Wednesday 2 January 2013

Les Misérables (REVIEW) - An opportunity to speak of God's grace

By Jonathan Billingham, New College UNSW

The stage production Les Misérables has always stood out to me for its brilliant narrative, score and staging. Readers of the CASE blog will be most familiar with Herbert Kretzmer’s English adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Shoenberg’s original French production. Of course Boublil and Shoenberg’s musical, Les Misérables (really a modern opera), is itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 colossal novel by the same name. That the story, in its musical incarnation, is now the subject of a cinematic adaptation is testament to the enduring value of the overarching narrative, themes and characters conceived by Hugo.

The cinematic release of Les Misérables affords Christians many opportunities to share the Gospel of Christ.  In your new year conversations you might flit from ‘How was the family lunch?’ to ‘Did you see any films over the holiday?’ I encourage you to sprinkle the seeds of small-talk by drawing attention to the Christian truths and worldly fallacies portrayed in the film Les Misérables. You may not entirely agree with the theological framework in which Les Misérables is set.  And yet, you have an opportunity to engage in criticism of the film and, like the characters Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, share your worldview to advance (or oppose) the message of Christ and his gift of grace.

One of my favourite lines in the musical is sung by the lead character Jean Valjean in his song “Who am I”. Valjean bemoans,

“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent I am damned.” 1

Valjean is struggling to align his identity with the circumstances that confront him. Once poor, he is now defender of the poor. Once a thief, he has become a man who loves justice. But unlike Javert, the justice that Valjean embodies is one that knows grace and mercy. Jean Valjean has become a follower of God, has gained the respect of his fellow man, has become a successful businessman and the mayor of the French town in which he lives. And yet, because he broke the terms of his parole he has been forced to leave behind the name Jean Valjean, synonymous with his prisoner number 24601, and take up the name Madeline.

Inspector Javert erroneously identifies and puts on trial a man who he believes to be the “sinner” and parole-breaker Jean Valjean. The real Valjean is faced with the possibility of allowing another man to die in his place. But Valjean has come to believe that Christ has already died a death that will bring him eternal life. The certainty of condemnation and death awaits him if he reveals his true identity. The certainty of eventual death and possible damnation awaits if he allows his likeness to “go to judgement [in his place].” 1.1 Valjean’s new identity as a man in allegiance with Christ eventually shines through and he reveals himself to Inspector Javert as the long hunted prisoner, 24601.
At this point the doppelganger may well have exclaimed to the real Valjean,

Thanks be to God that, though you used to be a slave to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become a slave to righteousness! (Paraphrased from Romans 6:17-18) 3

I have two practical suggestions for Christians who choose to use the film Les Misérables as a  springboard to share the Gospel of Christ. Firstly, a work of art, no matter how God inspired, is no substitute for the Word of God itself. Don’t be discouraged from excitedly discussing the film and especially the many aspects of the Christian life that it touches on but also have some bible verses in mind to support and shape what you are trying to share. If you are looking to encourage your friends, remember that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” 3

Secondly, season your talk with lots and lots of love. You don’t want to end up sounding like Javert, simply laying down a theological framework by which you expect the person you are speaking with to live, or have already lived.

I hope that as you watch the film adaptation of Les Misérables, brought to life by director Tom Hooper and his star-studded cast, that you take great delight in what I believe is a brilliant piece of art and a wonderful opportunity to share the love of Christ.

  1. “Who Am I”, Les Misérables, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Shoenberg (English apaptation) Herbert Kretzmer, 1985 (Also Footnote 1.1)
  2. Romans 6:17-18, Holy Bible, New International Version, 2011
  3. Romans 15:4, Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984 
  4. ‘Law, Grace and Redemption in Les Misérables’, L. Micahael Morales, Sunday, 23 December 2012
  5. ‘Grace and Les Misérables Sunday, 23 December 2012

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