The Greatest Showman is a great movie. The cinematography, the choreography, and the music weave a beautiful tale…of communion and ultimately love. (Spoilers ahead.)
PT Barnum starts out life being slapped across the face by a man of higher social stature while his father looks on and does nothing. This is a great distortion of love for PT and his father’s lack of defense, and the other man’s malfeasance tells PT that money equals success and success equals higher stature and ultimately power.
Part of this distortion is clarified with his marriage to Charity—namely, her love for him. But then, his love for the power and notoriety almost lead him down a big and wide road of no return.
This seems to be how it all begins. A distortion and then all life is seen through that distortion, and clarity provides some relief but relieving a distortion requires not only suffering but also the will to accept that suffering. PT had suffered but he had not endured it.
Every character in the film is searching for communion, for acceptance, for love. PT in the arms of the world. Charity in the arms of PT. The circus acts (oddities) in the arms of whoever will take them.
The first song lays the groundwork: “This is the greatest show!…It’s everything you ever want. It’s everything you ever need. It’s standing right in front of you. This is where you want to be.”
One of the questions that we should all answer is: “If this was it, this moment right now, in this life, could you find God here? Could he be enough?” Phinneus (PT) had a beautiful wife, two beautiful girls, love that bound all of them together, and the necessities in life. Then, he couldn’t give his daughter ballerina shoes…that she wanted but didn’t need. His own woundedness drove him to fulfill a want based on his suffering.
This happens to all of us. If we are unable to surrender our suffering for Christ to redeem, then ultimately it drives our actions. The soldier that does not allow his wounds to heal as he proceeds into battle will weaken the entire army. Suffering that is not transformed is transferred.
We desire communion. This hasn’t changed for all eternity. This is fulfilled through a “we-communion,” side by side gazing at a third object or mutual admiration, or “I-thou communion,” gazing from one to the other in mutual, reciprocal admiration of the other fully seen in marriage. The highest goal is communion with our Creator, imago dei returning to the Source of our creation.
Every character in The Greatest Showman desires communion. While both forms of communion exist in every relationship, our initial cognizant expression of such is through the “we-communion,” which was lacking in the lives of the Oddities. Through one another they found “we-communion.” The “I-thou communion” was seen through the marriage of Phineas and Charity, which suffered a distortion when PT was “blinded by the lights” of fame and worldly notoriety.
I cannot fully listen to the songs from The Greatest Showman without returning to my desire for communion with God through tears and awe. The lyrics reach into my soul and awaken this desire for “we-communion” (“I know there’s a place for us for we are glorious”); for “I-thou Communion” (“Hand in my hand and you promised to never let go”); and essentially for communion with God (“When I stop and see you here, I remember who all this was for”).
While each lyric moves me, the upbeat tempo and playfulness of “The Other Side” managed to pause and reach into my heart through Phineas’ words, which I imagine to be the words of God beckoning me from the role I try to play each day. When I refuse him, as I often do when his way seems a little harder or a little more prone to pull me into my uniqueness, I hear these lyrics:
“But you would finally live a little, finally laugh a little / Just let me give you the freedom to dream / And it’ll wake you up and cure your aching / Take your walls and start ’em breaking / Now that’s a deal that seems worth taking / But I guess I’ll leave that up to you”
Though Barnum chose a life full of oddities through the circus, he didn’t know how to marry the life of worldly stature with the life of true fulfillment in his vocation as husband and father. When he returned home and ordered his priorities properly, he discovered the promise that he had offered in the song referenced above: freedom. This same promise is offered through Christ.
What we desire, at its core, is good…always. Every addiction, every wrong choice, every sin has at its core the goodness that is found in the heart of every human person. Our own humanity longs essentially for goodness, though we may distort that desire by disordered means. Communion reminds us of this goodness and ultimately draws us back to our innate desire to return to God, to go back home.
The Greatest Showman echoes this same desire for communion, our failure to find it, and the inner freedom which is found when we return “home”.
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 wanna be
The pursuit of holiness…isn’t this the greatest show?