The Greatest Showman Challenges Modern Tolerance…But Doesn’t Go Far Enough
Over the weekend I went with my wife to see The Greatest Showman and we thoroughly enjoyed it. The movie tells the story of P.T. Barnum, the son of a poor tailor who becomes one of the leading entertainers in the world.
The theme [spoiler alert] is about the folly of trying to find personal value in acceptance and love from society. The film focuses on various “outcasts” who feel rejected by broader culture (Barnum, circus performers, etc.), but eventually find a deeper kind of meaning in close, personal relationships.
Since he grew up poor, and as an outsider, Barnum desperately sought societal applause. Even after marrying his sweetheart, having two beautiful daughters, building a successful show, buying an expensive home, and getting invited to the “important” social events, Barnum still felt the need to prove himself to the world.
His wife warns him about the futility of such an endeavor, but he persists nonetheless. And it nearly cost him his marriage and career. At one point, when Barnum launches a nationwide music tour to prove to the world that he can offer real substance in his shows, she warns him that he already has the very things that bring genuine happiness (his family and friends) right in front of him.
The circus performers grasp this same message through the course of the film (bearded lady, dwarf, etc.). At first, they are reluctant to come out of the shadows for fear of being rejected by society. Barnum convinces them that the crowds will love them, and so they take the risk.
While many guests do enjoy the circus performers, some continue to criticize the show and consider them “freaks.” Nevertheless, they eventually realize that meaning comes from having valuable relationships (in their case, the other performers and the circus team) who will stand by them as friends. Even if some in society reject them, they have a core “family” who understand and love them for who they really are.
As with Barnum, they eventually embrace the theme of the movie: Happiness is not found through the approval of society, but through the love of a few good people who value you for who you truly are.
Modern Tolerance, Inclusion, and Diversity
Initially I thought the movie was promoting modern-day ideas of tolerance, inclusion, and diversity. On this narrative, as my father and I explain in The Beauty of Intolerance, the greatest “sin” is considering any belief, value, or practice as superior to another. To criticize someone’s lifestyle is considered wrong and hurtful. Thus, culture must be pushed to value all people and practices as equal because worth and dignity come from societal acceptance.
But whether it was intended this way or not, the movie subverts this narrative. The main lesson Barnum and the other characters learn is that societal acceptance will not bring meaning. It is “Never Enough.” Rather, what really matters is the love of a few good people.
The Greatest Showman brilliantly shows the futility of finding love and acceptance from belonging to the wider culture. It is a welcome challenge to modern ideas about tolerance and inclusion.
But it doesn’t go far enough. After all, what if your closest friends and “family” reject you? What if those closest to you fail to love you as you desire? (Many Muslim converts to Christianity have in fact experienced this kind of rejection).
The Only Lasting Solution
This is where the Christian worldview offers the most satisfying answer. On Christianity, we are made to love God and love people (Mark 12:28-34). Yes, as The Greatest Showman illustrates, relationships with people matter deeply for a meaningful life. We are designed to be in healthy relationships with other people and it hurts when these relationships are broken.
But on the Christian story, ultimate significance and acceptance come from God, not from people. The apostle Paul understood this, which is why he was able to suffer for his faith (2 Cor. 11:16-32) and to lovingly speak truth to people without fearing their rejection (Gal. 4:16). If you are a believer, then you belong to Christ, and no one can take that away from you—period.
Understanding this frees us up from demanding that other people accept us on our terms. It frees us up to genuinely love people, even if they reject us, as happened to Christ.
The Greatest Showman offers a welcome challenge to modern ideas of tolerance. But I hope people watching it realize that even its solution falls short. The deepest meaning and love simply cannot be found in human relationships. As Solomon, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, and other great thinkers have proclaimed, we have a deep yearning for something that goes beyond what this world has to offer.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.