Law and Grace in 'Les Mis'
Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was considered a literary powerhouse long before Alain Boubeil and Claude-Michel Schonberg wrote their musical based on the story in 1980. But that production, translated into English a few years later, has been a powerhouse on Broadway and London's West End for the better part of three decades. On Christmas Day, it will come to theaters as a major motion picture starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and an all-star supporting cast.
I don't say this sort of thing often, but here it is: go see it. Les Miserables lives up to the hype.
Or, it will. Full disclosure: I haven't actually seen the movie, but I've seen the musical multiple times. And I say that as someone who doesn't love musical theater.
Les Miserables is an intertwining story of characters living in the turmoil of 19th-century France. It's a story of poverty and affluence, broken dreams, love, and redemption.
The story branches out into a variety of lives: a corrupt innkeeper and his family, a group of young would-be revolutionaries disgusted with the oppression of the poor, street kids, and young lovers. People who watch the musical say it's like a "religious experience" and leave the theater emotionally exhausted. Early screenings of the film have enjoyed equally effusive praise, with one Hollywood veteran saying it might be the greatest movie he's ever seen.
Here are a few things to watch for when you see Les Mis.
Every character in the story experiences the weight and tragedy of our fallen world. They all face inevitable disappointments. Jean Valjean leaves the work house hoping to start afresh, only to be haunted by his past at every turn. Fantine sings of a life of love and hope, even as her life spirals apart, sending her begging in the streets, selling her hair, and selling her body. She is sick and dying as she sings:
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 . . .
Other characters feel it too. Young Cosette sings of a "castle on a cloud," a dreamland where life is sweet, and she isn't working like a slave for her foster parents. Eponine sings of lonesome, unrequited love in "On My Own." A group of young students are disgusted by the oppression of the poor, and they dream of a revolution that sets the people free.
There's a grinding, heartbreaking kind of tragedy that threads its way through Les Miserables. You can't help but feel the sting of our fallen world. That feeling of relentless heartbreak sends the characters to God and to one another wondering if there's any relief, any hope, any way out of the darkness.
Law Vs. Grace
The answer to those questions plays out most tellingly in the contrast between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.
As the story begins, Valjean is being released from 19 years on the chain gang, paroled back into the world but shackled with his conviction, which keeps him from being able to start over and make a new life. In despair, he returns to a life of petty crime.
He is caught by the police after stealing silver from a church, where a bishop had offered him shelter. But when the police bring him back to the church, everything changes. The bishop denies the charges, insists the silver was a gift, and gives Valjean the most valuable silver candlesticks in the church.
Valjean deserves judgment and condemnation, but instead, he receives grace. Not just forgiveness for his sins, but an abundant, over-the-top gift. This act is the heart of Les Mis. Grace transforms Valjean.
My life was a war that could never be won . . .
Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!
The priest responds:
. . . By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!
Valjean disappears from the world, breaking his parole and creating a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, a factory owner and mayor. He's resolved to live a better life, to make a difference in the world, and to help everyone he can, but he's haunted by his past.
And he's hunted.
Valjean's nemesis is Inspector Javert, whose life is marked by a ruthless commitment to the law. Javert says:
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
The sword . . .
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!
There is no mercy for Javert. There is no grace. He wants only to capture Valjean and bring him to justice---back to prison for breaking his parole.
The contrast of Javert and Valjean is deliberate and clear. Valjean is determined to live a life worthy of the grace he's received, and his sense of calling leads him to radical sacrifice for the sake of others. Javert, on the other hand, lives with unflinching loyalty to the law. His confidence in the law makes him utterly certain of both his own righteousness and also Valjean's sinfulness.
The story sets these two on a collision course, a head-on crash between law and grace. Just as grace saves Valjean in the beginning, it is ultimately grace that he must count on in the end. As Javert pursues him, we see the effects of grace on a sinner, we see the oppressive power of both the law and someone's past, and we see the incomprehensibility of grace to a life ruled by the law.
Story That Resonates
This story resonates for two reasons. First, the audience can identify with a world of tragedy and disappointment. We all feel that sense of grinding sorrow, and wonder if there's any hope for those who are sick, who suffer injustice, and who long to start anew. We're all discouraged by the constant onslaught of bad news, and we dream dreams of places where hope is high, life is worth living, and God is merciful.
Second, Les Miserable answers those doubts with hope for redemption. There is a way to start afresh. There is a grace that surpasses, that sets us free from the burdens of our past, and that leads us home to God.
And while Les Miserables provides a vague answer, how beautiful that it's releasing on Christmas Day, when that grace is announced to the world so clearly! Jesus endured the grinding struggles of the world, born in a stable, hunted by evil men, and suffering alongside (and ultimately for) us. He not only announced a hope for redemption, but he also single-handedly accomplished it for us.
In the light of the gospel, a story like Les Miserables isn't simply uplifting; it's a call to remember how great a salvation we have.
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Editors' note: This week Mike Cosper joined hosts Collin Hansen and Mark Mellinger for Going Deeper with TGC, the podcast of The Gospel Coalition. Cosper celebrates the creative genius behind the original author of Les Miserables and those who turned the work into a classical musical and now an acclaimed motion picture. He also explores how Christians appreciate good art as a gift from God.
As the podcast continues, The Gospel Project managing editor Trevin Wax talks with Eric Geiger, vice president of the church resources division at LifeWay and co-author of Creature of the Word, about how to foster gospel-centered culture in your church. Wax asks Geiger, "How do you know if your church is healthy?" Geiger offers an interesting response about the doctrinal divide between out pulpits and youth ministries. Finally, Hansen and Mellinger wrap up the podcast with a preview of top 10 lists that will be revealed on The Gospel Coalition website after Christmas.