Hugh Jackman’s latest blockbuster The Greatest Showman has people divided: is this a cliché musical that fails to tell the story of past circus performers who were ostracized for their differences? Or is it an epic biopic, which displays the affect of power on the common man and the rise of show business?
Once you’ve seen the movie, there’s stock in both reactions. But unravel the narrative even further, and you realise there is more to this film than meets the eye.
I know, the trailer was a bit hit and miss, but before you pan this movie altogether, let me give you a heads up: it’s actually really good. And not just because Jackman is indisputably one of the best performers in Hollywood—but because the themes portrayed are scarily timely.
Racial discrimination? Check.
Gender inequality? Check.
Class warfare? Check.
Prejudice based on physical ability and differences? Check.
The choice between family values and power? Check.
The undying pursuit of the American dream at all costs? Check.
The Greatest Showman is set in the 1800’s, but once you get past the costumes, you can’t help but feel it is eerily similar to what we’ve witnessed in 2017.
Sure, in the movie there’s no one carrying tiki torches and spilling out profanities about race, but there are blue collar workers cornering Barnum’s circus company, telling them they don’t belong and provoking violence because they are ‘different’.
And the upper class that Barnum so desperately wants to prove wrong—yet simultaneously desires to belong too–oozes the same arrogance and privilege many have indulged in this year as professing Christians in the name of political fervor.
The Greatest Showman isn’t just a film about circus performers; it is a reflection of a contemporary society divided by pain and injustice, being pulled apart at the seams by those in power.
It is an allegory about what the church should be, and what we stand to lose if we give up Christ’s commandment to love others in favour of our own political and personal gain.
Like so many of us, Barnum starts of with good intentions. His mistreatment as a child due to class struggle made him an outcast, and he creates his circus as a place for people to belong and to provide for his family. He mirrors our zeal to welcome people into God’s Kingdom when we are first saved.
As things unfold in the film, we see Barnum’s ambition grow and soon he is discontent. He forgoes his values of loyalty, respect, honour and devotion in favour of wealth and public recognition. In his effort to pursue power, he loses everything.
Does the story sound familiar?
Because if the mess of 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that the global church is neglecting Kingdom values in favour of power.
And while we originally started off as a church of misfits who found belonging with one another due to the grace of God, we have quickly come to reflect the Pharisees we so verily resisted by decimating one another.
It’s the divide between republicans and democrats.
It is the denial of the #MeToo movement.
In Australia, it is the divide between Christians who are opposed to the soon to be passed same-sex marriage law, and those who are against it.
It is those who scream “All Lives Matter” in the face of people of color who are fighting for their lives.
It is racist and xenophobic slurs against people seeking asylum purely because they look different to us.
It is we who angrily enter a Twitter debate to make sure everyone knows our opinion about the latest issue, without engaging on a personal level.
Barnum lost everything he owned and loved due to his pride, but we have so much more at stake: others.
Poet Emily Joy and writer Hannah Paasch called #ChurchToo the church’s ‘reckoning’ and I would agree—but I would say the whole of 2017 is our reckoning 2018–though we need not wait for it to begin–is our chance at redemption.
Belonging wasn’t enough for Barnum. His circus literally burnt down due to his pride. And if we don’t address the fissure currently dividing the church now, we will never put out the fire currently raging through our halls and hearts.
Christ said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
It seems that, like Barnum, we have forgotten to love.
To love people who look, sound, think and feel differently to us.
To love other Christians who didn’t vote the same way we did.
To love people who have experienced injustices in our midst and to change our behaviours to remedy this, both individually and corporately.
To love God with humility, taking up our cross daily and following him—no matter what the cost.
We have a chance to rebuild the church from the ashes of what has come tumbling down in 2017. God’s kingdom was never about power, prestige or tickets at the door—it is about loving each other selflessly.
That’s how Barnum’s circus started, and that is what we must return to if we want people to experience the same freedom and grace we found when we first walked through salvation’s doors.
Barnum learned his lesson. Will we?