It’s almost ten o’clock at night as I write this. I arrived home only minutes ago from the movie theaters for the fifth time in a little over a week. Despite the late hour, my mind is once again wide awake, racing with this unexpected obsession of mine over—of all things—a modern musical film.
How silly… Right?
The first time I saw The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman as renowned entrepreneur Phineas T. Barnum of the historically celebrated Barnum & Bailey Circus, I was so weepy halfway through that I missed several portions of the movie simply trying to bring myself back to planet Earth. So help me, I could not stop crying. And before it’s assumed to be a habit of mine to frequent movie theaters for a good ol’-fashioned emotional meltdown, believe me when I say this had never happened in my life. Nor have I ever been so compulsively consumed by a movie that I had to see it five times in a row. At this very moment, I’m still desperately scouring my mind to try to find a couple free hours in the next few days so I can experience the film a sixth time. [Note: I eventually saw this movie eleven times before it left theaters. Each time was as powerful as the time before.]
Certainly, there are the obvious reasons to jump on the fanatical bandwagon effecting half the globe since last December’s theatrical release—no nudity, gore, or profanity whatsoever, so it’s a clean bit of entertainment for all ages; the cast has excellent chemistry; the score is fresh and stimulating; the choreography was deliciously crisp and precise; and, well, who doesn’t love Hugh Jackman? But the real reason I was completely wrecked by this film had nothing to do with why the rest of the theater was sniffling and reaching for the travel-sized Kleenex pouches in the bottom of their handbags; it was because of what that Still, Small Voice whispered to me during several key scenes…
“You are the bearded lady.”
Yes, I know. That’s so far out of left field that it circles the moon. Bear with me…
From the opening credits, a weight hit the pit of my stomach. It’s never happened before, but as God is my witness, before the plot even began to unfold, I had been pricked with a sense of “knowing” that I needed to pay very close attention. God had something to say to me. “Listen closely,” I felt like He was whispering. “Watch this plot and remember.”
I am not so naïve that I would assume P.T. Barnum’s life was 100 percent accurately portrayed in this musical extravaganza, so I will not spend time trying to romanticize his actions as they are acted out in every scene. I do, however, want to take a quick moment to explain the backdrop of the story (as portrayed in this movie, not necessarily in historical record), so my own personal revelation will be better understood.
As a boy, P.T. Barnum’s dreams are larger than life (as is told through the song “A Million Dreams”). After the death of his father leaves him homeless and hungry, young Barnum tries to steal some bread. He is chased down, thrown to the ground, and left to starve. In that moment, a hand reaches out and offers him an apple. Barnum looks up and sees that the hand belongs to a woman with a greatly disfigured face, but behind the deformity, there’s a compassion—a depth of character and kindness that can only come from another tortured soul.
As an adult, Barnum channels his colorful dreams into a museum of “macabre wonders” (taxidermy animals and human wax sculptures) to provide his wife the life he promised her—but when the business fails to take off, his insightful little girls convince him that his collection of oddities involves too many stuffed exhibits, and he needs to bring life to the museum. His memories take him back to the apple offered by the unusual woman on the street, and he is hit with a sudden epiphany to fill his museum with living human spectacles. It is then we observe his first recruit: Charles Stratton, a full-grown, yet tiny, dwarf—who later became known (in the movie and in real life) as “General Tom Thumb” as a result of his costume and horse-riding act. This conversation represents a turning point in the plot development:
BARNUM: “I’m putting together a show, and I need a star.”
STRATTON: [Hesitating…] “You want people to laugh at me.”
BARNUM: “Well, they’re laughing, anyway, kid, so you may as well get paid.”
[Stratton shuts the door in Barnum’s face, and Barnum realizes he has to approach this thing differently. He pauses, gets down on his knees to Stratton’s level, and speaks through the door knob.]
BARNUM: “I see a soldier—no, a general—riding across the stage with a sword and a gun, and the most beautiful uniform ever made. People will come from all over the world, and when they see him, they won’t laugh. [Stratton opens the door.] They’ll salute.”[i]
It is at this point in the film that the audience is given a peek into the genius behind Barnum’s plan. On one hand, he will draw in crowds who are mesmerized by sensational sideshow curiosities—those who will pay any price to see General Tom Thumb trotting past the Irish Giant as he dances with the ghostly albino woman who’s waving to Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy as he howls across the stage to the 750-pound “World’s Heaviest Man.” Far more important to the viewing audience of today, however, is the underlying concept that Barnum is rescuing these poor souls—these pitiful people who society openly calls “freaks”—from a life of shame and hiding, just as he had been rescued by the unusual apple-lady as a boy. Because of Barnum, these scorned men and women will now have a place to call home, a new family of fellow oddities who will love beyond an exterior, and a new purpose.
