What this evidently means is that he has to force his mind to reject certain tempting ideas in the same way that dieters must force their bodies to reject certain tempting foods. Isn't this precisely what Christians are called to do?
A Beautiful Mind has been criticized by some for the liberties it takes in telling Nash's story. To be sure, the real-life Nash was, during the years covered by the film, an atheist of sorts who, according to Nasar's biography, refused a Catholic wedding. I say "of sorts" because among the many delusions left out of the screenplay was his occasional belief that God was telling him what to do. At one point he thought of himself as "the Left Foot of God," and he often imagined himself a prophet.
In fact, Nash must have known his Bible quite well, because he found constant parallels between his own situation and the biblical narrative. For example, Nasar tells us that Nash saw his own perceived ostracism as a working out of the story of Jacob and Esau. He drew analogies between his own situation and the final Day of Judgment. He traced biblical analogies in the stars. And he sometimes imagined himself in heaven, although in Nash's schizophrenic vision it was a rotting, polluted place.
Yet the Christian implication of Nash's story does not turn in any way on the man's own religiosity, whether in his years of illness or in his years of remission. The implication comes in our recognition that we, too, must keep our minds on their proper diets, refusing the enticements of thoughts and ideas that might lead us away from the path of righteousness (see Phil. 4:8, for example).
Part of the diet of the Christian mind is to avoid an intake of garbage and filth, lest we spew out the same. With A Beautiful Mind, Hollywood, for once, is helping rather than hurting that effort.
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On Sunday night, A Beautiful Mind won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Director Ron Howard and supporting actress Jennifer Connelly also took home Oscars.
Previous Christianity Today Film Forum articles on A Beautiful Mind include:
A Beautiful What?The Golden Globes honored A Beautiful Mind this week, a "true story" that tells very little truth. (Jan. 24, 2002)
To Be a Better ManBig stars in big movies storm the box office. (Dec. 27, 2001)
Recent Christianity Today columns by Stephen L. Carter include:
A Quiet CompromiseWhy a moment of silence is better than school prayer. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Leaving 'Normal' BehindLife before September 11 seemed more secure, but do we really want it back? (Dec. 4, 2001)
Rudeness Has a First NameInstant informality actually sabotages true friendship. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Why Rules RuleDebates on the Ten Commandments expose our culture's ultimate rift. (Sept. 6, 2001)
We Interrupt This ChildhoodParents who raise their children to do right face a barrage of resistance. (July 11, 2001)
And the Word Turned SecularChristians should count the cost of the state's affirmation. (May 29, 2001)
Vouching for ParentsVouchers are not an attack on public schools but a vote of trust in families. (Apr. 2, 2001)
The Courage to LoseIn elections, and in life, there is something more important than winning. (Feb. 6, 2001)
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