Hollywood’s explicitly Christian movie

We saw Les Miserables, which has to be the most explicitly Christian film that I have seen come out of contemporary Hollywood.  There are more meaningful unembarrassed references–in dialogue, songs, and plot elements–to God, Jesus, salvation, grace, prayer, and Heaven than in most of the overtly Christian productions that I have seen lately.

The ex-convict Jean Valjean has received the forgiveness of Jesus, thanks to a priest who shows him an inexplicable grace.  In response to that forgiveness, Valjean lives a life of sacrificial service to others.  His good works are a direct fruit of the Gospel.

Inspector Javert speaks of God also, but, as he says of himself, “I am of the Law.”  He is all about personal righteousness, justice, and salvation by works.  He does not believe that sinners can or should be forgiven.

This all gets caught up in the wretched state of French society and with a revolutionary movement, led by idealistic students.  (This is not to be confused with the French Revolution of 1789.  France had several successful and unsuccessful revolutions in the 19th century.)  But pay special attention to the words of that final song.

The movie is intense and very moving.  It’s a musical, not just in the sense of  big musical numbers (though there are those) but in the sense of an opera, with virtually all of the dialog being sung.  The film is realistically shot–the battle at the barricade is tremendous–but that doesn’t necessarily go with the stylized singing.  I think it works better on the stage.  So see the movie, see the play, and, above all, read Victor Hugo’s novel, one of the greatest in literary history.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I’d probably like it if it wasn’t a musical. Musicals are intrinsically absurd; people do not break out into song and dance in real life.

  • http://www.simdan.com SimDan

    Dean-

    Musicals are just a medium to convey a story. Just like animation, live-action, puppets, etc. The characters probably don’t even see themselves as signing and dancing.

    In the case of Les Miserables, in which there isn’t much dance, the music serves to underscore the profound nature of the story.

    Finally, I would argue people DO break out into song and dance in realife, just not as often as a musical does. Notable examples include birthdays, wedding receptions, national holidays and sport events.

  • Tom Hering
  • Random Lutheran

    Right here is another good review of the movie.

  • larry

    We saw this movie and it is exactly as Dr. says. The overt christian theme of law and grace, with gospel getting the last word is wonderful. The music adds to the intensity of the expression and as music can do adds that third dimension to expression. Its no wonder angels sing in heaven. The unashamed christian references are great and surprising given today’s climate. I loved the priests inviting. Val Jean in shortly after his release. starving, filthy and battered about by a world that could care less thanking God for their esteemed guess and telling him that he will find much bread and wine here for himself. A deeply christian movie go see it.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    @#1 Is not the entire movie experience an exercise in absurdity? Their absurdity does not make them less effective in communicating a message. In fact, I would dare say a musical is far more effective than a serious drama. Music is a powerful tool that enraptures emotions and bewitches the mind. Is this not why we take care to make sure our music in church is of high excellence in its lyrical and melodic quality?

  • http://Gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    J. Dean,
    I understand what you mean, although I enjoy a good musical (ESP. my Fair Lady). One could say the same thing abou chanting the liturgy. I do it myself, though I am aware that it adds a layer of separation on one level. This is why I never chant the Words of Institution.

  • kerner

    Tom H @3

    I would have thought the liberation theology implied in some of the singing would have appealed to you. ‘)

    It certainly appealed to your fellow travelers in the Wisconsin capitol rotunda a couple years ago.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    No, people don’t spontaneously break out into song and dance in real life. But then, people don’t do much of anything else that happens in movies in real life either. Movies are an escape from real life.

    “Music is a powerful tool that enraptures emotions and bewitches the mind.”

    Indeed. That’s the problem with a lot of modern “praise” music, which would more accurately be called, “praise me” music.

    I attend a Vineyard church (not by choice) and I always dread the 45 minutes to an hour of “worship” up front of the sermon.

    Singing, “I praise you, oh Lord” (over and over again) and other similar things isn’t the same thing as actually praising the Lord.

