Walking out of the theater after seeing The Greatest Showman, Kara asked me what I thought. I told her I’d like to see it about a half-dozen more times, and then write a mixed review. Of course, I didn’t need to see the movie to know that. We had already listened to the soundtrack more times than I can count, and had watched a few interviews and videos of the actors workshopping their songs. I knew I would love the film, and I knew I would be troubled by elements of it.
I’m not a film critic, and so my evaluation of the cinematography, music, choreography, and acting is probably unsophisticated and brutish– I thought it was all great. No doubt Rotten Tomatoes has something snobbish to say about it.
Whenever I sit down to watch a film, I try to ask myself, “is this a Christian story?” I’m not asking if it mentions Jesus, if one of the pivotal scenes takes place in a church, or if it’s PG; rather, I want to discern if this is a story that can only make sense in a Christian worldview. When you strip away the incidentals, does the bare landscape of the plot look Christian? Does this narrative envision a Christian worldview? Let’s look at the scoreboard (WARNING: spoilers ahead).
Being now a married man, I love stories about marital faithfulness, and I hate stories about unfaithfulness. One of the tensest parts of the film, for me, was when P.T. Barnum was clearly tempted to be unfaithful to his wife with Jenny Lind. I love that he remained faithful. I love that he later repented of some of his other actions to his wife and that it was an explicit repentance. I love that by the end of the film, P.T. Barnum realized the joy and importance of being with his wife, watching his daughters grow up. Golden.
But there’s a dark undercurrent to the film, masquerading as an angel of light. Many of the songs– “A Million Dreams,” “Come Alive,” “This Is Me,” and “Rewrite The Stars,” most explicitly– have a strong element of self-realization to them. Of course, that’s the theme of the movie, and it’s a gripping and compelling story. A man comes from nothing and ends up at the very top, and he brings the misfits and unappreciated of Manhatten with him. Everyone who has ever felt left out, alone, insecure, or deficient (in other words, everyone) can identify with this. And so the film is incredibly uplifting and empowering. The song “This Is Me” really captures the heart of this vision of self-realization.
As compelling as it is, that vision hides a lie. The lie is that the means to my success and significance lie within me. I have in my person value, significance, and worth; and if people don’t see and love that, then they’re small-minded and ignorant– not protagonist material.
Three years ago this month I tried to commit suicide, and it was a belief that I wasn’t valuable, special, or worth anything that drove my attempts to end my life. The way to recovery, however, wasn’t in assuring myself that I really am all that is man, or that I am God’s gift to the world; it was in realizing that I, despite all my bumps and bruises, my weaknesses and deficiencies, am so loved by my God that he has redeemed me in Christ and is working all things– all things, depression and weakness and all the rest– for my good.
I know I look like a stingy killjoy pointing this out. Heck, I feel like a stingy killjoy pointing it out. But the road to self-realization is littered with bloody razorblades, empty pillboxes, divorce contracts, broken bottles, and other such trademarks of misery. It wouldn’t need to be said if we didn’t buy into it, but we do. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).
I don’t have some inner value which is inherent to me. It might seem nice to think that, but it’s not true. I do have tremendous value and worth, but only because Jesus died to redeem me. What’s the greater story– the one where I have all this inherent value and I spend my life trying to dig deep enough to realize it, or the one where I start out with no value at all, and I’m given great value and dignity and worth by the God who created and redeemed me? Let it play out. One of those paths leads to “self-realization” in this life and destruction in the end, and the other to mingled joy and sorrow now, “and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30).