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Les Mis and the Limits of “Redemptive” Film

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It’s been out for a while, but depending on how things go at the Oscars on February 24, Les Mis may be around for a while.  We have a White Horse Inn interview on the movie here and a blog review here.  But a long-time contributor (former editor) and pastor/professor Brian Lee has a slightly different take on the film.  In keeping with our purpose of provoking good conversations, we’re delighted that Brian wrote this for our blog.

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Almost a month has passed now since a new generation of audiences have experienced the musical production of Les Miserables on the big screen. I was among those who had long heard of the redemptive power of Victor Hugo’s story, yet had never seen or read the story. Going in, I was primed to be blown away by a lifetime of sermon illustrations about silver candlesticks.


And I was indeed blown away. The ample analogies of the Law and Grace have been ably catalogued elsewhere, including in the excellent White Horse Inn discussion. Being a good Calvinist, the story already had me at its portrayal of slavery and bondage… yes, the waterworks began in the opening number. But the gracious gift of the aforementioned candlesticks, offered to the ungrateful rebel in the place of a guilty verdict, packs a big punch. The gifted candlesticks travel with Valjean through the film; a life is transformed; grace resonates through the ages. The gift is even Christological, given by a representative of Christ and premised upon his passion and blood. The Law in Javert hounds. There are echoes of the substitutionary atonement, and the recurring question whether Valjean will identify with the Old Man, the criminal, or the New.

And yet, by the closing song I was nagged by the impression that much of what had been offered me by the one hand of grace had been taken back by the other. What really surprised me in the film (and this is not a plot spoiler), was the degree to which the themes of law and grace echoed equally through the personal transformation of Valjean and the political transformation of the Paris revolutionaries. (The political background of this conflation has previously been discussed on this blog).

As much as I was emotionally drawn into the plot of personal redemption, I was somewhat surprised by this confusion of the heavenly kingdom of grace with earthly utopia. When I heard, for instance, the orphan sing of a castle on a cloud: I know a place where no one's lost, I know a place where no one cries, crying at all is not allowed, not in my castle on a cloud… Well, I’m thinking of the Heavenly Zion, Jerusalem above, where every tear is wiped away. But in the finale the chorus sings on the barricades in Paris:

For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies… They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord… The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward. Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?

The heavenly city is an earthly Utopia. The transforming power of grace is an entirely immanent one. The sacrifice of fallen comrades in revolutionary battle is the transforming inspiration of grace that will ultimately overthrow the oppressors of the wretched, the law that demands its pound of flesh.

It was like hearing a solid Law-Gospel sermon that surprisingly closes by shifting the category back to guilt, leaving you with Law-Gospel-Law and asking, “What have you done for Jesus lately?”

Walking out of the theater, somewhat disappointed after all the build up, I wondered if I was picking nits. C’mon, man! It’s not a sermon, it’s a movie. Give your inner systematic theologian a break. There’s no such thing as a perfect analogy.

But the nagging sense continued, and I couldn’t help but believe that even the brilliant gospel images of Les Mis are ultimately a case of truth in the service of a lie. Hugo uses the emotional power of Valjean’s story to drive home a political message. There is a certain degree of manipulation involved, made worse because it runs roughshod over biblical truth.

Ultimately, the political confusion at the end of the film led me to revisit the personal story of grace in Valjean’s life, which strikes a few troubling notes. The biggest warning sign here is that Valjean is still haunted by his past at the closing of the film. Am I forgiven now? Valjean asks in his closing scene.

Perhaps this is just the lingering doubt of a troubled soul, but there is a lurking sense in which the transforming power of the story’s gracious act is more driven by guilt, than gratitude. Valjean is ever a man on the run, hunted by the Law. The Law is never satisfied, but eluded, and deceived.

Grace in Les Mis is imperfect, because there is no substitute, no one to bear Javert’s punishment on Valjean’s behalf. Valjean’s only hope of deliverance is by his transformation, and his own acts of kindness. In fact, I think it is safe to say that Hugo portrays the Law more powerfully, and more accurately, than the Gospel — at least the Hugo of the musical, I haven’t read the book. At the end of the day, there is no reconciling of grace and justice in Les Mis, and to the extent that Javert’s law grasps and grapples with Valjean’s grace, it is led to a place of utter despair. This insatiable force of the Law, it’s inability to take anything but it’s full pound of flesh, is essentially Roman Catholic in its understanding, which is not surprising given Hugo’s french context.