  • Norman Teigen

    This was Romanticism. Finding religion in this story is a great big stretch.

  • SKPeterson

    A Vineyard Church! Egads, man! Does lex orendi, lex credendi mean nothing? Soon you’ll be spouting the same whiffenpoofery as the doyenne of Calvary Chapel.

  • Ray

    About eight years ago, I resolved to read the entire, unabridged Les Miserables. Boy, am I glad I did. It took about five months but I came away knowing I’d read one of the greatest novels ever written, if not *the* greatest. Well worth the time and effort.

  • SKPeterson

    And that’s orthogonal whiffenpoofery, I might add. ;)

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    “Soon you’ll be spouting the same whiffenpoofery as the doyenne of Calvary Chapel.”

    Not me, man. Like I wrote, it’s not by choice that I attend.

    I did make it to an LCMS divine service yesterday (wife and kids being out of town…)
    I feel better now.

  • kerner

    SKP @13:

    Orthogonal wiffenpoffery as the term is used in taxonomy? :D

  • http://twitter.com/JonAlanSchmidt aletheist

    The movie is what it is precisely because it is so remarkably faithful to the stage production in terms of characters, plot, lyrics, and tunes. My wife and I have been big fans for many years, and as far as I could tell, the only substantive adjustments were a more “symphonic” orchestration and a few shorter songs from which non-essential verses were omitted. Her only complaint was that the lack of an intermission–the run time is 2:40–meant that she had no opportunity to recover from the emotional swings, which are only amplified by the near-constant use of music.

    My one mild criticism is that Russell Crowe, although I thought his singing was adequate, did not come across to me as “hard” enough in his portrayal of Javert. Perhaps it was a deliberate attempt to “soften” the character, since all of us are certainly prone to the kind of legalism that he represents. I personally prefer the voice of Roger Allam on the original CDs, which has more of an edge to it. The rest of the cast was solid.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    “…the doyenne of Calvary Chapel.”

    I can hardly wait till she finds the time to comment here…

  • George A. Marquart

    I don’t know that the song, “Take me”, made it into the movie. This is the one Jean Valjean sings when his daughter’s fiancé is injured, and Jean Valjean implores God to take him instead of the young man. It sounds as if to go to heaven is punishment and Jean Valjean pleads with God, saying the young man still has so much to live for. Although I love the book and found the play enthralling (the scene with the candlesticks is a true reflection of Christian charity), this song misrepresents what our faith is ultimately all about.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Norman, I am not interpreting the story (the novel, the play, the movie) and reading Christianity into it as a “stretch.” I am reporting on what the words say and what the plot acts out. I am at a loss to see the “romanticism,” despite the 19th century setting. The young revolutionary students may be influenced by romanticism, but the story shows quite definitely that their attempt to bring heaven on earth through killing people does not work. The protesters in Wisconsin with their “liberation theology” clearly did not hear the version of the song being sung at the very end of the movie, which says that freedom can only be found in the Kingdom of the Lord.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    And, George, lots of people in real life pray that prayer when a loved one is in danger. It points to the principle of “substitution and exchange,” which, though impossible for human beings, is what makes the Atonement possible. Jesus did say, “take me instead,” and God did.

  • fjsteve

    Norman, #10,

    “Finding religion in this story is a great big stretch.”

    Seriously?

  • http://thinkingwithareformedmind.blogspot.com Steven Mitchell

    Sorry Gene, but Les Misérables is indeed an exemplar of French Romanticism. To say otherwise is to completely ignore everything we know about Hugo and the composition of his book, not to mention what we can glean from the text itself.

    I’ve actually been thoroughly troubled by the superficial readings of so many Christians in cherry-picking a grace/law dichotomy out of Hugo’s magnum opus. Is it there? Possibly, though a better understanding of Hugo’s own philosophy argues strongly against that. But even if it is [unconsciously?] there, but it is not, by far, Hugo’s primary concern. In fact, it would probably be better to state the tension between Valjean and Javert as one of class struggle than of theological orthodoxy.

