This Is Me!

Let me start with some some statistics. The average adult in the UK watches four hours of TV a day and 80 films a year, and listens to 3,500 different music tracks a year (that goes up to 6,300 for 18-24s). Add in the internet, computer gaming, books and magazines, and we're on the receiving end of more media than ever. And the people making it all have a message to push on us. They're all trying to make us feel or think or behave in certain ways – in other words, trying to conform us to how they see the world.

And this is the second of a media mini-series to help us think how to filter what's coming at us, so we don't just soak it up like sponges. The obvious Bible verse for the series is Romans 12.2, which says:

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

So that's saying to believers in Jesus, 'Don't just soak up the world's messages. Instead, use your new, Christian mind to test whether those messages are in line with God's will and how God sees the world.' Because if Jesus has come into your life by his Spirit then he has given you a new mind which wants to think how God thinks; and which realises that the place to find out what God thinks is the Bible.

So in this series we're testing against the Bible messages from three things out there right now. Last week's was a film – The Last Jedi. Next week's is a TV program – Love Island. And today's is the song 'This Is Me', from the film and musical The Greatest Showman. And here are the four questions we're going to ask about it:

  1. What message is it putting across?
  2. What's true and good about it?
  3. What's false and wrong about it?
  4. How does Jesus bring a better message?

1. What Message is it Putting Across?

The Greatest Showman is very loosely based on the story of P.T. Barnum, who founded a famous American circus. And it begins with him assembling his circus troupe from people rejected by society as 'freaks' (which is a word thrown at them in the film). So for example, Barnum recruits a three-foot dwarf, a man with hair all over his face – who's billed as 'Dog Boy' – and also a bearded lady.

Now those characters are based on real-life people. The bearded lady was called Annie Jones. No-one knows whether her condition was hormonal or genetic. But there's no suggestion she was confused about her gender – she was a married woman, but with this unfortunate hair condition. So Barnum brings these social outcasts together. And the film is about how they find a place of belonging in his circus – in contrast to the rejection they get from society. So as the film's song-writers put it,

"The themes of inclusion and acceptance are what inspired every song"

But it's not clear that Barnum really treats them any differently from society. So for example, at one point, once he's rich and socially climbing, he lays on an opera concert. And he lets his circus troupe come – only he puts them right at the back where they won't be seen. And afterwards, he doesn't let them socialise with his posh guests. And that's what provokes the bearded lady into singing 'This Is Me'. So here are the lyrics:

"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'll 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 (yeah, that's what we've become)
I won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are glorious…"

It's a powerful song. And music does have the power to get messages past our defences without us even realising: music on the brain tends to mean lyrics in the brain. Which is why I put the words up for you to see. Because often, we either don't catch the words of songs, or we don't twig what they're really saying. So if you're a dinosaur like me and still buy CDs, can I encourage you to read the lyrics off the cover. Or if you use radio or Spotify then google the lyrics. Because there's nothing like seeing them to help you filter them.

So what's the message of 'This Is Me'? I think it's that I should affirm the way I am, and get you to affirm it, too. So the bearded lady sings:

"We are glorious
I am who I'm meant to be.
I make no apologies. This is me."

Which is affirming the way I am. And she also sings:

"I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out…
We're bursting through the barricades…
We are warriors"

Which is quite an aggressive way of saying, 'I want other people to affirm the way I am – and want to shut them up if they won't.' So it's no surprise that this song has become an anthem for the homosexual and transgender movement. And I take it that it was written with that agenda in mind, because one of the song-writers said this in an interview:

"I was a closeted gay man who, as a teenager, felt like the world was inundating me with messages that you're not good enough or you're unlovable, and what's been amazing about this song… is [how]… your own private struggle is something… other people relate to when you begin to put it into words."

And we need to hear and sympathise with what it feels like to be in his shoes.

So that's question 1. What message is it putting across? And the answer is: it's saying I should affirm the way I am and get you to affirm it, too. Then the next question to ask is,

2. What's True and Good About it?

Because we shouldn't treat culture – films, music and so on – as if it's all wrong. That would be a superficial reaction. And here's why. Back in Genesis 1.26-27 we're told:

"Then God said, "Let us make man [in other words, mankind, men and women] in our image, after our likeness…
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."

