When I was a little girl, our family’s acquisition of a VCR coincided with my older sister’s debut in several small town musical productions. This meant that I could watch Annie, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and The Fiddler on the Roof to my heart’s content, when not elbowing my brother out of the way when he wanted to watch Star Wars. I watched the Fiddler on the Roof on VHS so many times that the tapes warped. We also had vinyl records of musical soundtracks, and hearing a needle hit the vinyl still makes my throat catch before I start to sing, loudly, “Maybe far awaaaaayyyyy….”

For as much as I watched those musicals, and for as much as conversations about faith were a part of our home life, I never thought to really dig deep into the theology of them. Tevye talks to God about The Good Book in Fiddler on the Roof, and Annie “prays” to her unseen biological parents to come get their baaaaaaaby. While Maria was a problem to be solved, she was still treated (mostly) kindly by the Church and Mother Superior. As a child, I took all of those themes in musicals, along with everything else in musicals, as wholesome and good and true.

It wasn’t until I got to college and attended the ELCA Lutheran Campus Center that I really heard intelligent commentary about the theology in the lyrics of those songs. It might have been around Christmas time, when everybody seems to watch The Sound of Music (why is that?), that the pastor at the campus center mumbled something about “terrible theology.”

“What?” I asked him. “Why?” I tried not to scream “HERETIC!” in his face.

“‘I must’ve done something good,'” he said. “That’s awful.”

I thought about that for a while. He was talking about a scene in the gazebo (not the “I am Sixteen” scene, but same gazebo), when Maria and The Captain gaze into each other’s eyes and sing about how they were terrible people, but they “must have done something good” to deserve the happy ending of each other. Besides the gag-worthy saccharine-ness of it, this really is terrible theology. None of us has “earned” the grace and blessings of this life. And thank God for that, because if I only got what I deserved, I’d be in a sad state indeed. While I was a little irritated at the “Terrible Theology” label stamped on my favorite musical, I could see that my college pastor had a good point.

What’s the harm in feeling that we’ve deserved something that hasn’t been earned? I suppose there’s danger in feeling that if someone else isn’t as lucky in love (or life, or money) as we are, that they must not have done something good. But I also think that it’s a deeper denial of the holy gifts that we’ve all been given. That we run into real danger of treating our spouses and our children and the oxygen we breathe as something we’ve earned, and not as precious gifts from the God who gives us all grace.

Dig a little deeper in The Sound of Music, and you find the Mother Superior saying sagely to a confused Maria, “Where God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” This wishful thinking has been confusing audiences ever since, I suppose under the notion that if an actress in a nun’s habit said it, surely it must be in the Psalms…maybe Proverbs? (It’s not.)

The whole musical isn’t a complete theological wasteland, though. Maria re-introduces grace and forgiveness into the rigidly law-based Captain’s home. She dances the Laendler (Be still my heart…) and stages puppet shows and makes clothes out of curtains, God bless her earnest little heart.

Maria also utters one of my very favorite prayers in all of Christendom when she’s overwhelmed. She simply says, “Oh HELP.”

Unfortunately, “Oh HELP” does not look as good on a cross-stitched sampler as doors and windows and “must’ve done something good”s. But it’s our reality, and our great gift, to ask for God’s help, and to know that even if we “must have done something good,” we can’t earn our way into grace. It is a gift that cannot be earned, even by the strapping Captain and lovely Maria.  And for that, we can all be grateful.