    The book was consciously written as an apology for the revolutionary history of France. Just because the June Rebellion of 1832 failed, that does not mean that the message of the book was that political revolution is futile. Hugo was writing in 1862, after the 1848 Revolutions, and was using 1832 as a backdrop for praising the heroics of the revolutionaries. To read the revolutionaries’ failures in 1832 as Hugo’s negative judgment of their actions can only result from myopic hermeneutics. Hugo was extremely sympathetic to the revolutionaries and was using the book in order to show the role which the past generations had played in the long struggle for republicanism. Hugo was doubtlessly disappointed that the 1832 Rebellion failed, but he was certainly not using its failure as a condemnation of Revolutionism or Romanticism.

    As for the finale of the musical, your interpretation is a good example of this unwitting blindness. Yes, there is the line ‘They will live again in freedom / In the garden of the Lord,’ along with other Christian-y apocalyptic-sounding verbiage, but the gospel here is not that of Christian orthodoxy but of Romanticism. Valjean has not reached heaven due to faith in Jesus Christ, but because of his acts and affection for fellow man.

    The crusade that the chorus invites us to join is not one of the gospel, but a social gospel. The revolution may have failed in 1832, but their Romantic deaths are to be an inspiration for future generations of revolutionaries. And Hugo’s literary argument is precisely that the Romanticism of 1832, despite its immediate failure, allowed 1848 to succeed and which he hoped would inspire revolution against Napoléon III.

  • kerner

    Steven Mitchell:

    You’re probably correct. I would not be at all surprised to find that the writings of a French, Roman Catholic, Romanticist turn out to be out of sync with true Lutheran Law/Gospel theology. And I find some of the liberation theology implicit in some of the lyrics, and for that matter the protrayal of the middle class business people (master of the house) as corrupt buffoons troubling myself, but what the heck.

    Hugo may have swerved into a truth or two by accident or the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our erring brothers and sisters do that all the time don’t they? When John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” he managed to give us a pretty good statement of the Gospel and how it saves us “wretch[es]” even though he probably never completely understood the relationship between the Law and the Gospel as Lutherans do. But his hymn is still art, and we interpret it to state truths that the composer probably never really completely understood.

    So who cares? This is a secular age and maybe we don’t have to be too choosy when we go to the movies. If Dr. Veith wants to take a movie in which a cruel, unforgiving character spends all his time claiming to “be” the law and declaring that there is no redemption for transgressors, and in which a sinner, having been forgiven and given another chance (twice) by a Christian pastor, responds to his forgivness by changing his life and loving his neighbor, and put a spin on that movie to see the Law and Gospel being presented, cut the man a little slack, okay.

    Calling it “the most explicitly Christian film that [he has] seen come out of contemporary Hollywood…” is to use comparitive language, and the bar set thereby isn’t all that high. I mean, can you think of a more explicitly Christian film that has come out of contemporary Hollywood? Maybe there is one, but nothing jumps to mind.

  • http://thinkingwithareformedmind.blogspot.com Steven Mitchell

    To be clear, I’m not at all saying that one shouldn’t see and enjoy the film. May me be the last person to ever dissuade someone from taking in art — high or popular — simply because it has non-Christian or anti-Christian themes. I would much more readily encourage someone to see Les Mis than I would Courageous.

    Rather, I think it’s unfortunate that so many Christian commentators have jumped on the bandwagon of seeing law-and-grace when it isn’t actually there or is there only superficially. (As I suggested above, the relationship between Javert and Valjean is much better understood in terms of social, political, and ethical conflict. Even the oft-recited characterization of Javert as a prototypical legalist misses the mark, setting the whole illustration off from the get-go.)

    See the movie. Enjoy the movie. Discuss the movie. Explore its themes. But please don’t hold it up as the criterion of Christianity in film, much less as something ‘explicitly Christian’.

  • Dan Kempin

    SK, #11,

    I give you triple bonus points for “whiffenpoofery.” Seriously, that is awesome.

    I am docking you, though, for “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” since I cannot seem to find it in my copy of the lutheran confessions.

