Culture Health Men Suffering

Faith during Hardship in ‘The Elephant Man’

As a film student, I had to examine many films and their underlying messages, symbolisms, directors’ intentions, and a range of many other aspects of filmmaking. One film that has always left an impression on me is David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). Set in Victorian England, it tells the story of Joseph Merrick, a man who is severely deformed due to a disability. His only way of making a living was to exhibit himself as a human curiosity in so-called freak shows for people’s entertainment.

The film tells a highly emotional story of humiliation, desperation, and hopelessness. Joseph Merrick faces challenges that are almost unbearable to imagine. However, in the midst of his suffering, Merrick expresses his faith in God that nobody can take from him.

During a period of his life, Merrick befriends his doctor Frederick Treves who makes it possible for him to live in a private room at the London Hospital. In a dispute between Treves and the hospital’s manager who was against Merrick’s stay as he was doomed an imbecile and not fitting for the London Hospital, Merrick suddenly recites the whole 23rd Psalm without error. In particular the final verse of the psalm is striking in this context:

“[…] I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:6)

Joseph Merrick knew that whether he was going to stay at London Hospital or not, his real home was in Heaven with God. As difficult as his life was, he knew it was not to be forever. He valued and saw the reality that Jesus Christ came to make a way regardless of how dim people’s lives seemed to be. The fact that Merrick put this truth above the suffering, gave him hope that he could not find in his earthly life alone.

John Piper wrote the following concerning this great hope:

“The way Christ defeated death and disease was by taking them on himself and carrying them with him to the grave. […] One day all disease will be banished from God’s redeemed creation. There will be a new earth. We will have new bodies.” 

(John Piper, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die)

For Joseph Merrick, nothing was more important than what lay ahead. In the final scene of the film, Merrick utters Jesus’ declaration on the cross when everything that the Saviour had come for ‘was finished’ (John 19:30). Leaving a lifetime of desperation and hurt behind him, Merrick headed towards Jesus’ welcoming arms.

Not only was he looked upon as an inhumane being, his gender and the accompanying roles and characteristics were put to the test. In a society that was quick to judge and point fingers at anything that was considered other or strange, Merrick had to deal with that sort of attention on a daily basis. It was nearly impossible for him to meet expectations that were linked to the male gender. While the flesh might strive for fine appearance or physical attractiveness, real value is really found within where God is at work. Merrick’s doctor wrote in his memoirs that ‘the spirit of Merrick, if it could be seen in the form of the living, would assume the figure of an upstanding and heroic man, […] with eyes that flashed with undaunted courage’ (Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man, and Other Reminiscences).

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! […]. (1 John 3:1)

It is in the truth that we are to be called children of God that we find our value, not in what other people expect from us or what our circumstances might dictate. Joseph Merrick’s life is one that no one else can position themselves in but it is a great testimony of faith and suffering that we as believers can embrace.

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