Thursday, April 12, 2012

Les Miserables hit me like never before

I think I've seen Les Mis nine times, but this was the time that captured my imagination and really jolted my thinking (I'm slow and it takes time to process things). Here are notes from my devotions with the kids this morning (rough draft).

Les Miserables, London, 2012

How many of you cried? When and why?

Victor Hugo buried in Parthenon in Paris. 19th century rationalist who nevertheless felt compelled to draw heavily from biblical imagery creating a Christ figure of Jean Valjean. (cross in mullions of the window as Jean Valjean intercedes for Fantine, he seeks Cosette as she goes to draw water from the well, as with Abraham's servant seeking a bride for Isaac, others?)

"Sweet Jesus, hear our prayer; Sweet Jesus doesn't care." play opens.

Hugo was exploring the oppression and injustice endemic in society, and he really wanted to move people to change things. Play ends with an appeal, an admonishment to the audience to "join in our crusade." "To love another person is to see the face of God."

Hugo seems to want us to conclude that war doesn't solve the problem. Law and justice as Jauvert interprets these does not solve it either. The master of the house and his fulsome wife's pilfering ways don't solve it either (note how they have developed their own self salvation project through thievery, robbing the rich. "God is dead," cries the master of the house as he robs and steals for his own advantage).

Jean Valjean seems to have discovered e way to salvation, for Hugo: personal sacrifice, kindness and love, forgiveness.

But what is missing here? There are hints of the gospel in this redemptive tale, but only partial: when the bishop protects Jean Valjean, and what's more gives him still more silver, admonishing him to start his life anew on the principle of love and forgiveness.

Remember the problems with employing Christ figures in literature? Dickens and Tale of Two Cities....

Conversely Hugo gives us an antagonist extraordinaire in Jauvert.

"Honest work for just reward; That's the way to please the Lord," says Victor Hugo's rigid legalistic chief of police Jauvert to the unfortunate Fantine in the London adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, longest running musical in the world. Jean Valjean is "a slave of the law" who is unable to "escape the whirlwind of his sin," and Jauvert is relentless in hunting down the ex convict Jean Valjean "until he learns the meaning of the law." Hugo was no theologian, but he makes Herculean efforts to portray unmerited grace when he has the kindly bishop clear Valjean the desperate and embittered thief and presses him to take the silver candlesticks along with the silver cups he stole. Filled with biblical imagery throughout, yet even this falls far short of the magnitude of the grace of God in the gospel.

2 Corinthians 8:9 you know the grace of our Lord Jesus...
We will stand at Watts' grave in a little bit and sing his "when I survey the wondrous cross... Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."

Beware redemptive tales that turn us to ourselves and not to Jesus, that sacrifice Christ and the gospel on the altar of social justice metaphor. Weep, yes, "but drops of grief can never repay the debt of love I owe..."


  1. Les Miz is a very powerful novel and play, and you've analyzed it excellently, Doug! Maybe you need to bring along your paperPad next time! ;-)

  2. Loved this post. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this man Hugo who conducted seances to get his story ideas, and yet did write some fascinating characters representing biblical truths...just read another interesting vignette on Les Mis. You're spot on, though, and we walk...stand...sit (Ps. 1)with these powerful writers through the ages so they'd better be "telling the truth".