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25.01.2018

The Greatest Show on Earth | Connecting with Culture

A man is born to humble beginnings, but knows he is destined for something greater. Sound familiar?

Add some sequins, elephants, and a bearded lady, and you’ve got a very different story to the one you might have expected. The Greatest Showman is inspired by the true tale of a man with a flair for show business, who created a spectacle to dazzle Victorian audiences in the United States.

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is ringmaster of a collection of ‘exotic’ oddities, including trapeze artists, Siamese twins, and other societal outcasts. 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. Whether violent hooligans or cold aristocrats, these are the film’s villains. By contrast, the show’s motley crew of misfits are presented as being perfect just as they are. Here, the film trumpets a popular modern mantra: just be yourself. 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

Christians can certainly celebrate the idea of a judgement-free community where everyone is welcome and difference is celebrated. It’s a challenge to us: which groups exist in our society that are laughed at and reviled? How can we offer them love, hope, and a family?

The film does, however, get it wrong when it assumes that we simply need to embrace ourselves as we are, flaws and all. Instead, Christianity claims, we are loved and accepted as sinners, but we are offered the chance for forgiveness and change. We can cast off the old selves and put on new selves. This is more than donning stage makeup and an impressive costume. It’s a deep-rooted transformation of our inner beings.

The only character who undergoes any comparable transformation is our hero. Barnum repeatedly makes bad decisions, disappoints people, and gets distracted by the superficial. Yet he learns to overcome his pride and selfishness, valuing friendship and family over money, loyalty over success, and integrity above everything.

Thankfully, though, we don’t need to ‘rewrite the stars’ or act as ringmasters over our own transformations. Instead, we are asked to trust that the one who has begun a good work in us will carry it on to completion.

Rachel Smith
Rachel works in marketing for higher education. She attends King’s Church Durham.

Comments

  1. Come to the Lord , come to the living water , drink and receive . Let everything that has breath Praise the Lord!!!!! Alleluah Come to the Lord Come to the living water, drink and be filled and refreshed,. Come to the Lord Come to the living water Come!

    By Gillian - 26th January 2018
  2. I’m not sure I wholeheartedly agree with the theology of this article. Those who are typically ‘misfit’ in this film learn to accept who they are, and 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 make ‘bad decisions, [disappoint] people.’ We are created by our loving heavenly father, across a vast spectrum of ability, (worldly) attractiveness, and with a breadth of personality types – and that loving heavenly father does not make mistakes.

    Transformation comes as a result of relationship, and we need to be authentic with and for ourselves and then in relationship with God.

    I think this film reminds us that it is in and through such authentic relationships, and thus where unconditional love can be seen, expressed and experienced, that we are transformed and become ‘who [we’re] meant to be.’

    By Sharon Copestake - 26th January 2018
  3. A very appropriate and easily comprehendible comment on a well known story. Just what we need on a Friday when brain power is somewhat exhausted.

    By WiKiNi - 26th January 2018
  4. As ever, there is acceptance of the flaws of the outcast, the oddballs, the misfits but not for the flaws in the socially accepted and judgemental folk who also need love, grace, forgiveness, understanding.

    By Jenny Chapman - 26th January 2018
  5. The stated message of the film was that everyone is glorious. But only the stories of the pretty characters were told. I felt that the film denied its own message.

    By James Pate - 26th January 2018
  6. Nice piece, and I also really like Sharon’s amplification/clarification about transformation coming through relationship. Great point. I blogged last week about CS Lewis’s Narnia and its imaginative power to awaken in us such longing for spiritual reality, and indeed such relationship & transformation.

    By Bruce Gulland - 26th January 2018
  7. From despair to prayer:
    Whether or not we agree with using disabled people in a circus, it is helpful to see this in a 19th century context. With no welfare state, Barham persevered in difficult circumstances. He employed “misfits” who had neither family or finance.

    A long time ago? Sometimes we too can feel out of place – misfits in a temporarily pagan world. Credit card bills, bereavement or unemployment can feel very painful in January when sunny days seem far off. Yet Jesus is only a prayer away and says “Come to Me, all you who are heavy burdened and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11). There are no misfits in the Kingdom of God – each “yoke” for each individual fits perfectly as we trust Him to lead us and lift our hearts along the Way.

    By Jane - 26th January 2018
  8. Having felt like a misfit myself, although not for any obvious reason, I am so thankful that, knowing my Heavenly Father sees me as I am and still accepts me in Jesus, I can now accept myself. My constant prayer is that others who are marginalised should come to Jesus, know that He loves them and be able to accept who they are in Him.

    By Sue W - 27th January 2018
  9. Some interesting comments. I haven’t seen the film, but am reminded of the musical ‘Barnam’ and the piece from that work: ‘Brick by Brick’ which reminds (and celebrates) that – just like his business-in-formation – we are works in progress, being built brick-by-brick; that our personal completion (‘transformation’) does not come in one fell swoop (except, perhaps, for St. Paul) and that the completed product comes with time and labor. On the corporate side, the Church is also a work-in-progress, being built (endlessly it seems) brick-by-brick, person-by-person, being bound together by the common mortar of Divine love and reconciliation.

    By ken johnson - 27th January 2018
  10. Thank you all for your comments.
    I do largely agree with Sharon’s comments, but I also agree with James that at points the film undermines its own message, both in the ways I discussed and others that I ran out of space for!
    In particular, I argued that this film is an example of a modern philosophy which tells us that we are perfect just the way we are. Whilst we have been made by a God who never makes mistakes, the Bible also teaches us that we are not perfect.
    We certainly do need to accept ourselves – and others – in order to build meaningful relationships, both with God and with each other. However, we also need to recognise our flaws and allow God to work in us to transform us. To be clear, these flaws are not the same as the things that society may see as failings (being too short or tall, for example).
    Nonetheless, there is certainly a lot to celebrate in the film with regards to its message of inclusivity, acceptance and family.

    By Rachel Smith - 29th January 2018
  11. Thank you for the article. Having now seen the film (and thoroughly enjoyed it!!), I was struck by the comment of one of the (critical) characters in the story that Barnum’s activities were “a celebration of humanity” (of course this is only true within the the film and not in the ambiguities of the real Barnum’s activities!). However, I am struck by the way that a piece of popular entertainment can celebrate humanity (and its God given potential!) in a way that the church with its increasingly desperate evangelism cannot seem to do without expecting people to jump through the many hoops on the way to acceptance..

    By Revd. Joseph Daley - 2nd February 2018

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