My wife and I are quickly becoming regulars at the old historic St. Anthony theatre.1 A few months ago, while attending one movie, we saw a preview for a movie with a title I couldn’t pronounce. Not only could I not pronounce the name, but it was a musical. This was surely a movie that I was going to pass on. In fact, when the preview was over and my wife said, “We are definitely seeing that,” I said, “Sure, and I will be having the guys over for pizza and wings.”
But as I started to read about the story my appetite was quickly whetted. When I began to watch the story of Les Misérables unfold, I started to understand that it is not like any other musical I had ever seen, for in a piece of literature you find a beautiful story of redemption, forgiveness, love, hypocrisy, and a stark contrast between law and grace.
For believers, Les Misérables should be a small tangible picture of the depths of our sinful condition, the price of our salvation, the nature of grace, and our response to grace. Let me give you just a glimpse into what I mean.
From Jean Valjean shackled as a slave, to dirty innkeepers scheming and thieving for anything they can get their paws on, to a helpless Fantine falling prey to wicked men, to revolutionaries killing because of the oppression of the poor, to little children battered by life’s hardships, Les Miserablés brilliantly depicts for us the human condition.
We are sinners. Our condition has left us utterly helpless. Like Fantine, our desire for love, acceptance, and deliverance seems to have been shattered by the fallen world we are a part of:
I dreamed a dream in time gone by,
When hope was high and life, worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die,
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed
Salvation is most vividly portrayed in the exchange for Cosette. Jean Valjean, a man now transformed by the grace of one man on his behalf, offers whatever the ransom price might be in exchange for the young girl. He tells Cosette not to be fearful because he is her father now and will never leave her lonely. In the love and emotion of this scene one cannot help but consider our salvation. The great price that was paid to make us children of God.
Law & Grace
Les Misérables2 immediately draws us into this storyline by introducing us to Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Valjean, a slave for many years, is released into society, hoping to start afresh, only to be reminded by Inspector Javert that once a thief, always a thief. Although he seeks restoration and renewal he is met only with hatred at every turn. That is, until he is taken in and given food and clothing at a church. Despite the kindness showed by the church bishop, Valjean reverts to his old ways, stealing anything that he can find and running away into the night.
His escapade doesn’t last long though and the police drag him back to the church. Instead of animosity and rightful punishment he is met by the bishop who offers grace and forgiveness and tells the police that Valjean had not stolen but was only taking the things that had been given to him. Cosper says,
Valjean deserves judgment and condemnation, but instead, he receives grace. Not just forgiveness for his sins, but an abundant, over-the-top gift.
As a result of this gift of grace, Valjean goes away a changed man, recreates himself as Monsieur Madeleine, and vows to live a life characterized by grace to others.
On the other hand Inspector Javert is the epitome of one who lives by every “jot and tiddle” of the law. His whole life is spent defending the law and making sure those around him pay for their breaking of it. Javert spends his entire life bound by the law and determined to capture Valjean– whatever the cost– and bring him back to prison.
Javert’s chorus tells his pledge of allegiance:
Mine is the way of the Lord
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!
So many theological concepts and storylines are at work within this wonderful musical. We are forced to consider the human condition, to experience a physical salvation along with so many of the characters, and are bound to this concept of mercy to the undeserving and mercilessness to the deserving. Certainly these are all reasons that this has been a perennial favorite for writers, actors, producers, and audiences alike. I believe Tony Rienke sums up the story best:
The power of Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables is the way it contrasts the life of the merciful with the life of the merciless. The merciful have faced their sin guilt and been broken like glass. The merciless have faced their sin guilt and hardened themselves like steel. The merciful have first received Mercy (God) and then aim to show mercy to others. The legalist adamantly rejects mercy, and in rejecting mercy has rejected Mercy.
In spite of the longstanding Javert-Valjean struggle in the book, and even the Javert-Valjean struggle we find in our own hearts, ultimately Scripture reminds us that a mercy-giving life of a Valjean will triumph over the hard legalistic life of a Javert (James 2:13).4
- This is not meant to be a review, nor is it a blanket recommendation of the new screenplay. There are certainly elements that could/should have been eliminated (or at least done differently) from the newest adaptation. Nevertheless, the story has a history that stretches back much further than this most recent adaptation. ↩
- This section was largely impacted by “Law and Grace in ‘Les Mis’ by Mike Cosper. This was my guide as I watched the movie. These elements are so present that they are hard to miss, whether you have read Cosper’s article or not. ↩
- Spoiler: In one scene Valjean has an opportunity to kill Javert after revolutionaries had captured him. Instead of plunging a knife into him, or shooting him, Valjean releases Javert and forgives his retaliative ways. This sends Javert over the mental cliff because he cannot understand such grace and is tormented by the very thought of Valjean’s mercy towards him. He commits suicide. ↩
- “The Power of Les Miserables,” Tony Rienke. ↩