Truths from Les Miserables

les-miserablesWhy is Les Miserables one of the most popular shows ever made? When listing musicals that one must see, why is Les Miserables number one or two? Well, most people will say the music and the lyrics are beyond excellent. They will literally rave about it. Others will say that the actors and singers chosen also make the novel come to life. I think most people will say next that they resonate with the characters and the story.  So what is the story?

If you read the novel, it is dense. Honestly, I have not read the book. Yes, I will admit that I have not read the book. Readers, interpret that statement however you want. However, it does not mean that I do not get the message or the themes. One of the most poignant themes from the story is the dichotomy between law and grace. The law, as embodied by Inspector Javert, is inflexible and almost cruel. Valjean steals a loaf of bread. Theft is a crime; criminals must be punished; end of story.  Valjean stole that loaf to feed his starving sister – mitigating circumstances? Not according to the law. In fact, the punishment was so great that it did not rehabilitate or deter Valjean. It had the opposite effect: it made him hardened. Valjean does not hesitate to steal again even from a benefactor: the bishop.

Grace comes in through the bishop. Although the bishop was in the right to seek punishment, the bishop even lies and lets Valjean go. Whether a person grows up in the church and hears about God’s grace or has never entered a church, they instinctively understand mercy and grace. Perhaps it is because they know that one day they will have to ask for grace even when they know they have done something wrong. It is almost a quid pro quo: I will forgive you now because I know one day I have to ask you for forgiveness. And yet, this is not the way grace works. Grace says: I will forgive you regardless of whether you will extend the same courtesy to me. Grace was and still is the only way to affect change in people’s lives.

Grace versus law. Valjean versus Javert. Everyone sees that. The law is rigid to the point of cruelty and even unfairness at times. Is the law bad? No! The law as the Apostle Paul says is still good. It is a stern taskmaster. Grace is free, loving, and transcends fairness. People get that.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but there is another contrast at work. That contrast is the difference between Valjean and the ABC Cafe students. Wherever one turns, there is injustice at work. There is evil at work. The students wish to make changes through a violent revolution. Unfortunately, they miscalculated. Does that remind anyone of a recent election? In fact, don’t most elections fit this mold? One side loses and is disappointed; they are not disappointed because the voter turn out was low. They are disappointed because they thought more people would agree with them. They miscalculated the political calculus. As I watch the scenes where the students die violently and perhaps hopelessly, I echo what thousands of pastors tell people the day after an election. “Our hope is not in a political candidate; our hope is in Jesus Christ – King of kings, and Lord of lords.”

I think Victor Hugo probably understood that. Born in 1802, he witnessed the tail end of the French Revolution – the rise and fall of Napoleon and the Restoration of the Bourbons. He witnessed the revolutions of 1832 and 1848 and the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War 1870-71. He died in 1885. During each of these political changes, everyone hoped that a regime change would be for the best. It was not. The winners were often tainted by blood as they executed their opponents; the losers were vowing vengeance. The irony, Hugo grew up a Catholic but left the Roman Catholic Church. He believed in God, the soul and rationalism, and yet, I suspect underneath all of the philosophical trappings, he did understand the inability of man to make last changes without bloodshed.

I think Dostoyevsky understood that too. In “Brothers Karamazov”, a brother goes to jail for the crime that his brother committed. Another brother, a novice monk, sees how his mentor, a man of grace, lived and how his mentor’s rival, man of false religiosity (law), lived. Grace makes an unfair world tolerable.

I think of the original embodiment of grace: Jesus Christ. When all the other religions of the world teach divine acceptance through good works, Christianity says that no amount of good works is ever enough… or even necessary for divine acceptance. When all the other religions teach grace is a weakness, Christianity says grace makes us strong.

One thought on “Truths from Les Miserables

  1. 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:

    Incidentally, as well as reading the entire book online, you can access Cliff’s Study Notes on the book.

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