So just like a mirror reflects your image, we were made to reflect what God is like. For example, we have a God-like capacity for love. That is why, when the bearded lady sings, 'No-one will love you as you are', we want to say, 'But people should be loved as they are.' And we also have a God-like sense of justice. That is why, when we see people like the beareded lady being excluded because of physical difference or disability, we want to say, 'That's not just; that shouldn't be happening.' And because everyone is made in God's image, the films and music they make will at least partly reflect God's version of what's true and good.

But only partly. Because next the Bible says how the human race turned away from God, to live by our own versions of what's true and good. That's what Christians call 'the fall', because we have fallen from living in relationship with God, by his version of what's true and good, to living without him, by our own. But we can never fully get God's version of what's true and good out of ourselves because it's created into us – which is why the culture we make will always partly reflect it, even if it distorts it badly, even if it's only a cry for the love and justice and beauty that God meant for us.

So what's true and good about this song is its protest against people being devalued, and treated as less than human. Because God in the Bible says we should treat every other human being as having equal value and dignity, because we're all equally made by him, in his image. So when the bearded lady sings, 'We are glorious', she's right. We have the unique glory of being the only creatures who can relate to God and be like him.

So if you're a woman, I as a man should treat you as having equal value and dignity. So sexism is out. If you're black-skinned or yellow-skinned, I as a white-skinned person should treat you as having equal value and dignity. So racism is out. If you were the bearded lady or the dwarf or Dog Boy in Barnum's circus, I should treat you as having equal value and dignity. Because physical difference or disability – however severe – doesn't make you any less human, or your life any less worthwhile (and I should add: whether you're out of the womb or still in it).

So that's what's true about this song. And it's good, also, that it reminds us that many people do feel like the bearded lady felt – including some of us here this morning. Listen again to what she says:

"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'll love you as you are"

And you may feel like that because of a disability or physical condition, or a learning difficulty, or mental illness, or a big failure that's scarred you for life, or being elderly, or being homeless, or experiencing same-sex attraction, or struggling with depression – or any number of other things.

And this song reminds us that, as individuals and as a church, Jesus calls us to make life different and better for people feeling like that. And it reminds us that we need forgiveness for how we haven't.

So that's what's true and good about it. But, onto question three:

3. What's False and Wrong About it?

And the big thing is that line:

"I am who I'm meant to be."

Because the Bible says: this side of heaven, none of us can say that. Adam and Eve – the first human pair – could have. Because they started out living in relationship with God perfectly. So they could have said, 'I'm exactly as God made me to be and wants me to be.' But then came the fall – with all its consequences.

So one consequence is that we all have a fallen nature. For example, we were made to love like God – but through the fall we're now selfish by nature. That's why I've never had to read Enid Blyton stories about selfish characters to help my children get the idea. Because they were born selfish – like all of us. So our nature isn't how it was meant to be.

Another consequence is that we have fallen biology. So we weren't made to be mortal, but to enjoy eternal life through relationship with God. But when human beings thought they could live without him, God withdrew his eternal-life-support to show that we can't live without him– not even physically. And so our biology isn't the way it was meant to be – our genetics and hormones and development and bodies all go wrong, to a greater or lesser degree. And so we have disability and deformity and disease – and, ultimately, death. And that's not how it was meant to be.

And another consequence is that we live in a fallen society. So we grow up being shaped and mis-shaped by fallen parents and fallen families and fallen schools and fallen culture. So family breakdown may have left you unable to trust people and get close to people and commit to people. Bullying or abuse may have left you feeling no self-worth – or even feeling self-hatred. But that's not how God meant you to be – that's how fallen society has made you.

So because of all that, we can't just unquestioningly sing,

"I am who I'm meant to be."

We can sing that of everything about us that's the result of God's good creation. So by creation, you're either male or female – and that's who God meant you to be. By creation, you may be black- or yellow- or white- skinned – and that's who God meant you to be. By creation you're one personality type and not another, and you have certain gifts and abilities and not others – and that's who God meant you to be.

But through the fall, there's a lot about each of us that's not as it was meant to be. For example, I can't just sing about my natural selfishness,

'I am who I'm meant to be.
I make no apologies. This is me…
… now give me the biggest slice of cake.'

So the message that I should just affirm the way I am and get you to affirm it, too, is wrong.

I mentioned Annie Jones – the real-life person behind the film's bearded lady – and that there was no question of gender confusion with her. But in our context, the film's bearded lady clearly stands for the transgender movement – for women who want to declare themselves men, and vice versa. And the film has been championed by the whole LGBT movement for its message that I should just affirm the way I am – all my feelings and desires.

