Thabiti Anyabwile|1:23 am CT

Miserable at “Les Miserables”

This past weekend a number of couples from the church took to the theaters to watch the critically acclaimed Les Miserables. We’d heard from a number of people how wonderful this film adaptation was. Now, in every one of those conversations I played the genuine skeptic, calling the film a “chick flick” and all. In every one of those conversation burly plaid-wearing men spoke passionately about how it wasn’t a “chick flick,” how it was moving and passionate and full of action, and about how many sermon illustrations and gospel themes ran through the movie.

Against the better judgment of my inner caveman, I went to the movie.

My very first thought in the opening moments of the very first scene was I hope they don’t sing the entire movie. Two nano-seconds later, the singing started… and never ended! I suppose there were ten spoken words in the entire flick. Immediately following the movie I received a much-needed lesson in culture. I’m gonna pass it on to you for free. You ready? There’s a great difference between a musical and an opera. Some of you knew that. Some of you didn’t. You see a musical–take a classic like Grease–has spoken parts punctuated by songs. An opera has every word sung. Every word. Les Mis is an opera. Check that–a pop opera, I’m told. If my wife had told me we were going to a “pop opera” I would have never left the couch, flipped on Net Flix, and called it a night. But because I can enjoy a musical here and there, I was clobbered by the pop opera Les Mis. Clobbered!

It was a long couple of hours. One brother exiting the movie with hollow eyes in a death walk slightly above zombie status rightly commented, “That could have been about 40 minutes shorter.” Amen and amen. But the filmmakers can’t be blamed for erasing a portion of our lives with a harrowing cacophony of amateur siren songs. Had I known the novel ranks among the longest in the world (1,500 pages in English and 1,900 in French) I would have taken a sleeping bag to the theater!

All along the way I’m uncomfortable and vexed. I couldn’t figure out why until the end. It seems to me the gospel was handled in a most unhelpful way. The “converted” Valjean spends the entire movie trying to find forgiveness through good deeds. We see him in the convent trembling, sweating, fading, with one question on his lips: “Am I forgiven?” His nemesis, who lives by an inflexible law and justice, is crushed beneath the weight of the law even when offered forgiveness. One wonders what the effect of the film might be if imputed righteousness might have been clearly communicated. Valjean could have done wonderful acts of mercy not for forgiveness but from forgiveness. He could have lived his life with assurance rather than dogging doubt. He might have actually told the film’s many other beggars where to find the Bread of Life. Rather than trying to be the Savior, he could have enjoyed the Savior. His nemesis might have had the crushing weight of the law lifted by the Lamb who satisfies both the Law’s demands and penalty.

Instead, we were treated to a cruel imitation of the gospel, a suggestion of grace without the marrow of it. In fact, the film probably confuses mercy (being punished less than our sins deserve) with grace (being treated better than our sins deserve). Praise God for mercy, but grace is so much more. If you’re taking a friend who is not yet a Christian to this movie, be prepared to show them the difference between moral conversion and new birth.

Then, to top all the misery off, there’s the final scene with the entire cast–except Javert–singing a revolutionary fight song as though collectively victorious. A universalist hint? I dunno. But by that time I was thoroughly entrenched among the miserables, the wretched, the poor ones, the victims.

My wife owes me 10 action movies in a row for this one!

There was one bright spot though–the cute, feisty little boy. You’ll like him, but you’ll still be miserable. I know I was.

Okay… let the disagreements begin!

Categories: culture, Gospel, Grace, movies

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