This past weekend I attended two films with my youngest son and husband. On Friday, like the rest of the world, we attended one of the first showings of The Black Panther. On Saturday we caught one of the final showings of The Greatest Showman. My youngest is a huge musical theatre buff and he wanted to see Showman one more time on the big screen before it was relegated to Netflix and Movies on Demand.
This past week I have been thinking a lot about imago Dei. For those non-theology folk imago Dei means the image of God. There is some pretty wonderful stuff written about the imago Dei, and while most theologians agree that the notion of the imago Dei is not primarily focused on the physical body, the fact that most images of God have been male and able bodied has posed a challenge for women, people with disabilities, and other diverse bodies.
At first blush the two films I viewed seem to have little in common. The Black Panther is a Marvel superhero film with amazing CGI and intense battle scenes, while The Greatest Showman is the story of P.T. Barnum and is filled with incredible music and jazzy dance numbers. They both were fantastically entertaining, but for different reasons.
But upon further reflection both films, at their core, are about bodies that through the ages have rarely been viewed as the imago Dei. The Black Panther focuses on the fictional country of Wakonda where the citizens of a Black country live isolated, peaceful, and prosperous lives unaware of the struggles and oppression of their global Black brothers and sisters. Part of the story line explores the country’s existential struggle about whether to share their riches with the rest of the world. The Greatest Showman shares the story of the rejection and public humiliation of many of the “oddities of nature” that were featured in Barnum’s circus. Both movies explore the oppression and empowerment of diverse bodies.
Which brings me back to the imago Dei. Historically our colonizing images of God have dictated which bodies are seen as worthy and favoured within society, as well as those bodies that fall outside of some humanly created Divine norm. As I have been preparing for an upcoming class exploring the topic of the imago Dei I have been largely focused on disabled bodies. In particular I have been reflecting upon Nancy Eisland’s liberating assertion that an embodied God occupies a power wheelchair. Similarly there are many wonderful authors and artists who have offered other diverse images of Jesus, God, Mary, and so on.
But the two movies of my weekend reminded me that it isn’t enough to think of a Black God or a Disabled God. We need to also think of a God covered with tattoos, or a transgendered God, or God as a bearded lady, or God as conjoined twins. In short we need to understand that our images of God are limited by our human imagination and that the imago Dei is as infinite and diverse as the Divinely creative diversity of every body that has lived, or that may live.
One of the most powerful scenes of the movie is when P.T Barnum denies his performers entrance to a post-opera cocktail party with members of New York society. Embarrassed by their unique bodies he sends them away. But the bearded lady, who in the movie does not have a name beyond the description of her face, marches through the party followed by the diverse bodies of her fellow performers. Through the song she affirms her identity as well as the power, beauty, and dignity of her body, as well as the bodies of her friends marching behind her. While the lyrics of the entire song are powerful, one line caught my attention; “for we are glorious”. It occurred to me that those four words in particular captured the imago Dei. All bodies are the imago Dei and all are glorious.