We tend today to think of images, and especially moving images, as a more effective medium of communication than mere words. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But as T. David Gordon points out, there are certain things that pictures can’t convey, like the gospel of justification through imputation by faith alone. This is why, in part, Paul tells us that “Faith comes from hearing.” While moving images may tug our emotions far more effectively, they lack the precision and clarity to convey saving words, the legal declaration of our covenant-making — not image making — God. Les Mis shows how emotionalism can miss the mark, and how any merely human story of redemption will tend to miss the mark.

This is not to say that the film is not great art. If you haven’t seen the film, take this criticism as an endorsement. But enjoy the film for what it is… a movie, a story. While it is natural for Christians to get excited about Gospel imagery in popular culture — and Les Mis has it in spades — we need to be aware of the limits of “redemptive” film, and preserve the category of entertainment. Unfortunately, much of the mania for redemptive cultural efforts (see this list of the Top Ten “Most Redeeming Films of 2012”), broadens the Christian concept of redemption to the point of which it is practically useless.

Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, DC
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  • Thanks for reading and engaging. I appreciate the critical feedback on my piece.

    My first response to C. Randal is, well, of course I'm not trying to give a determinative interpretation of the film. I'm a pastor, not a critic. I wade into these waters reluctantly, but mindful that the pure praise and celebration of the Gospel imagery in Les Mis -- as I heard throughout my life about the stage production, in sermons and lectures, etc., and have heard a good bit of with the release of the film -- can lead to a bit of an uncritical adoption of a partial and somewhat flawed analogy. This tied to current mania / confusion about "redemptive" media triggered the post.

    Substantively, I know I quoted the closing scene, but my concern is really for the entire political theme shot through the second half of the film. Law and Grace map somewhat haphazardly from the personal salvation of Valjean, to the revolutionary spirit and political transformation of Paris. Hugo is concerned with politics, and one gets the sense that what is wrong with the current order of things is "too much law" and "not enough grace." This, as a good Lutheran would recognize, falls far short of a Reformation Two Kingdoms view, in which Law is necessary for the rule of the civic sphere. Of course, once this transformationalist political vision is mapped onto the gospel, it works its way back into the personal application as well, and that is where I think you see a great deal of Valjean's comfort being in the success of his transformation, an infusion based change of persona. I think this "transformationalist" vision is one reason that so many evangelicals (and Reformed) really love this film... they agree with it theologically at a broad level, and aren't really troubled that of course the gospel must transform this world as well. [Again, you seem to have read the novel, I haven't, so caveat lector].

    Regarding the other commenter, yes, Javert's end can be interpreted many ways. But I think his closing song shows not a willingness to put himself in the place of Valjean, but that the there is no way the Law can be satisfied other than personally, i.e., an utter incompatibility between Law and Gospel. This is true, humanly speaking, and apart from the utterly foreign and divine word of grace. Perhaps this is closer to a Lutheran view... Law and Gospel being two radically different concepts that never reconcile. But I would assert that Christ in his death affirms the Law as he satisfies it, and gives a resounding "Amen" to God's will in the Law: "Behold, I have come to do your will," even when that will is saying amen to the Law's verdict of death for sinners (in a substitionary sense).

    Ultimately, it is this fulfillment of the Law that allows us to see it working positively (and non savingly) in the world around us, and the civil sphere, as well as in the Christian's life and sanctification. This is why I think a Reformed covenantal approach to Law and Gospel is ultimately more satisfying than a Lutheran approach, and this is where I think the plot lines of the film go off the rails. It is the denial of the positive role of God's law that undermines the accuracy. Again, Hugo does Law best -- in the sense of its terrifying role in the context of personal salvation, not in the sense of its abiding value.

