It is a familiar story: a man, born in humble beginnings, knows he is destined for something greater. No, not the story of Jesus, but the story of 19th Century circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum in the film The Greatest Showman. Bearing in mind this is Hollywood – and a musical – it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the Furley-Smiths enjoyed it so much we went to see it twice. Amidst the sequins, elephants and anthemic songs, Barnum is portrayed as the ringmaster of a collection of ‘exotic’ oddities, including trapeze artists, Siamese twins, a bearded lady, and other social misfits. From these he creates ‘the greatest show on earth’: part circus, part musical, part ‘freak show’. Some audiences applaud, but others snub Barnum, picket outside, and attack the cast. At the heart of the film is the moment when even Barnum doesn’t allow the misfits to join him for an after-show party and they answer back that ‘This is me’. The tone is rousing as the cast sing in unison:
I know that there’s a place for us
We are glorious…
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be…
I make no apologies, this is me.
Some see in this a glorification of the ‘freak-show’ element that has no place in modern society. Others see a modern day self-glorification that idolises the notion that we can all ‘be ourselves’. Christian critics have suggested that the film gets it wrong when it suggests that we simply need to be ourselves as we are, flaws and all. What about the need for repentance and change, when we cast off the old self and put on Christ?
I wonder when I read these criticisms if the critics were watching the same film I was. The film actually is all about repentance and change, but not for the cast of misfits, but for Barnum himself. Throughout most of the film he is on a quest to become The Greatest Showman, regardless of those he hurts or takes advantage of on the way. It is only at the end (spoiler alert) that he realizes he has lost his way and he needs to come home to his family and friends because they are the ones who matter to him, not the fame and success.
Also at the heart of the film – and of the Gospel – is the idea of a judgement-free community where everyone is welcome and difference is celebrated. We should be open to the ‘outcast and stranger’ and not expect them to ‘become like us’. They are ‘glorious’ because they are made in the image of God. The cast of Barnum’s show wear themselves with a dignity that is very central to the Christian gospel. We absolutely do need to accept ourselves – whether our ‘flaws’ are considered such by others (a woman being beaded, a man only 3.5ft tall and so on), or lie deeper in us that cause us to disappoint those we love. Our loving God creates us across a vast spectrum of ability, (worldly) attractiveness, and with a breadth of personality types. This is the Gospel of Jesus, the one who embraces the stranger, talks openly with a Samaritan woman at the well, dines with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and dies on a cross between two thieves.
So, ‘From now on’ (another song from the film) let us not be judgmental like the critics. Let us embrace difference and follow the path of one who would never have described himself as ‘The Greatest Showman’ but we know as the Way, the Truth and the Life.
With love and prayers