Lessons from Les Mis

We went to see Les Miserables with friends yesterday. I’d never seen the show because I’ve rather gone off musicals as shallow, show biz stuff. I used to joke that life was miserable enough…

I was won over. There are so many powerful Catholic themes in the show, and the film communicates them very well. There is, of course, the question of justice and mercy. Javert’s self righteousness and legalism countered by the Bishop’s kindness and mercy which inspires Valjean to be merciful even to Javert. Very insightful that Valjean’s mercy destroys Javert. He can’t cope with such a destruction of his whole reason for living. His life is lonely and empty and ends in despair while Valjean’s life is full of meaning and action and love.

What I found especially moving was the ripple effect of the Bishops’ kindness. His gift of the silver to Valjean is extravagant and foolish. His mercy is everlasting. This extravagant act  not only ennobles Valjean, but it ripples down to touch and inspire virtually  every character Valjean touches. So it is even with the little acts of kindness and self sacrifice in our lives. Their effects ripple down to others forever. The goodness grows. It is fruitful and multiplies.

But if this is true of goodness, it is true in a darker way of evil. If we allow evil to flourish in our hearts it grows like a poisonous cancer and spreads to others. If we seek revenge; if we do not follow the way of forgiveness; if we harbor evil and allow it to fester it destroys and kills.

There is, also, the power of forgiveness at work. Allowing God’s forgiveness to work in our own lives to start with, then the power of God’s forgiveness to work through us to others. Forgiveness is like the bishop’s gift of silver. It is extravagant and foolish. Have you ever noticed that only  Christianity, of all world religions, teaches forgiveness? Judaism does to a small degree, but Christ comes and brings into the world that same extravagant and unexpected gift–a gift that is a sign of contradiction to the world–a gift that can only be achieved through an act of great self sacrifice.

The image therefore of the crucifix which abounds in the film is perfect. In film theory there is something called ‘an image system’. It is an image that is repeated many times in the film in many ways without a direct reference. The image system resonates within the eye and the mind and carries and projects the inner meaning of the film. So when Valjean is redeemed at the beginning he is given the silver crucifix and candles by the bishop. They re-appear throughout the film as the abiding image and remain as the pointer beyond.

Les Miserables shows us the power of Catholic art in the world. All around us the voices of atheism, secularism and unbelief rage and howl. Catholicism is derided and scorned. Clergy are wasted and destroyed. The faithful are mocked and the faith is undermined. Then a global phenomenon like “Les Mis” grabs everybody’s heart and exercises everybody’s tear ducts, and at that moment in the dark intimacy of the cinema people believe. No matter what their outwardly stated beliefs or their confused and lonely lives, they believe in justice and mercy. They believe in self sacrifice and love. They believe in perseverance and nobility. They believe in such a thing as a good and kindly priest, a noble and penitent sinner and a path through life that can be one of redemption and release.

When art works like this it goes around all the intellectual arguments and anger. It circumvents all the clever atheism and secularism. It appeals directly to the hearts of millions and plants a seed there of truth, beauty and goodness that cannot be erased. The fact that the film takes place within the French revolution shows that this kind of life is revolutionary. It is subversive to preach forgiveness and justice and mercy  and the reality of truth, beauty and goodness. This is truly Christian art–not just a pretty film with a nice moral ending, but a story that is deeply and mysteriously beautiful, good and true.

 

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