A Theology of HAIRSPRAY

I love musicals. I have loved them since I was in high school. I get that musicals are cheesy, I get that their plot lines can be a little bit ridiculous. But I love them. For better or worse, some of my favorite forms of entertainment are cheesy, ridiculous, and ever so slightly over the top. (Case in point: my love of CW superhero shows. I’m well aware that they’re not top notch television. I have no problem with loving something cheesy and ridiculous.)

Of all the musicals in the world -– all the lines I could quote, all of the lyrics I can sing -– Hairspray is my favorite. I connect with the story on an emotional level. To me, Hairspray is about more than a regular-and-unashamedly-heavier girl with dreams of TV stardom, a goal accomplished with the help of her African American friends, in a world where the concept of “integration” was often met with fear or disgust. It’s about more than bright colored costumes and everyone’s obsession with Ultra-Clutch hairspray.

At its core, Hairspray is about what it means to value and respect the outsider in society -– whoever the outsider might me. Whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, thin or not so thin: you matter. You have deep value. You are worthy of joy, friendship, love, and having your dreams come true. No matter what.

It’s the same underlying message that drew me to the TV show Glee, a popular teen musical comedy that, to date, is probably my favorite TV show of all time. Glee, like Hairspray, centered around the beauty of getting to know people who are different from you, of seeing their value, and of making deep and lasting friendships, against the odds. This message is something I resonate with, and has impacted my job aspirations and the places I want to spend my time.

Through it’s songs, characters, and message, Hairspray presents a worldview; a way to approach life. It’s a posture and value system I take seriously. I explained my “theology of Hairspray” to a friend one time and she gave me a funny look. “Oh,” she laughed, “I was thinking you just liked the catchy songs.”

Uh … yeah, that works, too.

Where is Jesus in the world of Hairspray?

But I have a Scriptures minor, and I love exploring all the ways that my Christian faith impacts how I live and how I view people around me. To me, the heart of Hairspray feels remarkably similar to the heart of Christ for the world.

Jesus’ entire ministry, and approach to life, was build around the totally counter-cultural idea that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Jesus came to give power to the powerless — to subvert the powerful social and political structures of his day — and to teach a radical love and justice for all.

The Beatitudes, some of his most famous teachings, state that blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted for aligning with what is right.

Jesus spent his time on earth hanging out with all the “wrong” people. He didn’t spend his time with the religious leaders, or the people everyone respected. He spent his time with the poor, the outcasts, people frowned on by society, and those on the margins.

Jesus told outsiders that they mattered, that they were full of value –- even more than the people our world says are valuable -– and that he wanted them to follow and live life with him, to know his deep love and grace, and be greatest in his eternal kingdom.

In Hairspray, of course, there is no obvious higher power –- no goal outside of yourself that brings fulfillment. Hairspray’s happily ever after is achieved by becoming a star on local daytime TV, and falling in love with the most popular boy in school.

But below the surface, Hairspray is also about finding a community that cares about you, and will support you know matter what. It’s about not being afraid to speak against the harm society is doing, to figure out a better way (Tracy and her family’s rejection of white-dominated TV and media, joining in a civil rights march and standing up for her black classmates, ultimately leading to their local TV station becoming more integrated) –- a way more focused on community, care of others, and not concerned about physical appearance or other markers of power and success in our world.

That is Jesus. In his time on earth, he radically rejected his society’s harmful norms to focus on a counter-cultural care and love of all people, especially those on the margins. That’s how Jesus spent his entire life and ministry: Flipping tables when the religious elites used their power to prey on the poor. Eating meals with the outcasts. Healing and helping those who were poor, sick, and forgotten by society. Revealing the mysteries of God not to the wealthy, but to the poor, to women, and to ethnic and sexual minorities.

That is how Jesus approached his life on earth. That is how Hairspray sees life worth living. And that is — in small ways, and perhaps someday larger and more meaningful ones — how I want to see the world.

That is I want to be. That is how I want to live my life.

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