    Is this effective pre-evangelism? You bet. Is it one of the best pictures of Law and Grace in literature and film? Hands down. Was I totally engaged and enthralled by the film? Yes. But as one of the comments said, at the end of the day it's just film, and popular culture can't carry the precision and force of the preaching of God's word. The problem is not enjoying literature and film that strives to capture these truths, it is in making too much of them.

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  • I hadn't read Thabiti's piece, and I'd say first of all that I am nowhere near the Philistine and Caveman that he is. I enjoyed the medium of the musical and the art of the film (though I think the cinematography stunk -- too many stinking closeups, not enough variety -- and was glad that an actual filmmaker friend of mine agreed.

    I would see the film another few times, for sure.

    But, I think we had the same creeping sense that the Grace presented in the film is incomplete, and actually quite problematic. I just think I put a bit more meat on the bones of this argument, theologically. Or at least tried to.

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  • And, for what it's worth, I do think that there is value in discussing the film, both its strengths and its weaknesses, in a Christian context.

    In fact, Christ Reformed in DC is going to conduct our next "Pub Night" on the topic of "The Gospel According to Les Mis." If you're in DC, join us on January 29.

    http://www.facebook.com/events/320176521432729/?context=create

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  • Guest - C. Randal

    Pr. Lee -

    Thank you for commenting. I'm enjoying this discussion and apprecaite the further discussion.

    Please indulge me a couple of additional comments.

    First, Les Miserables is political, and intentially so. Victor Hugo was a fierce Republican (in the French sense) and made efforts to make his points in his work. Interestingly enough he was also anti-clerical and he had a debate with his son about making a Bishop an important and positive character. This was somewhat of a different turn from his other books. Taking a different tack is also what Hugo did with the political storyline. As you recall, all the political attempts in the film fail tragicallly. The battle is pointless and fruitless and even Valjeans participation is merely a cover for his other purposes. This is even more pronounced in the stage and movie productions. As such, the political story line follows the same arc of the personal characters - its an arc of suffereing, failure, sacrifice, grace, death and redemption. Naturally, there is no Christ in this film so you can't have any express picture of the Gospel, it can only be pictured or implied...and as you say it does this quite well.

    Secondly, I'm not sure what you mean when you say that is some sort of confusion of the two kingdoms here. They move along in a parallel fashion and only in the ending scene does the director use the political as the pivot point to contrast with the consumation and perfection in the age to come. Again, Christ isn't in the final scene but that scene does effectively contrast "the coming age" with the age to come. Frankly, I don't think there is any point in this movie about social change, rather, if anything it emphasizes its failure. If the point was social change Gaius would not reconcile with his father.

    As for Law/Gospel, I find this quite distinct in the movie and don't see the ambiguity that you do Valjean. In fact at the end he seems completely unable to rely upon any works. He sings about his "final confession" and right before he dies, he says quite simply "Forgive me all my tresspasses..." There is no mention of his good works, how he turned his life alone. In fact, quite to the contrary one gets the impression that any of his good works are in response to "grace" (I'd say the gospel but itsn't expressly present). Even then, his failure to do even that perfectly is seen in that he allows Fatime to go down her path while distracted by Javert's presence. To the contrary, Javert simply can't accept grace - he sees it, knows it there, but is unwilling to allow that his reception of "freedom" is not due to his own efforts.

    As you say, this is effective pre-evangelism, an excellent, enthrallying movie and a discussion of the the redemptive things is very approrpriate since its was intentional by the author and the director. This isn't people reading the gospel into say Star Wars...rather anyone familiar with the literature would discuss these themes - Christian or not. It just so happens that Christians have a inside perspective. As such, I think all the commentary and discussion on this particular film is warranted. On others, well, I agree with you - there may be a redemptive theme here and there but rarely is that the ultimate point. (See the Dark Knight Rises - which probably confuses the two kingdoms in its message much more than Les Miserables).

    Still, I haven't read anywhere that this is any replacement for a clear exposition of the Gospel. In fact, without the latter I doubt you can even truly understand the points of the movie. I wouldn't use this movie to try and explain the Gospel to someone, and I don't preach, but would think there is probably even better material than this movie for sermon illustrations.

