From the Shepherd’s Nook – A Pastor’s Take on the New Les Miserables

From the Shepherd’s Nook – A Pastor’s Take on the New Les Miserables December 28, 2012

From John Frye

Anyone who knows the storyline of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (Les Mis) knows that any cinematic rendition will push strongly against the most common USAmerican movie theme: revenge. In conversation recently with friends, we all were troubled by how many movies are driven by the energy of “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” My wife, Julie, and I attended the new musical version of Les Mis starring Hugh Jackman (Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), and Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) on Christmas Day.  We both were astounded by how dramatically well the themes of God’s grace, forgiveness and caring for the “miserables” spilled from the screen. Because music is the language of the soul, the songs riveted lyrics to melody leaving the audience spell-bound. One movie review even stated, “[Les Mis] casts a spell.”

The story, set in France during the political tumult leading to insurrection of young students in Paris in 1862, recounts the parole of Jean Valjean who spent 19 years in hard labor for stealing a piece of bread for his sister’s hungry child. Valjean, hardened by life experience, believes that he is a criminal by nature. That changes when he meets a priest who deeply shocks Valjean with grace–the surprising, liberating grace of God. Yet, while grace liberates, grace also commissions. Valjean is to use the priest’s gift of the silver (actually stolen by Valjean) to only do good.

Grace and forgiveness effect a change of character in Valjean and he becomes a successful, wealthy and good man. Valjean takes it upon himself to find and care for Cosette, the daughter of an abused, single mother, Fantine. Valjean, for various reasons, had broken parole and Javert, the intensely “just” and law-abiding, justice-demanding inspector, tracks Valjean down. To use the words of biblical James, the movie shows how “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). “To love another person is to see the face of God” is a line in the musical.

An observation about Hugh Jackman’s character, Valjean, gripped me. In the musical we see Valjean singing prayers–prayers of penitence and confession, prayers of guidance and intercession. I leaned over to Julie at one point and whispered, “Valjean is a praying man. How often do we see this in a Hollywood movie?” During the violent clash of students and Parisean military, Valjean prays for the survival of Marius, a young man with whom Cosette had fallen in love. The song, “Bring him home,” left Julie and I teary-eyed.

Both Valjean and Javert come from criminal backgrounds. Javert chooses to follow and to enforce the very strict letter of law in his clean, just worldview. On the other hand, Valjean knows only that he was thrown upon the mercy of God and, thus, he seeks to live out, in my opinion, the (alleged) prayer of Francis of Asissi: “Make me an instrument of Thy peace.”  Time and again Valjean actually expresses unexpected mercy toward Inspector Javert, yet Javert cannot receive grace, he cannot believe in mercy. Javert does not truly believe that people can fundamentally be converted, be radically changed. Rather than live as a recipient of mercy, he takes his own life. He chooses against the grace of God.

Julie formulated this question during the movie and we talked about it later: “What if everyone adopted a grace-oriented, forgiveness-offering worldview?” It sounds pollyannaish, I admit, but isn’t that why God became flesh and lived among us? If forgiving love is the fulfillment of the Law, then we pastors need to shout from the roof-tops, “Go see Les Miserables! It’s what we live for!”

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  • Scot,
    thanks for this. I am so looking forward to seeing this movie. (My daughter and I will attend next week.) The book is a masterpiece. When the Broadway play came out, I knew a new film version couldn’t be far behind. My prayer is that the accelerated trend toward vengeance on the American screen and TV might be arrested and redeemed by the overwhelming response of the public to the redemptive themes of grace and forgiveness in Les Miserables. Have a great New Year.

  • Norman

    The dialogue and script of the Musical Les Miserables has always fascinated me. Mostly because of its parallel theme that matches so well the New Testament story of National Redemption through Grace toward the penitent faithful. The musical’s discourse looking toward that “Day” of deliverance is the same we find throughout the NT narrative and especially in 2 Thessalonians and Revelation.

  • John I.

    The live musical was great – a masterpiece even – and so I’m looking forward to the movie.

    However, I would not say the same as the book. My friend raved about it, and so I read it. Or, rather, endured it. It was among the worst books I have ever read. Tedious and mind-numbingly boring at times. I wanted to rip my eyes out (chapters long descriptions of the Paris sewers. Seriously?). Note that Hugo got paid by the word, and so the longer the better financially for him. But I persisted just so I could say I read it. I would agree that parts of the book are good, even great, and overall themes and character development are great, but the deficiencies are numerous, large, and have been well noted. Anyone who sees the theatre production, or the movie, has seen the best the book has to offer, and need not read it (hours of your life will be wasted; hours that you will never get back). Even the original French version is not any better (Maybe there’s a Readers Digest version out there).

