I can't sing along to This Is Me without getting choked up. Heck, I don't even have to sing along...just listening to it I'm welling. (This could have something to do with the fact that I've seen the movie six times already and thanks to $5 Tuesday specials at AMC, that number is destined to grow.) And if you haven't heard the song (sung beautifully by Keala Settle) you should really stop what you're doing now and listen here. Seriously. I'll wait...
Why do these songs, and particularly the anthem, This Is Me, evoke such strong emotions in me and my friends (and thousands upon thousands of repeat movie-goers)? I think there are a few answers. First, the movie is just downright fun. It's a beautifully directed original musical with sweeping song and dance montages that take you back to old time Hollywood. The original songs (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, of Dear Evan Hansen and LaLa Land fame) hit on universal themes with catchy melodies that I
can. not. stop. singing.
Enough said, really. (But that scene with Zendaya, what even is that? I just can't.)
Critics hammered the movie because the PT Barnum we meet in the musical is not true to life. Of course, it never pretends to be a bio-pic. One scene stands out as a prophetic wink-and-nod answer to the critics who take issue with the exaggerated or completely made up parts of the story: When the snooty newspaper critic in the story confronts PT Barnum (played by the awesome Hugh Jackman) about his exaggerations and trickery, saying, "Does it bother you that everything you're selling is fake?" Barnum shoots back, "Do those smiles seem fake?" And then, “When was the last time you smiled? ... A critic of the theater who doesn’t find joy in it… now who’s the fraud?” Ouch!
I knew, going in, that this was not a historically accurate description of PT Barnum. I don't think it means to be. I think something can be nonfactual and yet true at the same time. That's a strange tension but it's one reason I love fiction. I'm a fiction writer because I believe God teaches us truth through fiction. I think story has a way of getting around our defenses and teaching us without us even knowing we're in school. So while the actual events of a story may not be true they can point us to a greater truth.
And this movie, rather than a literal, historically accurate retelling of the life of the infamous ringmaster is more of an inspired commentary on giving a voice or a stage or a spotlight to those who've been invisible in society. Whether or not the real Barnum did those things doesn't matter to me. I love that this movie champions that idea. And it wraps it all up in some of my favorite packaging: stunning cinematography, stirring lyrics and make-me-wanna-jump-outta-my-seat dance numbers. (My 13-year-old just loves it when I dance in my seat in the theater. #sarcasticfontneeded)
So on a wide-angle perspective, I just adore the joyous feeling of the movie. It's almost impossible to leave the theater without a huge smile on your face. But as I'm guessing is true for so many others, it also hits me deeper with a laser-like intensity. In This Is Me, Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady in PT Barnum's menagerie, sings:
I am not a stranger to the dark. Hide away, they say. 'Cause we don't want your broken parts.
I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars. Run away, they say, No one will love you as you are.
But I won't let them break me down to dust. I know that there's a place for us. For we are glorious.
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down. I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out.
I am brave. I am bruised. I am who I'm meant to be. This is me.
Look out 'cause here I come. And I'm marching on to the beat I drum. I'm not scared to be seen. I make no apologies, this is me.
Another round of bullets hits my skin. Well fire away 'cause today I won't let the shame sink in.
We are bursting through the barricades and reaching for the sun.
We are warriors. Yeah that's what we've become.
So while I'm no bearded lady (although I can't find my tweezers and there is a bit of a situation brewing) I feel like every word in this song reverberates through my soul. Going through a dark time of questioning things I used to think I was sure of, and the well-meaning but surprising reactions some people had to those questions, made me feel a bit like I had to hide. Like if I didn't believe the "right things" then I had no right to be a believer at all.
Like these concerns I have about how the American church overall has dealt with the LGTBQ community, women in leadership positions, misogyny in leadership and frustrations that the Bible has been used to justify atrocious acts through the years and in the present day...I had the feeling that these thoughts were viewed as broken parts or ugly scars that I should be ashamed of.
I've discovered that when a Christian starts voicing doubts about how the church has interacted with the world around us and how we interact with the Bible, it's as if an imaginary membership card is revoked and nothing he says has the same value anymore because he doesn't believe the "right" way. There are a lot of false dichotomies bandied about: "Well, if Z isn't true then none of it can be believed." Or "Well, if you don't believe X you don't believe anything."
Um, no, actually that's not true. I have been seeking to know and understand God almost my whole life. I started when I was about seven years old and I never really stopped. Even in this transitional time of trying to come to terms with some big concerns and questions, it has still been about growing wiser and my desire to be a woman of faith who models the love that Jesus placed a premium on, saying that it all came down to loving God and loving others.
So when I hear those lyrics... "When the sharpest words wanna cut me down. Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out. I am brave. I am bruised. I am who I'm meant to be. This is me. Look out cause here I come. And I'm marching on to the beat I drum. I'm not scared to be seen. I make no apologies. This is me..." it feels like an incredibly current anthem for my life. For my experience. And it gives me courage because I know there are men and women all over the world who've been dealing with their own private pain, hiding their scars, but like Lettie Lutz, they are beginning to feel brave. To believe they are not alone. They are bruised, yes. But they are standing up, no longer afraid to be seen. Willing to say, "THIS IS ME."
I see it in Brett Trapp's hauntingly honest and raw memoir of a Christian man choosing to live a life of loneliness because he believed his same-sex attraction must be a defect. (He tells his story in a series of blog posts and recently turned those posts into a podcast so you can listen to him tell his story here if reading isn't your thing.)
I see it in the bravery of Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church. A girl who grew up standing in picket lines from the age of five; having been taught that it was God's will for true believers to protest military funerals and demand the death penalty for gay people. She was taught that "God hates Jews" and that we should "Thank God for 9-11." This woman walked away from all she knew into the the hands of the people she'd been taught to despise. She stood up for what she believed against all odds even though it meant never seeing her family again. And she is telling her story (watch her TED talk here) and making a difference.
I see it in Science Mike's journey from life-long devout Southern Baptist, to staunch atheist, to believer weeping on the beach after hearing Jesus's voice during an unexpected communion service. He's not an actual scientist and doesn't claim to be one but he does love talking about the intersection of faith, science and art. You can hear his story here or check out his book, Finding God in the Waves.
These people (and many more) are "bursting through the barricades and reaching for the sun. They are warriors." And they give me courage to be me, whatever that looks like now and also down the road a ways.
How about you? Are you needing a little courage to stand up and step over that line? Do you need to know you're not alone? Well, come join me. It's not as lonely out here as you think it is. We've got a bearded lady, an eight-foot Irish giant and General Tom Thumb riding an elephant. And dancing. Lots of dancing.
And I'm up for view number seven, if anyone wants to join me ;)
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