Whatever you want to say about The Greatest Showman, it’s not subtle. I know I’m late to the party discussing this movie musical. Hugh Jackman reminds us he can sing and dance while telling a story that in all likelihood bears little resemblance to the actual life of P.T. Barnum. What’s striking to me after watching it a couple times, though, is how the songwriters, performers, and director are expressing some very Christian themes.
Barnum is unashamedly putting together his “circus” (a critic’s derogatory term that Barnum chooses to embrace) of oddities and “freaks”. There’s the very tall man, the very short man, the very fat man, the very tattooed man, the trapeze artists, and (most notably in the show) the bearded lady. They are living in the shadows, mocked for their differences by the people around them.
I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one will love you as you are
But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious
What makes these people receptive to Barnum’s invitation to perform, though, is that he doesn’t see them as freaks or mistakes but as people who need to be seen and loved and appreciated for who they are.
As a follower of Jesus I can affirm and need to be reminded of this attitude. Each person I encounter, even (especially?) if unseemly, is glorious, because they are a human who bears God’s image. They are deserving of love and embrace, not in spite of who they are but because of who they are.
The movie goes on a fairly predictable story arc from there – Barnum’s ambition drives him to pursue greater and greater success. His desire for the approval of the wealthy and elite drives him to be ashamed of his family of misfits. He chases high culture and leaves his wife and children behind to tour the country with a prima donna. He has his moment of realization, heads back home to try to reconcile with his wife and circus family, loses everything in a fire, and is finally brought back from despair by his circus family who have been there all along.
It’s all very on the nose. There are no real surprises. But it rings true, maybe not in a “that’s realistically how it could’ve happened” sense, but more in a “this is what the redemption arc should look like” sense.
And the gospel themes are present even right there in the finale. As Hugh Jackman is belting out the message that he has learned his lesson and will not, in the future, be blinded by the bright lights of fame, the circus performers have their own hopeful chorus in response.
And we will come back home
And we will come back home
And there is the cry of every heart, though it manifests in diverse ways: a cry for redemption and for restoration. A cry that we could be home, loved for who we are, embraced by a family.
There’s no obvious sign that The Greatest Showman was intended to bring any sort of Christian message. But it highlights to me how direct and relevant the message of Jesus is, even for those who may not be looking for it: that God is love, that we are created gloriously in His image, that He is working in our brokenness for redemption, and that He calls us to follow Jesus and be a part of that restoration.
This is the greatest story.