  • Abby

    “I mean, can you think of a more explicitly Christian film that has come out of contemporary Hollywood? Maybe there is one, but nothing jumps to mind.”

    “Passion of the Christ” — Mel Gibson?

    “I think it’s unfortunate that so many Christian commentators have jumped on the bandwagon of seeing law-and-grace when it isn’t actually there or is there only superficially.”

    I think of this in regard to the Chronicles of Narnia (books/not necessarily movies). When I read all of them straight through years ago, I remember thinking then, “How can a non-Christian enjoy these?” Being that I am a Christian the Biblical references cloaked in fantasy smacked me in the face everytime I came across them in the stories. I tried to imagine reading these same books through the perspective of not being a Christian and I could not. Actually, I would not have even enjoyed the stories at all from that persepective.

    Even though many people cannot even describe why they are so attached to this story, (they are receiving the message and not able to define it), they still flock to see this story over and over. I think — and I certainly am one — that many do not know or appreciate the historial revolutionary themes of this tale at all. As far as the “romantic tale,” trudging through the whole book or production/movie wouldn’t be worth it to me without the “obvious” (through my eyes) Christian theme that is portrayed here.

    I read the whole book many years ago. Which led me to see the stage productions several times as well as old movies. Like the Chronicles of Narnia, I still see the underlying Christian message of grace. Otherwise, why would I keep going back? I wouldn’t. Not for the music or the history of French Revolution. But I really really love this story. For the portrayal of the grace of God to sinners.

    Javert reminds me of the Devil. He cannot let our forgiveness be reality. He’s around our necks, following us everywhere seeking to condemn us and trip us up and hang us yet. In his futility he still flashes the Law in our face. Trying to delude us. In the end he is destroyed by grace.

    Can’t wait for that day!

  • kerner

    Steve Mitchell:

    I am at some disadvantage, because I have not read the book. And I agree that Les Miserables is not “the criterion” of Christianity in film. But I don’t quite understand why you find the film to be not “explicitly Christian”. Maybe that’s because I don’t consider 19th Century French Roman Catholicism and Christianity to be mutually exclusive. I would even go so far as to say that one could be a Romantic and a Christian at the same time, although one would then not be completely consistant at either.

    And I don’t see any reason why the conflict between Jean Valjean and Javert should not have a theological component, as well as social, political and ethical components, all within the context of French history.

    If you are saying that this film, or the book on which it is based, is not solely about theology, I’ll concede that. If you are arguing that its theological theme is not very good theology, I will concede that this is at least arguable; I have problems with some of the theology myself.

    But I simply don’t see how this is not a Christian film in the sense that there is a Christian theme in it from beginning to end. Victor Hugo didn’t have to have Valjean encounter a Priest. Valjean could have stumbled upon a secular humanist who had faith in the ability of man to evolve into someone better without any Christian concept of forgiveness. And any Christians encountered along the way could have been as corrupt and clownish as the master of the house.

    But what we actually have, in the musical at least, is a main character who is redeemed as a result of an encounter with Christianity. I don’t know how you get around that, and maybe you don’t entirely, because characterize it as “superficial”. But I think it is an integral part of the story.

  • larry

    I think many miss the point Javerts character as law. To see him as legalism and hence soured law is to miss it entirely. Legalism is always nice law and mingled with mercy. If Javerts character had been “nice law ” mercifully aiding THAT would have been deadly legalism. The fact that Javert purses without mercy to kill and destroy utterly is the symbolism of true Law. The is sent to kill and kill without mercy. Anything else is toying with the law and shear legalism, making of it a house pet one can play with. The fact that he cannot survive in the world VJ symbolic of that which received grace and he kills himself is symbolic of the reality of the kingdom of heaven. As Luther points out I. Christ the law crucified him and then met God and thus itself “sinned “. For in his body it was destroyed.