But the truth of creation and the fall means I can't affirm any of my feelings and desires until I've asked the question, 'Is this what God made me to be, or is this what the fall has made me?' And God in the Bible says that things like our natural selfishness, or same sex attraction, or unhappiness with our biological sex are the result of the fall, not the result of his creation. So finally…

4. How Does Jesus Bring a Better Message?

Well, imagine the bearded lady singing away,

"…they say
No-one'll love you as you are.
But… I am who I'm meant to be, this is me."

... and Jesus, the Son of God, walks up to her. What would he say to her? From what we see of Jesus in the Bible, he'd say, 'I do love you as you are – you don't need to try to be different or better to earn my love. But you're not how you were meant to be and I want to make you how you were meant to be.' That's God's message, through Jesus, to all of us: 'I do love you as you are – you don't need to try to be different or better to earn my love. But you're not how you were meant to be – and I want to make you how you were meant to be.' And to see that, would you turn in the Bible to Luke 18.35-39:

"As [Jesus] drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he enquired what this meant. They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by." And he cried out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent."

So, like the bearded woman, this man was unwanted and excluded – in his case, for being blind, which made people think he was useless, and that Jesus would have no time for him. Verses 39-41:

"But he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?""

So even when no-one else wanted him, Jesus the Son of God wanted this man back in relationship with him – just like he wants each of us back in relationship with him, whoever we are, however much we've written ourselves off, however much other people and circumstances and society have made us feel unwanted and useless. Verses 41-43:

"He said, "Lord, let me recover my sight." And Jesus said to him, "Recover your sight; your faith has made you well [literally, 'has saved you']." And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God."

So Jesus affirmed this man's value and dignity despite his disability and degrading circumstances. And we should copy that. What I can't copy is having the power to heal. But Jesus also healed him – because although God allowed the fall and its consequences, blind isn't how he meant this man to be. And so Jesus saved him – from being what he was through the fall, to what he was meant to be. And that's a foretaste of what it will be like when Jesus finally takes all of us who've trusted in him through into eternal life – when there'll be no more disability or deformity or disease or death, and things are finally how they were meant to be.

And then comes Zaccheus – equally unwanted and excluded, but for the very different reason that he was a crooked tax collector who'd robbed most of the people in town. So they had no love for him and thought Jesus wouldn't, either. But look at Luke 19.5:

"And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.""

So Jesus also wanted Zaccheus back in relationship with him, just like he wants each of us – whatever we've done, whatever's on our conscience, whoever we've hurt and alienated. Verses 6-7:

"So [Zaccheus] hurried and came down and received [Jesus] joyfully. And when [people] saw it, they all grumbled, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.""

And they grumbled because they thought that by accepting Zaccheus into relationship with him, Jesus was affirming the way Zaccheus was in his crookedness. And our society is similarly confused on that, isn't it? Because it's saying that to accept someone (and value and respect them) you've got to affirm everything about them. But that's not true. And here, although Zaccheus knew that Jesus had accepted him, he also clearly knew that Jesus didn't affirm him as he was – because the next thing he did was to repent of a large part of what he was – namely, crooked. Verses 8-9:

"And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house…""

In other words, Jesus was saying, 'I've begun the process of saving this man from being what he is through the fall to being what he's meant to be.' And Zaccheus is like a cameo of how Jesus can change us – because when you realise he loved you enough to die for you, so he could forgive and accept you, it does change you.

So that's just an example of how you could use those four questions to filter what's coming at you – and, if you have children, maybe you could also use these questions with them after the next Hollywood-value-laden film you watch with them:

  1. What message is it putting across?
  2. What's true and good about it?
  3. What's false and wrong about it?
  4. How does Jesus bring a better message?

And 'This Is Me' is saying that I should affirm the way I am and get you to affirm it too. Whereas Jesus is saying that we're not the way we're meant to be, but that he died and rose again so he can forgive and accept us, and start the process of making us what we're meant to be – until that's finished in heaven. So Jesus asked that blind man (v.41):

"What do you want me to do for you?"

And that's basically still his question to us today. The risen Jesus, the Son of God, is saying to you this morning, 'What do you want? Do you want to stay as you are – is that it? Or do you want me to make you what you were meant to be?'

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