  • metanoia

    My favorite all time book (beside Scripture), play and movie (Liam Neeson version). This particular version is especially gratifying because of the risks taken by the director to have the actors sing live. It is difficult enough to cast singers or actors, but to put together a cast of actors who did an admirable job of singing (Russell Crowe caused me to cringe a bit), deserves special applause.

  • MatthewS

    I love the Liam Neeson version and am looking forward to this one. The themes resonate so deeply.

    I have a question – Jesus got angry at times. He called out the false shepherds who were abusive to the sheep. It seems that being “full of grace and truth” and living out “truth in love” do not always preclude emotional heat. I have the “pleasure” of interacting with some religious folks who think they are defenders of God and truth but in fact are abrasive and in my mind they excuse various abuses of the flock, though they see themselves as in the right and everyone else as in the wrong. So… how do you find the balance of being grace-full and forgiving but also of standing up and saying something with emotional heat? How to know when it is appropriate to bring the fire and when it is appropriate to exchange sweetness for their vinegar?

    When do you call someone a snake or a whitewashed tomb, and when do you say “oh, you forgot the candlesticks”? And I don’t think this is as simple as saying that you can get angry at religious folks but be nice to destitute folks – what if a different Valjean character kept coming back and stealing again and again? Would you continue to give him more and more candlesticks? At some point you’d tell him to take off, I think… But I say this in awareness of how powerful the contrast between the law-bound Javert and the grace-full priest and the grace-touched Valjean…

  • I was lucky enough to see Les Mis on Christmas day as well. I also found it deeply moving as well as artistically impressive. Indeed, the emphasis on grace and transformation is refreshing to find in a movie. These are powerful religious themes (at least in Judaism as well as Christianity… I’m not as well versed in others).

    I would add that a one-time (or even repeated) reception of grace, as is the common view of Christian salvation, is demonstrably not ALL that is needed to effect deep transformation (what is so often quoted from Paul about being “in Christ” making a “new creature” is taken in too limited a context, whatever his own conception was).

    Additionally, a belief that Jesus’ death was a “substitutionary atonement” is not the only way to receive and be reflective of God’s grace. I believed that from age 5 or 6 to 45 or so, but gradually (via lots and lots of biblical study) came to believe that his death was NOT an atonement, substitutionary or otherwise. Some people don’t believe it on the basis of intuition, perhaps, or simpler logic than mine. Yet I, and I believe many of them, believe in God as profoundly gracious and loving… the underpinning of our being. To me, that also is reception of grace and it is transforming — a little bit every day (or so!) and more so on certain special days (but not at some moment of “getting saved”).

  • Elizabby

    I’m hoping to see the movie next week, and looking forward to it! I loved the book – I think it showed the message of God’s grace even more clearly – but it does need some editing! Being paid by the word produces *long* books, which are not necessarily better for being longer! If I can find an online text editable public domain version my next aim is to make a “good bits version”. (I’m not prepared to sit and scan or type the whole thing in myself!)

    The book draws out even more clearly Valjean’s grace towards Marius (who is not very nice to him) and towards Fantine (who had an even worse life than the musical shows – who sells their teeth??) and throws more light on the life of the Bishop who made the gift to Valjean, and his housekeeper who lies for him to preserve his life – another vital instance of love overriding law. Great stuff! (Pity about the long waffles on the subject of Parisian sewers and the whole battle of Waterloo.)

  • My family and I saw this movie and wow, I am nominating Hugh Jackman for Oscar of the decade! I couldn’t help but let it spill over into my preaching yesterday. My favorite line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

  • pepy

    What if we all lived out the grace we have been given in the way the Jean Valjean did?

  • This may have been the best movie I saw all year. The themes of grace and serving God and others were powerful. But I was also moved by seeing human frailty and brokenness portrayed so vividly (this really came through in Fantine’s famous “Dream” song). Even Javert was a sympathetic character to some extent – so fixated on his own ideas of justice and duty that when he finally showed mercy to another, he considered it his greatest personal failure.

  • Scot, thanks so much for your insights. I believe that this film represents a major opportunity for us to start conversations with outsiders, and I’ve tried to draw together some helpful resources on the Digital Evangelism Issues blog:

  • Alice

    Is this blog plagiarizing your post? A lot of the writing is word for word!