This song comes early in the film during the get-the-gang-together scene. Barnum knows he needs live acts to make his idea work, so he starts recruiting for “oddities.” (This moment of recruiting the team is a favorite part of leadership for me, and it’s also why Oceans Eleven is one of my favorite movies).
There’s another way to look at this, though. The message he sends isn’t just for the “freaks and weirdos.” What he describes at the outset applies to a lot of us:
You stumble through your days
Got your head hung low
Your skies’ a shade of grey
Like a zombie in a maze
You’re asleep inside
But you can shake away
And his pitch sounds like a call to conversion, with phrases like:
But you can flip the switch and brighten up your darkest day
Sun is up and the color’s blinding
Take the world and redefine it
Leave behind your narrow mind
You’ll never be the sameCome alive, come alive
When the world becomes a fantasy
And you’re more than you could ever be
‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open
And you know you can’t go back again
To the world that you were living in
‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open
So, come alive!
One of the things that Christian media and leaders have found very attractive in Showman is this sense of conversion and transformation. The theme of pulling out people who have been ignored by society and transforming them into stars runs deep in the American psyche – Bad News Bears, anyone? – and it also aligns with a motif that’s woven throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Some day, when I have the time, I’d like to develop a project called “God of the Losers,” because pretty much everyone who gets a feature role in the Old and New Testament is somebody who doesn’t quite fit in with the cool kids. Abraham was too old. David was too young. Moses had a speech impediment. Solomon was illegitimate. You get the picture.
But if you go back to that opening quote about sleepwalking, you can see pretty quickly that it doesn’t just apply to the outcasts. All of us can get lulled into this mindset pretty easily, weighed down by the anxieties of daily life, just trying to make it through the day. Maybe you know this feeling.
In the show, Barnum is targeting the audience of misfits, but Christians might say his message is the call we all receive to be transformed by His love. We would also say that the “flip the switch” moment Barnum sings about is instituted sacramentally in Baptism. What we profess is that in baptism, God comes into our being in a different way than was present before, and that through our baptism we are empowered to live entirely different lives, fueled by the Holy Spirit to “come alive” and “dream with our eyes wide open.”
Though it isn’t an effect they used in the movie, it wouldn’t be hard to envision this song beginning in a black-and-white world and then snapping into full color as Barnum turns toward the chorus. There are examples of real lives of Christians whose transformation has been that dramatic. The apostle Paul comes to mind. St. Augustine’s life was like that. I have friends who could tell similar night-and-day stories.
But it’s not true for everyone. I’ll be the first to say that my life has been more like the rising or ebbing of a tide than a sudden Shazam. Most of my friends would say the same. Perhaps as a result, it’s hard to see ourselves in this narrative, and that makes it hard for us to speak to the power of Baptism.
I already talked at length about the transformative power of ritual, in which you transcend this mundane reality to experience an ecstatic spiritual realm. What I described there and is enacted in “The Greatest Show” is described in “Come Alive.” This ritual of initiation is, for Christians, Baptism. We should come out of the waters “never the same,” empowered by the Holy Spirit to “become more than we could ever be.” We profess this. Do we believe it?
One of the too-many divisions among Christians is whether infants and children should be baptized. There is evidence that the earliest Christians baptized entire households, which would presumably include babies. As Christianity became common, and since Baptism was linked to salvation of the soul for eternity, parents began to baptize their children in greater numbers, in hopes that, should they die young (which in the Middle Ages, many did), they would escape Hell and go to Heaven to spend eternity. Others pushed back, saying that accepting Baptism requires a free will that is yet undeveloped in a child. Many evangelical churches stick to an understanding of Baptism that requires the subject to be old enough to understand what Baptism is and have the will to actively seek it. I’m really not interested in arguing either side of this.
But what I am interested in is this: Either way, do we really believe it works?
If Baptism means what we think it means, shouldn’t we be radically different that those who aren’t baptized? Or at least radically different than we would have been had we not been baptized? That latter one is hard to parse out, for those of us baptized as infants, and it’s not that hard to find “nones” who were baptized as infants but have since wandered away from the life of faith.
I have great friends who don’t believe in any religion (including both those who just don’t spend time contemplating questions of faith and those who actively claim a secular worldview that precludes the supernatural). Life would be easier as a Christian if all the people who didn’t believe were heels, sad and lonely, miserable, conniving wretches who smelled funny.
But that’s not real. What’s real is, there are non-believers who are great people, doing great things for society, in loving relationships.
If I believe what I profess, Baptism (and the sacramental life overall) should give me such a power through God’s in dwelling in my life that I am capable of being exponentially better than anyone who doesn’t have that head start. We today talk about privilege and have exercises to help us realize the head start that those with privilege enjoy. In the moral and spiritual life, the gifts of the sacraments are the ultimate privilege.
So when it comes to loving others, the second of the two great commandments, I shouldn’t just be on par with the best unbelievers. I should be remarkably more loving than they are. And joyful, peaceful, kind, patient, generous, and self-controlled. Those are the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). If you don’t have sacramental access to those fruits, how chould you possibly keep up?
So, that’s not what it looks like today. Don’t count on non-Christians to all get wretched. We who profess Christ need to step up.
Leave a Reply