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.[1]

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.


[1] I realize many critics have challenged the historical accuracy of this film. My point is not to critique its accuracy, but to analyze the message of the film on its own merits

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.

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