By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I recently saw The Greatest Showman, which is an enjoyable movie-musical about the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The music and dancing are really fun, and the main moral of the story is one I wholeheartedly accept: happiness is found only in true love, and not in wealth, popularity or pride.
I also found the movie thought-provoking. Like so much in our culture, it reveals our deep attachment to a very particular sort of romantic love story, one that involves a certain tension that I think can only be resolved with the Christian play between grace and freedom.
On the one hand, it seems to me that we intensely value freedom in romantic love. For example, in modern Western culture there is little understanding for arranged marriages, and with each passing year it seems our society becomes less willing to tolerate norms or expectations regarding romantic love. Our movies are filled with love stories in which couples defy all kinds of familial and social obstacles to be together.
But on the other hand, we also value very deeply a certain kind of compulsion in romantic love. Yes, we want to be free to choose our spouses. But we also want “to fall” in love with them, or to be “swept away” by a power beyond our control. We want to believe that we are “meant” for each other, and that there is some transcendent fate driving us together. We want to be free, and yet we nevertheless want to be ruled by a destiny written in the stars that makes our love inevitable and therefore eternal.
Both these values are expressed in The Greatest Showman, but one ultimately succumbs to the other. And I think the reason one is lost is that an important and characteristically Christian note is missing from the musical.
In The Greatest Showman, P.T. Barnum turns a group of social misfits into a cast of world stars. Most were outcasts because of unusual physical features, like a man who is extremely short and a woman with a full beard. Some were outcast because of their poverty, and others because of their race.
In the movie, there is an interracial couple that struggles to find the courage to pursue their love in a hostile society. In a song, one lover sings to the other, “What if we rewrite the stars? Say you were made to be mine. Nothing could keep us apart. You’d be the one I was meant to find. It’s up to you, and it’s up to me. No one can say what we get to be. So why don’t we rewrite the stars?”
The lyrics are powerful. Rewriting the stars is a dramatic image. With this image, I see the song recalling the two values I mentioned (namely, freedom and fate); but I think it ultimately privileges freedom. One lover sings, “So who can stop me if I decide that you’re my destiny?” There is a contradiction here, I think, since the word “destiny” names precisely what does not fall to our decision. We do not “decide” destiny. The desire to do so, in The Greatest Showman, rises because our destiny is narrowly construed as negative social forces — other human wills competing against our own. These wills ostracize us and restrict our freedom, and so we long to rebel and “rewrite” the stars that represent them.
I think this antagonism toward destiny is a consequence of forgetting God. In The Greatest Showman, God did not write the stars. And when God is absent, we become anxious to protect our freedom. This is because we think the only forces that exist — or those in the material universe and society — are competitive and threatening.
For Christians, God, and not other human beings, writes the stars that govern us. And his is a benevolent freedom that transcends — and therefore does not compete — with our own. On the contrary, his creating and redeeming freedom gives us the power to will freely and with beatifying effect. Grace restores our freedom, and so enables us to fulfill the “law of love” that makes us happy (cf. John 13:34, Romans 13:8-10). Living underneath God’s night sky, we can fall freely into love, and therefore each can choose the spouse that is eternally his or her own in God’s design. We do not have to fight the universe for romantic love, or steal it from the jealous hands of destiny. If we want true love, we need only obey God as he leads us into true freedom and love.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.