Every Friday night, my family has movie night. Something has recently marred the whole experience though, mostly for me. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I can watch contemporary family films with my kids anymore. The main problem? A major theme in most of these stories is something of a false gospel about finding freedom in being true to yourself.

Of course I’ve heard the message about being yourself all my life, and it’s pretty much the bottom line of most commencement speeches. Follow your passions. Just be yourself. Look inside your heart, and you’ll find the answers. But watching movies with my children where these themes are an emphasis is making me hyper aware of the phenomenon. My issue with this theme is that it’s pretty much the opposite of what my wife and I are trying to teach our kids about living a life of repentance and dependence on God—that is, dying to “yourself”.

I started to notice this theme most acutely when we saw the musical film The Greatest Showman. The most popular song from the film is “This Is Me.” It’s a powerful tune coupled with powerful cinematography, and I, in part, want to support what the song is about in the sense that it pushes back against prejudice. It’s performed by the fictionalized stars of P.T. Barnum’s circus freak show in response to the hatred they receive. But listen these words:

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

This song speaks to so many of us because it echoes back what we’re often telling each other and ourselves: #youdoyou. If you don’t both accept and applaud my self-expression, then you’re a hater and I don’t want to know you. Get out of my filter bubble. Thus, “This Is Me” is the implicit theme song of so many of our lives.

A much more honest and perceptive song in The Greatest Showman is “Never Enough.” It’s more in touch with human desire, idolatry, and finitude: “These hands could hold the world but it’ll/Never be enough.” Indeed, no amount of me expressing myself will ever be enough either. I’ll always crave new forms of self-expression.

“This Is Me” is a quite recent example, but Elsa said basically the same thing in Frozen when she broke free of the ice shackles in her kingdom of isolation and “Let It Go”:

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

Again, there is a double edge to all this because I like the aspects of these songs that are countering shame, hate, and discrimination. But ultimately I can’t shake the sense that their punchlines are stroking our collective egos and perpetuating a misleading myth that freedom is found in just accepting who we are. What if the authentic me that everyone is telling me to assert happens to be a selfish and manipulative person who uses others as a means to my own ends? Must you accept it because I’m being who I’m meant to be? This is me. I’m letting it go. I won’t let you hold the real me back anymore.

The worst part all of this for me is that Christian stories are being co-opted by this parasitic gospel too. For instance, we recently tried to watch the latest film version of A Wrinkle in Time (2018). The movie repackages what was originally a Madeleine L’Engle allegory of Christian themes into a heavy-handed myth of New Age pantheistic confusion and self-acceptance. The gem line from the film is when Oprah, playing Mrs. Which, says, “You just have to find the right frequency…and have faith in who you are.”

I wish I were making this one up! When we got to the scene where Zach Galifianakis playing Happy Medium leads everyone in a yoga circle to “find the right frequency,” I couldn’t take it anymore and insisted we turn it off. I can only assume the rest of the film was full of guidance that the protagonist Meg Murry defeat the powers of darkness by simply expressing her authentic self.

The worst example for me was in a Biblical cartoon my wife found online and played for my daughters on our computer. While I was in the other room, I overheard some strange things in this version of Moses and the Exodus (not The Price of Egypt, mind you). The final straw that broke me was when God in the burning bush told Moses to look inside himself for the guidance he needed to lead Israel out of Egypt. I couldn’t believe it: this narcissistic message has now infected even so-called Biblical content. I yelled at the counterfeit Yahweh on the screen and told my kids, “God never told Moses to look inside his heart for guidance. That is a damnably misleading lie, girls.” My kids were stunned; my wife about died laughing.

This message of self-acceptance is not just the stuff of family films either. I recently bought tickets to a musical version of The Color Purple because I wanted to take my wife on a date, and it was the big thing at our local theater. The story combats themes of prejudice and sexism, and like I’ve said before, I want to honor these things. Nonetheless, there was a surreal moment when one of the songs, “I’m Here,” ended with these words forcefully belted out by the lead character Celie:

But most of all
I’m thankful for
Loving who I really am.
I’m beautiful.
Yes, I’m beautiful,
And I’m here.

At the sustained ending, the entire audience shot upright to a roaring standing ovation. They wanted an encore, and the show wasn’t even over. Why? Because subconsciously this song mirrored back to all of us in that theater what we want to hear and often tell ourselves. “I’m here” is what most social media accounts, bumper stickers, and consumer choices are telling the world. To express oneself is a primary value for our times, and family films are simply emphasizing the spirit of the age.

I realize I might sound curmudgeonly, and that there are other ways of viewing these movies. But I’m convinced this theme of being true to ourselves is not just misleading but crushing because we’re actually broken and in need of restoration. Sorry, but I’m not who I’m meant to be. In the face of the God of glory, I do make apologies. And you better believe I apologize for who I am to my wife and kids every single day. Yeah, I’m here, but I’m a mess. I’m certainly bruised, but I’m not brave. When I tap into the right frequency, the universe tells me not to have faith in myself because I’m weak and afraid. I really wish I were more like who I was meant to be, but I’m not. At least, not yet.

The Christian message sits in opposition to these themes on two fronts. First, we are not basically good people but sinners. Certainly, we’re made in the image of God, but we’re unfortunately still sinners. Second, we find freedom and healing not by looking inside of ourselves, but by looking outside of ourselves at someone else, namely Jesus Christ. And this is a message of extreme comfort—infinitely more comforting than messages of self-acceptance and expression that will let us down and alienate others.

So will our family keep watching contemporary family films on Fridays? Honestly, I don’t know right now. Maybe we’ll take up board games for a little while instead.