Why “Les Miserables” Is Reaching Atheists Too

The movie version of “Les Miserables” has largely been a hit with Christian audiences because of its themes of Christ-like mercy, love, and forgiveness. Several of the characters in the story epitomize how people of faith should live out their devotion to God and act toward others.

But a few comments left on my review of the film suggest these meditations on Christian life are striking a chord with some atheists too.

I’m posting those comments here because I think they can offer insight to Christians in general and Christian storytellers in particular:

Comment 1:

It is a very Christian story and yet it seems to avoid the problem that many Christian stories have of reaching a non-Christian audience. I am firmly not a Christian and have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Christianity, and yet I love Les Miz. I see in Val Jean all the Christian virtues, yet I never find him obnoxious or self-righteous.
I think one thing that really helps is that the story does not hide from pain. Modern Christian storytelling seems to steer away from the fear and despair because expressing that might show a lack of faith. Instead avoiding those feelings just whitewashes the religion and makes it seem weak.
This is the only Christian story I have ever connected with and I love it.

Comment 2:

Just wanted to concur with this. I’m (obviously) an atheist while my family remains Christian. Les Miserables is one of my favorite stories and I went to see it with my mother over the holidays.
While one would expect that I would not connect with this story, I did. In this story, the religious figures truly represent the good side of religion — giving to the poor without expectation or a sermon, mercy that triumphs over what is just. It’s the way I wish religion could be. Watching the characters struggle with it and what it means gives a weight and levity to it that many Christian parables lack. So many of these stories want the conversion and the reward to come cheaply and are trying to sell you Christianity rather than showing how good Christianity can be.
While I find that faith, once lost, is nearly impossible to find again, I found this a very touching story and had more Christians acted like Jean Valjean and the bishop and less like Javert, I might never have lost my faith to begin with.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Ron

    It seems to me that religion as commonly defined is not about the people but rather about the beliefs. So if you are anti-christian because of the some people perhaps you could look at other people and change your mind. For example examine the life of Jesus. Look at some of the saints over the ages. Then once you have seen more good people that ‘bad’ or indifferent people look at the Christian principles and beliefs again.

  • Ericka

    Please be aware regarding the first comment you listed, not being a Christian is not the same as being an atheist.

    And why is it so hard for Christians and other theists to believe that we atheists care about others? Christianity does not hold the patent on mercy, love, charity, and the desire to make the world a better place. I wish you could understand how offensive this underlying assumption is.

    • Tony Rossi

      Thank you for commenting, Ericka. I reread the post and am not sure what gave you the impression that I think atheists don’t care about others or care about mercy, love and charity. I have no doubt that many atheists believe in and practice all those things. Because the story of Les Mis is so Christian in that respect, however – the bishop buying Valjean’s soul for God, for instance – I just didn’t know whether atheists would connect with it on that level. That was all I was saying. I wasn’t making a blanket statement about atheists. Thank you again for commenting, Ericka.

      • Ericka

        People from all walks of life connect with the themes of love, kindness, and giving. Your post implied to me that you were surprised that atheists would connect to those themes. It seemed that you believe they’re Christians themes, but they’re not. While this musical uses a very Christian setting to tell it’s story, its themes are universal.

        • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

          While people from all sorts of life do think those themes are universal, only Christianity places them as part of the very manifestation of God. They are universal because they ARE God, and so all sorts of people embrace them, whether they understand it or not. Sorry if that’s offensive, but perhaps you ought to try to understand why God is universal.

          • Alan

            That’s nonsense. Plenty of other religions have god(s) who represent and manfiest those themes. Christianity isn’t special in this regard and it isn’t special in general. They are universal because they ARE part of humanity and so all sorts of people embrace them, whether they understand it or not. Sorry if that’s offensive, but perhaps you ought to try to understand that your God isn’t universal while certain notions integral to human society develop independently in all corners of the earth.

      • Alan

        You do realize that Hugo made that character a Bishop specifically to draw attention to the wide gulf between ‘Christian mercy’ and the actual Christian Bishops of his time, right?

        That you see it as a Christian story rather than a human one is your own narrow approach to the world and doesn’t reflect Hugo’s literary work.

        • Tony Rossi

          Alan, I’m not the one with the narrow approach. The story ends with all the dead characters welcoming Valjean to heaven. While heaven is not exclusive to Christianity, in the context of the film it is very much a Christian allusion, just as the Bishop saying he has bought Valjean’s soul for God. And if Hugo really wanted to make a statement about the lack of mercy shown by Christian bishops at the time, a different, non-clerical character would have made the point more strongly. Les Mis is both a human story and a Christian story, regardless of the path Hugo followed in life. Denying that is denying facts to fit your own ideology.

          • Alan

            The English musical version and film adaptation ends with them welcoming him to heaven – the book ends by noting “he was dead”. Les Mis is a human story and a post-Revolution French story – it is in that context that his use of religious illusions has to be understood.
            Denying that, and replacing it with a particularly Christian story is what is actually denying facts (and the history of its writing) to fit your ideology.

          • Tony Rossi

            I haven’t read the book so I’ll concede your point about that. But my post was in reaction to the film which is filled with overt Christian imagery and themes so my point about that stands.

          • Tony Rossi

            Having looked at the end of the book myself, I unconcede my point about the book. Hugo writes:
            …he could not prevent that good, zealous woman from crying to the dying man before she went, “Do you want a priest?”
            “I have one,” answered Valjean. And with his finger, he seemed to designate a point above his head, where, you would have said , he saw someone. It is probable that the bishop was indeed a witness of this death.

            Then at the end, Hugo doesn’t just write, “he was dead.” He writes:
            …the light from the candlesticks fell across him; his white face looked up toward heaven, he let Cosette and Marius cover his hands with kisses; he was dead.
            The night was starless and very dark. Without any doubt, in the gloom,some mighty angel was standing, with outstretched wings, waiting for the soul.

            Those passages are obviously influenced by Hugo’s Catholic faith. Like many people, he may have left the church because the church leaders and practitioners of his time were poor examples, but the influence of the church – or at least what he wanted the church to be – remained. Les Mis is not just a human story; it’s a divine one as well.

  • http://www.Reddit.com/r/godlesswomen Jessica

    Victor Hugo was a deist, and when the book was published received negative reaction from the Catholic Church. Hugo was originally a very devout Catholic. But, he saw the church as uncaring for the concerns of the poor and sympathetic to monarchy.

    Hugo’s funeral was secular and did not want to see a priest of any persuasion for last rites.

    • Tony Rossi

      By portraying members of the Church in a manner in which they should be living their lives, Hugo left an ideal that future generations of Christians (and those at the time) could look to as an example. Regardless of his personal faith journey, his work of art affirms faith and leaves a positive legacy for the Catholic Church.

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  • ann

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments but assert that humanity’s goodness emanates from imprint of the Creator’s Own Character upon us and spoiled to the extent we rebel against Him, our Purpose for living.

  • http://www.matthewabel.net Matthew Abel

    I believe the film resonates well with Atheists because the core tenets of the movie are much the same as Atheism. Who is responsible for your life? You are. Your own hubris, choices, lies, truths, and actions can make the world a better place – it’s a human choice. It was not God that showed ValJean mercy – it was a man.

    All of the characters believe themselves to be doing the Lord’s work – but only those who embrace not only their own responsibility in their actions but also respect for their fellow man end life happily. ValJean pierces the veil of Heaven at the end, yes, but far more touching is the love he was able to create and save before he died.

    This is a story about a man who stands up for himself and deems that only he is responsible for his fate – that is Atheism.

    • K

      I believe i’m the only person responsible for my fate yet I practice religion.