The Prestige: Rivalry is No Fun and Games

Posted: March 6, 2012 by John C. Kwasny, Ph.D. in Drama
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ri-val-ry (n). Competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. 

This one words sums up the entire plotline of the 2006 movie, The Prestige.  With apologies to my wife, Martie (she didn’t care for the movie at all–too sci-fi for her), I thought Christopher Nolan’s film was a masterpiece when we saw it in the theater.  Now, after viewing some of Nolan’s other films (Memento, Inception, and The Dark Knight), I’m even more convinced that The Prestige is one of the best stories about RIVALRY ever told.  It accurately portrays the total destructive nature of competition run amok.

The Prestige tells the story of two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), and their rise to popularity in 19th century London.  For you youngsters out there: before there were movies, television, and video games, people were enthralled with magic shows and other carnival-style theatrics.  Angier and Borden begin their careers working for the same magician as simple audience-plants for his tricks.  After a death-defying stunt goes horribly bad, Angier and Bale are transformed into the sort of rivals that long for nothing else in life but to destroy each other.

The Prestige is such a good movie that I’m not going to give the rest of the story away.  You need to put this on your rental list.  It would lead to some fabulous discussion–especially with the teenager(s) in your home.  It is a tragedy that will remind you of a Shakespeare play.  The last thing concerning the plot that I will tell you is that these rivals not only destroy each other, but they truly lose themselves in this career-long battle.

After watching this film, I have no doubt that you will be shaking your head over the horrible consequences of extreme, obsessive rivalry.  So, this begs the following cluster of questions:  Is rivalry a Christian behavior?  Is it something inevitable in a fallen world?  What should the Christian response to it be?

To answer these interconnected questions, we have to understand that rivalry has existed since the beginning of time.  Cain treated his brother Abel as his rival, which led to murder.  Rachel and Leah were rivals for Jacob’s love (and for his children).  Before giving birth to Samuel, Hannah was tormented by her rival as well.  Even Joseph’s brother’s treated him as a death-deserving rival for their father’s affection.  Certainly, all of these (and many other) Scriptural examples of rivalry were fueled by sinful envy and jealousy.  None of these situations ended well, nor glorified God!  Why is that?  The Bible gives us the answer in James 4:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.  (James 4:1-2).

So, because of the fall and our sinful hearts, rivalry is inevitable–it will always be with us.

If rivalry will always be with us on this life, are Christians to handle it differently than the world?  Jesus Himself instructed His disciples to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-44) in a world that trains us to hate them.  This command, coupled with various New Testament commands to love, forgive, show kindness, etc., presents the paradigm for the Christian’s handling of rivals.  Quite simply, we are to be counter-cultural, refusing to sinfully compete with those who are positioning themselves as our enemies.  We are to trust God to provide for us rather than feel compelled to fight for everything we want.

Now let me add one complicating factor.  How do we properly respond to rivalries when we are typically trained from childhood to both become rivals as well as live in routine bitterness towards our rivals?  Playful childhood games quickly degenerate into cutthroat battles.  In our elementary, middle, and high schools, we learn to hate our crosstown rivals as we pitch battle in every sport.  Our favorite college or university (typically a parent’s alma mater) becomes our favorite sports team, so we grow to hate its natural rival.  Basically, our sports-saturated culture teaches us to love our teams and absolutely hate all opposing teams (and by extension, its players, fans, cheerleaders, band, faculty, maintenance crew, etc.).  How in the world can this lifelong cultural training lead us to a Christian response to rivalry?

I know what you’re thinking…c’mon John, there’s nothing wrong with “friendly” rivalries (an oxymoron, if there ever was one)–it’s just harmless fun!  Maybe.  But if these are just fun and games, why do they so deeply affect our moods, attitudes, and behavior towards people who cheer for the other team?  Maybe we can disconnect the world of “fantasy” rivalry from the real world where we are called to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.  But maybe not.  As you watch The Prestige, and witness the destructive power of rivalries, engage your Christian mind and think about it.

  1. […] loved being spectators of sports and games.  We love cultivating our rivalries (see my post on The Prestige).  We are intrigued by skills and abilities we do not possess.  We long to be […]

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