Very few people know the Harry Chapin musical Cotton Patch Gospel, which is really too bad. It’s a great retelling of the Gospel set in 1960’s Georgia, with a flexible and talented chorus of bluegrass musicians that make you actually kinda like bluegrass.
I mention this because there is a scene in which Jesus calls Matthew, the apostle, tax collector, and narrator of the story. Matthew is an auditor for the IRS in this telling, and Jesus’ complete lack of income, assets or employment befuddles Matthew. When Jesus invites Matthew to join him, it so turns the tables that the auditor freaks out and Jesus has to stop him, mid-shout.
Anyway, it’s that kind of audacious offer that Barnum makes to Carlyle, and he makes it in this song with some of the same tone and pitch as Jesus’ call to the apostles.
You run with me
And I can cut you free
Out of the drudgery and walls you keep in
So trade that typical for something colorful
And if it’s crazy, live a little crazy
You can play it sensible, a king of conventional
Or you can risk it all and seeDon’t you wanna get away from the same old part you gotta play
‘Cause I got what you need, so come with me and take the ride
It’ll take you to the other side
After Carlyle smugly demurs, Barnum again pitches to what he senses is Carlyle’s muted recognition that his life is empty.
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
And that cinches it, because Barnum’s sense is correct.
This idea of giving up the security of conventional life to choose a chaotic and crazy one actually gets bandied around a lot in Christian circles to reflect the ways in which Christians who let “Jesus take the wheel” seem to end up living radically different lives than they might have expected (or wanted). But that’s the story as it gets told among those who are already pretty deeply invested in their faith.
In the outer world, Christianity (in America) has been identified far more with the conventional than with the radical. “Jesus freaks” are the exception, not the rule, and often Americans are pitched on Christianity not as a counter-cultural lifestyle but as a way to return to conventional respectability. I attribute this to the fact that, for pretty much all of our nation’s history, Christianity has been the de facto state religion. While different colonies followed different denominations and while there are trends toward secularism, there is still an alignment of conventional morality with membership in a Christian church.
I am not saying that I would prefer that Christianity be a persecuted minority. I have a friend who was imprisoned for several years in Vietnam for being a Christian, and I can’t say I would seek that out. But one of the central challenges of Christianity today (and, really, since the 4th century) is that in the interest of stability and sociopolitical acceptance, Christian leaders have taken on the mantle of state religion, which brings with it the responsibility to legitimize the conventions and norms of the society.
That’s not a good look for Christians, if you want to compare what gets held up as Christian values with the lives of Jesus and the His first followers. Living a life of radical love and total reliance on God to provide looks very different from a life of polite manners and a reliance on sensible retirement planning. I believe that one of the reasons to commit to a spiritual life comes in recognizing that all other sources of meaning and security are limited, if not illusory; making something limited your top priority is an idolatry doomed to disillusionment and disappointment. But in the last 1600 years or so, we keep trying to hold together these two callings – to be radical and to be conventional. So I guess I have to be patient while waiting for that realization.
Incidentally (and as a reminder that I’m not claiming that Showman is somehow secretly or subconsciously Christian), Barnum isn’t Jesus. It’s relevant, in many ways, that this song is not only about inviting Carlyle into the counter-cultural circus life, but also Barnum’s entry into respectability through Carlyle’s connections. We’ll see that this turns out poorly as Barnum is unable to serve two masters. Perhaps Christians will learn that lesson as well someday.
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