**THIS BLOG-POST CONTAINS SPOILERS**
I am one of those Christians who has the unfortunate habit of searching films (often of the flimsiest kind) for theological and spiritual possibilities. It’s unfortunate, not least because friends and congregations have to put up with my often half-formed and slightly tenuous attempts to connect visual culture with elements of the Christian faith.
However, from time-to-time, this approach bears unexpected riches. This is certainly the case with the smash-hit musical The Greatest Showman, a film which focuses on the adventures of nineteenth-century showman P.T. Barnum, and the Circus for which he is famous. When the film opened in cinemas in late 2017, it was greeted with half-hearted reviews and sneers from professional reviewers. Six months later, it was still in cinemas and had generated singalong nights. It became the biggest film of 2018 and many cynics – including me – were won around.
When I saw The Greatest Showman, I immediate understood how it might form the basis of a Lent study course. It holds within it – in an engaging way – many of those things which the Christian faith invites us to ponder, consider and come to a mind on, especially during Lent. I want to reflect on one of those in this blog: how rarely we are satisfied with what we have – in terms of material wealth, human gifts, social popularity, and so on – and how this dissatisfaction can lead us away from God’s calling.
One of the key plot ‘turns’ in The Greatest Showman happens when Barnum’s Circus has overcome critical and financial difficulties and become a success. Barnum is able to provide lavishly for his family and appears to have it all. However, in response to his father-in-law’s rejection, as well as his desire to be popular with the respectable middle-classes, Barnum risks it all. We witness how Barnum’s desire to be popular and respectable leads him to betray what he most believes in: his family and his circus friends. Crucially, he has his head turned by the possibilities opened-up by the opera singer, Jenny Lind, the ‘Swedish Nightingale’.
Barnum has already received more than enough – in terms of money, family blessings, and the good life – by the time Lind appears, but he refuses to be satisfied. He wants more, most especially social position, as well as respect from those who are higher-up in society. This desire places him in a perilous situation where he might end up losing everything. As he turns towards the glamour of respectable life, he turns his back on what is real. He begins to betray those who truly love and respect him.
It is a deeply human story and one which almost all of us can identify with. I know only too well how often I’m tempted to betray my deep convictions about God, love and hope, not least by concentrating too excessively on my own selfish interests. We all have the capacity to mess things up, which is perhaps another way of saying we are all capable of sin, and much of the time we do. Equally, in a consumer culture, we are bombarded with messages to measure ourselves by what we can buy or what lifestyle we can afford, rather than look for deeper ways of living life. To live well and faithfully is really challenging.
In the Christian story, it is both encouraging and, in some ways, distressing to discover that among Jesus’ closest circle were those who turned away from him, the embodiment of God. Judas – despite modern attempts to either rework or understand his actions – acts as the very icon of betrayal; we also have the examples of St Peter, the one who denies Christ three times, and St Paul who takes a long road back from persecution to become a key figure in the spread of Christianity. We may not be exactly like Judas or Peter, but we too have to face our betrayals and pray that we receive sufficient grace to find a way back to the good.
One of the powerful things that The Greatest Showman offers both people of faith and none are powerful pictures of human frailty and the need for grace. Sometimes, because of the way we’ve been trained to read the Scriptures, biblical characters like Peter and Paul can seem distant, difficult and coated with the shimmer of saintliness. By contrast, a figure like Barnum mainlines into our human foibles and desires. He offers a more obviously human way for us to connect our lives to the divine.
If my inclination to mine modern visual culture for theological and spiritual insight is not to everyone’s taste, I trust you begin to see how a film – as much as a great work of traditional visual art or a work of fiction – can draw audiences into the deeper truths of the Gospel. At times, I know I can strain my analogies and over-stretch those connections. For me, The Greatest Showman is not one of those occasions. Its joyous, technicolour entertainment holds surprising theological and spiritual treasure.
Rachel Mann is an Anglican Priest, Poet, Writer and Broadcaster. From Now On: A Lent Course on Hope and Redemption in The Greatest Showman is available from Amazon and all booksellers.