The parallel that the Lord wanted me to see was forming already, and for one brief moment, I thought that was all He wanted me to absorb. It wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg, but what I had gained so far was enough material for fifty books:
The Circus: Under no normal, natural circumstances would a gathering of societal throwaways in the 1800s be even so much as considered equal, let alone celebrated for their uniqueness—but in the Barnum ring, the “freaks” become the “heroes.”
The Church: Under no normal, natural circumstances would a gathering of shattered people with weaknesses, baggage, past trauma, and pain be chosen as the central mouthpieces of something as grand as the salvation and redemption of the Gospel—but in the true Church of Jesus Christ, the “broken” become the “beautiful.”
People are drawn in by the Church’s promise that their brokenness will not stop them from a calling higher than their own self, and that in this Body of believers, they will have a new family and a new home. God won’t just use a willing person “despite of” their mistakes and past, He will use them “because of” their mistakes and past. It’s due to the limitations and mistakes of our humanity that we can ever reach and affect the lives of others. It is only when we have something in common with those around us that we can make a connection, and then a difference. This pattern is how the Church began. Once again: Under no normal, natural circumstances would a Jew and a tax collector be seen together, but at Christ’s table, the “enemies” become “brothers.” A new family of oddities is formed, and no one is alone.
I hear You, Lord, I said in my thoughts as I watched Hugh Jackman shake hands with the dwarf to seal the deal. Where the world sees a lump of useless clay, You see the finished vase.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO:
DO YOU FEEL LIKE A MISFIT? PERFECT! GOD HAS BIG PLANS FOR YOU!
In case you haven’t yet heard, that has been my ministry for several years straight now. I even wrote a book about it (Radicals). This message of pulling others out of their comfort bubbles and into the fullness of their ministerial potential has been my heartbeat. If that moment in the theater had been the end of the revelation the Lord wanted me to receive, it would have been plenty, simply because this Hugh Jackman/Barnum character had already provided me the five-point outline for a billion sermons that were already familiar and burning within me. I smiled and clapped, and then nonchalantly returned to my popcorn, not suspecting for a moment it would get any deeper. But that’s when Barnum met her…
“Hey!” a man on the street said to Barnum as he was nailing up a want-ad for human curiosities. “You lookin’ for freaks? I know where you can find one of them.”
“Really,” Barnum said with intrigue.[ii]
In the next scene, he follows a powerful singing voice to a woman who’s hidden behind white sheets in a washroom. As she sees him approach, she immediately yet timidly asks him to leave. He counters with a comment of her astounding talent and whisks the sheets out of the way, revealing a heavyset woman with a full-grown beard. His eyes grow wide and he calls her “extraordinary.”
Once again, a “freak” to the world is recognized by Barnum as “extraordinary.” She has value, he says. She has purpose, he says. The world doesn’t see it yet, he says, but soon, they will.[iii]
Before another scripted word was delivered, that Still, Small Voice who I have only recently begun to fully hear and recognize said, “You are the bearded lady.”
Oh… I’m one of the freaks in this story, too? I asked the Lord silently.
“You’re the biggest one.”
Pause for a crucial clarification.
No, God does not go around calling people “freaks.” There is nothing theologically sound about that. You have to understand the word in context to two contributing factors: 1) the film’s use of the term (literal circus freaks), and 2) my own past use of the term…
Between God and myself, there has been a very personal meaning to that word for the last several years. I’ve even said it aloud during prayers…a lot! For example, here’s one I’ve gone rounds with for five straight years:
God, why are You calling such a freak of nature to do Your work?! Nothing about me makes sense! I ask to be used, but then I hate what I’m asked to do. You ask me to be proud of my femininity and my womanly place, but I detest personally participating in the cosmetic routines of other women in my line of work. You ask me to be bold, and even empower me with boldness, and then when the microphone is placed in front of me, I shrink away for reasons even I don’t comprehend. If I am really supposed to be a preacher, a teacher, and an author, then why am I so uncomfortable doing all of that? Why do I loathe so strongly the spotlight if that’s where you’ve called me to stand? I so desire your will for me, but I also so desire to crawl into a cave and just be left anonymous. Obeying your orders is scary to me. Others would give anything to have the opportunities that I have, and I would give anything to trade places with them for their anonymity. You have given me the talent to do what I’m doing, and I want to be used, but I don’t want to be used in the area of my talents? Ugh! Why do I have to be such a freak?
In my conversations with God, the word “freak” has slowly taken on new definitions. From the Donna Howell Dictionary:
freak (freek), noun: 1. A person who feels like a reject, but whom God calls to serve Him in surprising ways. 2. A person who asks to be used by God, asks for the strength needed to be used in the position He’s called them into, and then, when He gives the individual precisely what he or she asked for, he or she then waveringly cowers into a corner and asks to be left alone.
This was the personal definition on my mind when Barnum confronted Lettie, the bearded lady, in the washroom. As if on cue, the very next words out of Lettie’s mouth was, “Sir, please leave me alone.”[iv]
Whoa… Okay Lord, I’m listening.