    To see Javert as over the top leagalism betrays ones real bondage to true legalism. In short if you think javert was legalism you have it all upside down, because you see the law coming at you PRECISELY as Javert, without mercy and shear terror, relentlessly pursuing you and thus driving you to Christ. The law does not tickle you to the cross at conversion or during your Christian life. This is in reality why the sacraments are so despised and fallen on hard times. For if the Law was really being heard, the way Javert hounded VJ then people would be packing the church crying out for the sacraments every Sunday and waiting with baited breath the 6 days of the week.

    Given the state of gospeless antichristian evangelicalism parading around as “Christian ” I’m not surprised this is viewed ss not appearing Christian. While Aesop’s fables movies such as fire proof and vegetables pass off as “Christian “. Ive heard more professing unbelievers grasp true law and gospel than most Christians today…which begs the question.

  • George A. Marquart

    Dr Veith @20

    As I see it, “lots of people in real life pray that prayer when a loved one is in danger” means that those praying it say that they are willing to take on a hardship for someone else. Therefore, when Jean Valjean prayed it, he believed that the greater hardship was to be taken by God, although he probably thought of it just as dying.

    In what sense did Jesus say, “take me instead”? Did He go to heaven so that nobody else would have to? If you are saying that God the Father wanted to punish people for their sins but Jesus said, “take (punish) me instead,” and God the Father punished Him, then I have a problem with that. How is it possible for one member of the Most Holy Trinity to punish Another and to pretend that it is the punishment of those who have committed the crime? The entire most Holy Trinity was active in saving mankind from the punishment it would ultimately have to endure: eternal death – not death on a cross.

    Did God the Father punish Jesus? No, our Lord lived a perfect life to make good the sin of Adam. Just as we became responsible for the sin of Adam, we also inherit the perfection of the life of our Lord. (Romans 5:15, 1 Cor. 15:21) Then He offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world, because all of that sin was still there, and there is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood. But when Jesus went to the Father, it was to be the “firstborn of them that have gone to sleep.” It was not something He dreaded, but something He yearned for. That is also why He wept at the raising of Lazarus. He knew that it was better for Lazarus to be His Father.

    St. Paul makes it clear when he writes, Philippians 1:23 “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” So St. Paul would rather say, “take me”, but he does not for the sake of the Church. Unfortunately, in the next chapter, when he writes about Epaphroditus, he writes, Philippians 2:27 “He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.” So, for some reason, for Epaphroditus it was not better to be with Christ, but God “had mercy on him,” by not taking him to Himself. Go figure.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Steven Mitchell,

    Victor Hugo was indeed sympathetic with the revolutionary goals, as I suspect most Americans were and are, being anti-monarchical and opposing the feudal hierarchies. But according to this, Hugo was trying to reconcile social reform with Roman Catholicism.

    Also, Hugo did not write the musical! The lyrics of the final song, with its talk of “the garden of the Lord” and putting away the sword, are referring to Heaven, not to future successful revolutions on earth. For that, don’t you remember the song sung by the young man Valjean saves about the darkness that comes after revolutions?

    And, George, don’t you believe in the substitutionary atonement? That’s pretty basic Lutheran orthodoxy.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Also, the story isn’t being anti-business in lampooning the corrupt, thieving, pandering innkeeper! Jean Valjean owned a factory, which is presented as a good thing (despite what one might expect on the Industrial Revolution) because it gave otherwise poor people employment.

    It’s true that Victor Hugo was a romantic, but I’m still having trouble seeing where there is Romanticism in the story, much less the play or the movie. Glorification of nature? We hardly see any nature. Subjectivity? Rather, we see social conditions presented in all of their gritty objectivity, more like the late 19th century “realists” like Zola than the early 19th century “romantics.”

    To those of you who are accusing me of reading Christian themes into the movie that aren’t really there, I can only say that I am not. I am reporting on the language, imagery, dialogue, and plot of the movie. Is it an allegory, like the Chronicles of Narnia, concerned with embodying Christian doctrine? No. It is a story that has its own characters and plot and inner logic. But they are all saturated with Christianity. If you don’t believe me, see the movie. Or get a soundtrack and leave out all songs that are about God, Heaven, grace, Jesus, or that are prayers. You will have a very short record.

