The film ‘The Greatest Showman’ shocked critics when it performed as well as it did. It was expected to be a bit of a flop, but much like Barnum’s circus in the film itself, it far exceeded expectations. It’s certainly not down to its historical accuracy (or lack thereof – more on that here), but in terms of a film – even a year on, people can’t stop singing along to it.
But why was it so popular?
I think it’s this, and it struck me towards the end of the film, when the circus performers are talking to Barnum in the pub. One of them looks at Barnum and says:
“You brought us out of the shadows… You gave us a real family, and the circus was our home. We want our home back.”
And I think this gets at the heartbeat of the movie.
Outsiders being brought out of the shadows, and into family.
It’s true for almost everyone in the film – a longing to be brought out of the shadows. You see it in Barnum – the scruffy street urchin; in Philip Carlyle – the slick, young aristocrat; in Jenny Lind – the famous opera singer; in the circus performers – rejected and scorned by society.
Outsiders brought in to be part of the family.
I think the one line which captures it best is in the title song – Barnum sings that his circus is a place “where the lost get found and we crown them the circus kings”.
This is the joy of the circus.
It’s the joy of the film.
Lost people getting found.
And in fact, getting found by Barnum. He’s the ringleader, the one who finds lost people. He’s this kind of hero for all of these different people, bringing people out of being lost, and into life.
He’s a flawed hero, sure, he’s still the hero of the film.
He rescues the performers.
He rescues Carlyle.
He rescues himself.
He’s this hero who turns up and brings all sorts of people into a new family – this circus. Out of whatever shadows they were living in and giving them…life.
And so when I watch this film, I’m quite unashamed to say it, I want to be part of it.
There’s something about it which is intoxicating, which draws you in, which taps into a longing we each have. Not to join the circus. But a desire to be welcomed in to family. To be found. To be safe. To be somewhere where I’m accepted, loved, valued – where we belong.
I think this is a longing which we all have. And one which we go looking to fulfil in all sorts of places – families, social media, supporting a team, local community groups – whatever it is. We long to belong.
But no matter where we look, nothing ever quite scratches where we itch.
Much like Barnum & the Circus.
Because although the film ends on this sickly-sweet crescendo of feel-good happiness, it doesn’t erase the reality that actually, P.T.Barnum and his Circus was a terrible place to find ultimate belonging. It might all seem colourful and bright and happy-go-lucky as the film ends, but we know that when the curtain closes, something’s going to crack. We’re not fooled – deep down, we know it won’t stay like this forever.
And so the question is – can we find an answer to our longing for belonging that lasts more than five minutes? That isn’t so…thin? Can this itch ever be scratched?
Here’s the rub.
That maybe we have this longing because we were made for something better.
The Bible says that we were made for relationship with God.
To belong to him, to be part of his family.
But the problem is that we’ve rejected him. We’ve said ‘no’ to him and gone off on our own way. And as such, we’re lost.
We’re lost because we’re cut off from the One we were made to find life in.
And this is why Jesus came. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, he records Jesus saying: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”.
Jesus came to find lost people, and save them – bring them back into right relationship with God. Because we’re all misfits. We’re all outcasts, when it comes to our relationship with God. But incredibly, God doesn’t leave us in that state. He sends his Son, Jesus, to come and find us, and bring us back – into relationship with him, as one of his children, into family, into acceptance.
Jesus is a (much) better Barnum!
And so that’s why I love this film. Sure, the songs are catchy. But really I love it because it makes me think of something better.
All of the joy of that penultimate song, where they are foot-stomping in the pub, delight on their faces – “And we will come back home – home again!” – it’s just a fraction of the reality of the joy for the Christian.
Welcomed in, made part of God’s family through Jesus, for anyone to receive by faith.
“It’s everything you ever want. It’s everything you ever need. And it’s here right in front of you.”