I was already the bearded lady on several counts, but as the scenes played out on the screen in front of me, it quickly became unreal how many parallels there were between her and I. One moment in my life was almost identical to one that Lettie’s character was about to face.
I had been invited to preach at Jim Bakker’s The Prophets Speak evening service show during the “56th Annual 4th of July Celebration” in 2017. Jim’s audience was getting to know me pretty quickly of late, as I had been on his programs several times in relation to the release of my Radicals book. At one point during one of the several filming sessions, I got inspired to look right into the camera and encourage people to believe in their calling and in their voice, and when I had finished saying what I had to say, the room erupted in the first of two standing ovations that I would receive that day. Needless to say, the impression that was left was a decent one, but it wasn’t anything I had known to plan for. God had taken over—that much was obvious—and because it happened on the spur of the moment, I didn’t have any time to get worked up about it in advance.
Independence Day at Jim’s Morningside Church in Blue Eye, Missouri is the biggest event of each year, and attendance is at record highs. They invited me to preach that Friday night, the last night, “to take us out with a bang!” Jim had said. I knew they all had elevated expectations because of the bar being set so high the day of the two standing ovations, so I was already nervous when I accepted the invitation. Then, the day before my scheduled sermon, Jim told me in front of a packed studio audience that he wanted me to “let loose, preach away, and drive it home!” The response from everyone told me that, yes, they were all expecting the “radical ovation Donna” that they had seen, and I had no idea how to bring that to the stage since it wasn’t really me that had brought it the first time. Prior to this moment, I had only spoken two times in my life, both engagements of which were in front of about ten people.
By this point, I was incredibly intimidated by the task before me. But the worst part was when I was getting hooked up to the sound system ten minutes before I was due on the platform. Let me explain…
First of all, I had forgotten my sermon notes at the hotel, and there wasn’t time to return for them, so I had to preach the entire word from memory. Of course, I had practiced that sermon probably five hundred times, so operating from memory wasn’t the most incomprehensible idea, but still, you don’t just go gallivanting off to preach at Jim Bakker’s Morningside Church without notes! That was messing with my head, big time, because if I drew a blank like I did frequently while I was rehearsing at home—those hours I spent encouraging my daughter’s stuffed animals that they, too, were called for great things—then I would have nothing else to lean on…and that irrefutably meant freezing up at the famous Jim Bakker’s church. Terrifying.
Secondly, I was physically very ill, faint, and exhausted. I was sicker that day than I had been in years due to a health condition that was becoming increasingly all-consuming. Any time I stood up, I would almost faint and had to keep grabbing onto sturdy objects around me to keep from falling; my husband, James, was pumping me full of vitamins and telling the kids to give me space while the world swirled and spun around me the whole morning and afternoon; I couldn’t keep a whole meal down, so the powders James was having me drink made me “vitamin sick” on top of how dreadful I already felt; and I hadn’t slept at all the night before because, between an uncomfortable hotel bed and my nerves, tossing and turning was the only reality for me.
Thirdly, though I had support from Jim and his audience, I had recently come under attack online for being a female teacher/preacher from the last Jim Bakker Show episode that aired, so the chances that another wave of people opposing me and making me the center of attention in all the wrong ways was a strong possibility. I loathed knowing that, by doing something God asked me to do, I was putting myself in a position to have other people weigh in on how “worldly” and “disobedient” I was to His voice for being a woman teacher. (Yeah, that accusation really happened, and that’s only scratching the surface. For the longer version of that testimony, get a copy of my book The Handmaidens Conspiracy.)
Fourthly, when I shook hands with the sound guy, he informed me that this session was going to be streamed, recorded, and added to the “56th Annual 4th of July Celebration” DVD set that had been advertised all week long…a detail that nobody had mentioned when they invited me to speak. I was the keynote speaker of the biggest night of the week, during the grandest week in the year, on one of the largest networks in the history of Christian television, and every moment of it was going to be featured—irreversibly and forever—on Jim-Bakker-branded media being mailed all over the country.
It was too much to handle. There I was, off stage, trying not to puke or pass out while the room spun, grasping at straws to remember what it was I had even prepared to say, refusing to let my knees buckle from fear, forcing myself not to give in to the temptation of telling everyone I was sick and letting the studio staff figure out who was going to cover for me, and my only saving grace was the fact that there was only about a hundred and fifty people gathered to hear “Donna the radical” stink up the place. All of this was on top of the fact that I had almost no experience preaching/speaking and Jim and his audience had grandeur expectations.
Are you with me? Are you picturing all this pressure? Can you imagine why shoving my hand in a fan sounded like a better idea than preaching at The Prophets Speak that day?
I will explain what happened next in the forthcoming entry…
[i] The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, directed by Michael Gracey, produced by Peter Churnin et al, released December 20, 2017, 21:36–22:17.
[ii] Ibid., 22:41–22:48.
[iii] Ibid., 22:48–23:37.
[iv] Ibid., 23:22–23:27.