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    one of my first classical reads- think I was 10 or 11 yrs old-
    had read all of the horse books as school and public library (OK- Black Beauty is a CLASSIC) –
    Carol-CS

  • George A. Marquart

    Dr. Veith @30

    If by substitutionary atonement you mean that our Lord was punished for our sins, then no. The punishment for our sins is eternal death – not crucifixion. Why is it that we so easily deny one of the fundamentals of our faith? Nowhere in Scripture does it say that instead of eternal death a certain amount of torture can be substituted. I believe that our Lord led a perfect life (for us and for our salvation – that is substitutinary) and we are given credit for that (substitutionary) just as we were debited with original sin because of the sin of Adam (substitutionary). Romans 5: 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 1 Corinthians 15: 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

    I also believe that our Lord brought an offering for sin in the person of Himself. This was not a matter of the Father punishing the Son, but the Son offering a perfect offering as the Law had taught God’s people for many years. Yes, He did it for us; therefore it was substitutionary. That is what the Book of Hebrews is all about; particularly when we read in Chapter 9:11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom (απολυτρωσιν – not that He was a ransom, but He paid the ransom) to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

    And all this He did “for the joy that was set before Him.” I know this is unfathomable, but the point is that God’s anger is turned toward those who are not His children, but the redemption of His people was made with joy of which the angels sang when He became flesh – and they knew that Golgotha was just a few years down the road. To us that is totally incomprehensible, but Scripture does not lie: “for the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross and the shame.”

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • Booklover

    Les Miserables in novel form, stage version, or movie, is the perfect example of a Christian story. One would be hardpressed to find a better example. The themes of mercy, love, humility, forgiveness, and repentance shone from beginning to end. Valjean was accused of stealing candlesticks and the priest said, “Here, you forgot one!”–a heartrending show of mercy! Valjean absolutely refused to take revenge on Javert–I can’t even count the number of times he let him go–more mercy. Valjean gave his life to God. He certainly loved his enemies. And sacrifice! Valjean put his life on the line in saving Marius. One could go on and on. And the glory was always given to God. Explicitly Christian.

    I’ve seen the movie, three different stage versions, and read the unabridged novel. Our city is performing Les Miserables next year. I’ll try out for Mrs. Thenardier because, dang it, I’m too old now for Fantine.

  • Abby

    I may have misspoke. I was attempting to say that, like with the Chronicles of Narnia, I can “see” the Christian themes of Les Miserable. I didn’t mean to sound like I categorize them as being of the same “type” of story.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I know, Abby, and the Narnia movies and “The Passion of the Christ” are certainly Christian movies in their stories. It’s interesting, though, that the filmmakers of the Narnia movies kept playing that down, saying that viewers can interpret it anyway they want, etc., whereas “Les Miserables” is open and unembarrassed about the Christian content.

    Critics of the movie, as cited in the First Things post I link to in my comment above, are complaining that the movie puts too much emphasis on religion at the expense of Hugo’s political themes. Are they just reading in a religious interpretation?

    Also, since we are talking about a movie, based on a musical, based on a French musical, based on a novel, the artistic intentions are not just those of Victor Hugo. I saw the musical a number of years ago, and I don’t remember so much overt piety coming across. That’s because different directors can create different emphases. Attending to the songs, though, the lyrics are quite religious. So we have the songwriters, but those responsible for the English version were translating from the French, while still adding their own contributions. So artistic intention in this movie version is hard to unravel, there being so many artists involved in a film, that most collaborative of art forms.

    But the story and its structure and its language and its imagery remains, and that’s where we see the Christian elements. Jean Valjean is not trying to earn his salvation by his good works. After the priest’s act of grace, he is shown kneeling before a crucifix praying to Jesus with thanks for his forgiveness and for making him a new man. He still refers to himself as a sinner, but his love and service to his neighbors are presented as the fruit of his conversion, not the substitute for it.

