The Greatest Showman

I can’t get enough of the movie The Greatest Showman.

Okay, perhaps critics have a point: on one hand, The Greatest Showman may be a saccharine surface-level treatment of a complex character, with little nuance or credible plot development.

On the other hand, though, I think it’s one of the best movies that I’ve seen in a long time. And that includes the new Star Wars movie I saw last week, which is saying something.

Does that mean that I’m just an uncultured and uncritical movie slob who simply wants to be entertained? Is a catchy tune all I need to be satisfied? (In my defense, those tunes sure are catchy!) Am I like one of those unwashed ignorati who filled the stands of P.T. Barnum’s shows? Well, maybe.

But I think there’s more. This movie wasn’t just a feel good, toe-tapping hour and a half of escapism. It reached down into my soul and plucked my heart strings, its soaring melodies resonating at the same frequency as some of my deepest longings. As the opening song declares:

Buried in your bones there’s an ache that you can’t ignore

Somehow, this movie manages to do what more staid, artistic films often fail to accomplish: it unearths that buried ache. It awakens desires and breathes on them until they ignite. It makes me want to chase my dreams and love my family and embrace those who are different from me and work for other people’s joy and sing at the top of my lungs. In other words, it makes me want to be more human than I am now.

How does it do this? That’s the question. I think the answer is this: the reason that stories like this grab our hearts is that they contain shadows of the real Story we were made for. It’s what Tolkien called “the true myth,” the story that lurks behind and in all our stories, the original drama of which every other narrative is an imitation. Jonathan Gostchall, in his book The Storytelling Animal, argues that all of the stories that humans tell share the same basic literary DNA, and that these inescapable themes are the very thing that makes us human. “The human mind was shaped by story so that it could be shaped for story,” he writes. The great literary themes of rescue and danger and love and returning home are the scaffolding of meaning and purpose on which we construct our literature and our very lives. Gottschall, a secular evolutionist, marvels at the universality of story in the human experience, but in the end is unable to see beyond it to its true significance: the reason that stories like these stir our souls is that they’re telling us something true.

The storytelling songs of The Greatest Showman capture the desires for home and meaning that are built into the human heart, an echo of the epic that history’s Author is telling. The story of outcasts finding a home and misfits being swept up into glory is about as close to a retelling of the story of the Bible that I can think of. The opening song sets the stage for this Christ-haunted story:

Colossal we come, these renegades in the ring,
Where the lost get found in the crown of the circus king

Wherever castaways become kings, we are treading on holy, gospel-soaked ground. The gospel is the good news that the God of the universe has recovered and restored what we have broken, and is now inviting you into the purpose and meaning that you were created for. You and I know that we were made for more than the life we have, and so we are driven by a nameless urge for more, for better, for something that will finally and fully satisfy the ache and make us complete again. Philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about these unhappy longings, saying, “All these miseries prove man’s greatness. They are the miseries of a great lord, of a deposed king.” Our never-ending desperate drive for meaning, the Bible tells us, flows from humanity’s abdication of its birthright and subsequent exile. We have lost the purpose and crown for which we were made. But this abdication and exile is reversed by the gospel, where the human dignity that was lost at the fall and which has haunted you ever since is recovered and offered to you in Jesus.

The outlines and echoes of that great gospel Story are everywhere in The Greatest Showman. From Barnum’s offer of meaning to misfits (“Come alive, come alive, go and ride your light, let it burn so bright“) to the movie’s central anthem, “This is Me” (“I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be; this is me!“) to the finale (“We will come back home, home again!“) every song is steeped in the mythology of the cross. Hopeless outcasts are raised to new life. The homeless find a home and a family. Scars and shame are turned inside out into crowns of glory.

Without even realizing it, these songs are accidentally sacramental, ministering grace to the fallen and– in their dim, echoing way– pointing the broken back to the source of all the blessing: the One who has come to make us children of the King. If you have ears to hear it, the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman is one long worship anthem, celebrating the story that beats in all our hearts. Behind Barnum and all his dazzling lights, there’s a greater show calling to you:

It’s everything you ever want
It’s everything you ever need,
And it’s here right in front of you
This is where you want to be
This is the greatest show

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