IF I asked what words you most associate with Lent, I suspect the list would include repentance, prayer, fasting, and discipline.
I suspect you would not say show-tunes, dancing, or circus skills.
Given this, it might surprise some readers when I suggest that the recent smash-hit musical The Greatest Showman, a film full of circus shenanigans, offers fertile territory for Lenten meditation.
For those who are unaware of the film, The Greatest Showman is a musical based on P. T. Barnum’s rise to fame and fortune as leader of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. It stars Hugh Jackman as Barnum, and was the eighth biggest box-office hit in the country in 2018, securing almost £40 million in ticket sales.
Indeed, The Greatest Showman has become something of a popular-culture phenomenon. It has generated singalongs, parties, and countless repeat viewings. The soundtrack alone, which includes the anthemic empowering song “This Is Me”, stayed at Number One in the album charts for 21 weeks.
It has chimed with a world hungry for both hope and fun, not least because it shows a world in which being an outsider is no bar to success and respect.
THIS may seem all very beguiling, but it doesn’t explain why the film might be fruitful for Lenten study, or even taken seriously by Christians wishing to connect with popular culture. For the great themes of Lent — the longing for justice and mercy, the invitation to sober reflection on sin, and, most of all, the call for repentance — might still strike us as very far away from those found in The Greatest Showman.
The Greatest Showman perhaps wants to leap too readily to Easter joy. After all, much of the film’s running-time focuses on how the circus can be a place of empowerment and affirmation for those — like General Tom Thumb, or Lettie Lutz, the so-called “bearded lady” — who have been treated as reviled outsiders by society.
If it is the case that The Greatest Showman mostly takes place in a major key, its power lies in contrast. When Barnum loses sight of what has made him a success and begins to stray from the path of faithfulness (to his family and beliefs), the film enters a minor key, shaped around doubt and betrayal.
Furthermore, if the mood of the film is joy, it is one tempered by the ups-and-downs of Barnum, his friends’ and his family’s lives. This is closer to the joy that we find in the Christian faith — the joy shaped through the Cross and God’s truth — than a fleeting happiness often offered by the world. As I trust we all appreciate, the delight that we encounter on Easter Day is not one shaped simply by pleasure, but by the knowledge that, in the risen Christ, God reveals that the world is shaped around abundant love rather than trial and pain.
Behind the bright and shiny chords of this musical’s songs are universal themes that chime with Lent. Most of all, The Greatest Showman asks, what does hope and love look like in a world which so readily tramples on those dreams? It frames that question through the lens of those regarded as outsiders, either because of poverty, class, disability, ethnicity, or visual stereotyping.
In the world of The Greatest Showman, the circus is not a place of exploitation but of affirmation. Performers find a home and a new family, shaped by mutual love. If this may be a somewhat modern take on the nature of circuses, it remains a powerful one.
Arguably, in the world of this musical, the circus functions as Christians often dream that the Church might operate: as a big-tent in which all, no matter their back-story, might find their richest home and family.
Jesus’s story speaks powerfully into the story represented in The Greatest Showman, not least because his ministry represents a dramatic statement that those society considers to be outsiders — that is, those who are treated as “other” and “second-rate” — are centre-stage in God’s love. Jesus lives as one on the edges of respectable society and dies a criminal’s death. As God’s Son among us, it is as powerful a sign of God’s priorities as we can imagine.
ABOVE all, The Greatest Showman is a film that brings delight to the forefront and is unafraid of dreaming. Repeatedly, Barnum and his friends and family face circumstances that work to destroy both their sense of self and hopes for the future: public mockery, violence, poverty, and unsympathetic critics.
In a time of precarious work and anxiety about the future — both in terms of Brexit and wider anxieties about climate change — it is perhaps unsurprising that the film has attracted such a devoted following. Indeed, it manages to offer a powerful echo of God’s original delight in the world and his ongoing desire for us to celebrate his creation.
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, betraying 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. His desire for the respect of those higher-up in society places him in a parlous situation. As he turns towards the glamour of respectable life, he turns his back on what is real.
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 that we are all capable of sin. 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 to look for deeper ways of living life. To live well and faithfully is really challenging.
In the Christian story, 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 is a picture of human frailty and the need for grace. Sometimes, because of the way in which we’ve been trained to read the scriptures, biblical characters such as Peter and Paul can seem distant, difficult, and coated with saintliness. In contrast, a figure such as Barnum mainlines into our human foibles and desires. He offers a more obviously human way for us to connect our lives to the divine.
ULTIMATELY, The Greatest Showman is dazzling entertainment, and no one should attempt to make it something it is not. Part of the reason that it has struck such a deep chord with so many, however, lies in the way in which it models relationship, friendship, and community.
The film does not ultimately present Barnum as a surrogate, big-top Jesus, redeeming all those around him. It reveals, instead, how he — as sinful and limited as any of us — finds redemption in the hands of a community of outsiders that is seeking love, grace, and mutual recognition. It is a vision that the Church, so often, can only aspire towards.
Canon Rachel Mann is the Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage. From Now On: A Lent course on hope and redemption in “The Greatest Showman” is published by DLT at £6.99 (£6.30).