    Is the movie Lutheran? No, though in its theme of Law & Gospel it comes much closer than other overtly Christian films. There are lots of crucifixes–including some added to the frame as a commentary on some of the songs and situations, for example, with Fantine–and churches and altars, which I suppose would cause some to condemn it for idolatry and Roman Catholicism, but the Lutheran understanding of the Church can certainly see the film as being Christian.

  • SKPeterson

    I read a recent review that noted that Hugo had a debate with his son regarding the character of Bienvenue. His son wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer, some sort of secular type, in keeping with the family’s doctrinaire anti-clericalism. Instead, Hugo decided to go with Bienvenue in order to provide something of what a model cleric should be, and to thereby shame the venal officeholders within the French Catholic church. In other words, Hugo’s use of Bishop Bienvenue was to hold up an example of Christian charity and churchmanship that was at odds with the prevailing ecclesiastic structure in place in France at the time (or at least Hugo’s perception of that structure). So, one might say that in his Romantic critique of the Church, what Hugo subtly recognized was that the Church had the Law (Javert), but had forgotten the Gospel (Bienvenue) and shunted it aside into the small nooks and crannies and out of the way places in France.

  • Becky F.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet in this discussion is how Javert and Valjean show the difference between one who rejects the Gospel and one who embraces it. One of the things I love about Les Mis is the reuse of the same tunes and some of the same words by multiple characters. When Valjean is shown mercy by the Bishop he declares, “what have I done.” When Javert is shown mercy (again) by Valjean he declares, “who is this man?” And they both sing, “I am reaching but I fall.” They both see that in themselves they are walking blindly and cannot save themselves. However, Valjean sees that God has reached into his life to give him a second chance and repents. Javert, on the other hand, cannot see past his black & white worldview, for how could a con be reformed, and so he takes his own life because he cannot reconcile going after Valjean and NOT going after Valjean. Because Javert cannot forgive Valjean, he cannot see how Valjean (or God) could forgive him.

    Finding themes in literature and film that perhaps were not intended is what English classes in highschool and college are all about, right? Or at least it seems that way, sometimes. My mother had a literature professor in college that found sex in everything. Christians happen to find redemptive messages in everything. It all depends on your worldview. Sometimes a poet is just writing about a beautiful flower. Sometimes a poet is writing about something else but using a flower as a metaphor.

    My new favorite movies are the Christopher Nolan Batman series. If you can’t find redemption and good v. evil in those movies you’re not really watching. Was that the intention of the movie makers? Are they trying to make Batman a Christ figure? Maybe, maybe not. But we can certainly see those themes if we look for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • shell

    George A. Marquart @ 33

    Isaiah 53:4-10?

  • http://www.princetonlutherans.com longhorn

    One of my favorite parts of the book is the deathbed scene of Jean Valjean, in which his gaze is clearly directed to Christ, in the crucifix on the wall in his room.

  • Abby
  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    A little late to this particular party, but just wanted to thank Dr. Veith for recommending I read the book. I’ve had absolutely zero interest in the play or the movie, but the book…wow…the link you provided takes you to an Amazon page where you get the book, in Kindle format for free! It’s a very well done translation, very readable and I’m finding it absolutely captivating.

    Thanks.

    Perhaps I’ll see the movie when it comes out on DVD.

  • http://thestoppedclock.blogspot.com/ Aaron

    @Abby: “Javert reminds me of the Devil. He cannot let our forgiveness be reality.”
    Javert represents the God of vengeance, whereas Valjean represents the God of Mercy.

  • http://thestoppedclock.blogspot.com/ Aaron

    @aletheist: It’s difficult to regard Thernardier’s “Dog Eats Dog” as non-essential, given that it is that song that reveals Thernardier’s allegorical role in the story – Javert representing God as vengeance, Valjean’s God as mercy, and Thernardier’s ‘dead God’:
    “It’s a world where the dog eats the dog
    “Where they kill for bones in the street
    “And God in His Heaven
    “He don’t interfere”
    ‘Cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet.”


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