    However, it is an excellent film, and one of the most expressly Christian movies I've seen in a long time. Its production quality is so much better than the other "christian" drivel produced (Fireproof, Facing the Giants, etc, etc.). In fact, its rare that a film so effecitvely captures a theology of the cross. In that sense I don't see any harm in encouraging our fellow believers to see it and discuss it with othere. The great edifying discussion on this blog is case in point. I for one think the Arts (whether song, theater, poetry) etc have a great deal to contribute to the Christian pilgrimage and there is no reason for us not to engage with them.

    Finally, you might appreciate Dr. Veith's comment on the film: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2013/01/hollywoods-explicitly-christian-movie/

    And Tullian Tchvijidan's: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2012/12/26/give-me-law-or-give-me-death/ (in fact, I think the film does very well at illustrating to a large degree Tullian's new book Glorius Ruin).

    Thanks again for the time and the discussion. And again, please forgive the typos, such is life typing on an iPad.

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  • Guest - Joe Wisnieski

    Pr. Lee

    You wrote, "Grace in Les Mis is imperfect, because there is no substitute, no one to bear Javert’s punishment on Valjean’s behalf." It seems to me that the Bishop symbolically bore Valjean's punishment by emptying himself of his wealth, then offering additional grace to Valjean by offering the silver candlesticks.

    With that said, I agree that Les Mis is an imperfect reflection of the Gospel, but there are very strong allusions to the Gospel, as well as the Law/Grace distinction.

    I also agree that Christians are often far too eager to jump on to anything in the culture and claim it as some kind of veiled Gospel presentation (Dark Knight trilogy for example), but Les Mis does not fit into that category. In this case, we are talking about a film that actually does have very clear Christian themes.

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  • Guest - Ash

    Dr. Lee wrote "But the nagging sense continued, and I couldn’t help but believe that even the brilliant gospel images of Les Mis are ultimately a case of truth in the service of a lie."

    Well that puts too fine of a point on it for my taste, given that I think we ought to discuss literature and art with some nuance and subtlety, but I suppose I'm a bit surprised that Christian movie or theater goers are all that surprised by this. Using biblical (and Classical) imagery, ideas, allusions, etc. was commonplace among 19th century Romantic writers and artists on both sides of the Atlantic to advance an ideology(Romanticism)--or worldview, for those who prefer the German philosophical term to the Marxist one--that was explicitly not Christian. See William Blake and Emerson as a couple of exemplars. This is not to say that these writers nefariously or disingenuously appropriated aspects of Christianity in order to infiltrate Christian institutions or make themselves more palatable to their contemporary audience while they undermined that audience's values. Christianity, of whatever variety, was part of their cultural and intellectual heritage, and its symbols and stories were big enough and profound enough, at least to them, to bear the weight of their new and consuming vision.

    Hugo was the foremost of French Romantics and therefore never intended his novel, and one would assume, a 1980s musical adaptation and its remakes, to be interpreted in orthodox Christian terms, whether Protestant or Catholic. Admittedly, Hugo probably uses Christian theology in greater depth and with greater accuracy in some parts of his novel than his Romantic counterparts, but his vision is along the lines of transformation of the individual soul through cooperation with a willing and good pantheistic or panentheistic god and transformation of society. So it would probably be helpful if Christians spoke of where his vision both converges and diverges with the gospel, and to appreciate and even meditate upon those places where he and his later adapters, are able to make the gospel, or perhaps aspects of it, so alive and compelling and real and powerful. That a flawed approximation of at least aspects of the the gospel in the hands of a brilliant novelist and later in the hands of talented dramatists and musicians continues to enrapture huge audiences worldwide could be viewed as a testament to a spiritual longing for redemption and the power and appeal of the Redeemer who can fulfill it.

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  • First – when Valjean asks if he is forgiven he is asking a very specific question of his daughter. It is not abundantly clear in the movie, but in the book (if I remember correctly it’s been over ten years) Marius actually tells Valjean to leave once he finds out he is a convict. Valjean not only believes he has been rejected by Marius, but by Cosette as well. So when they come to him at the end he is asking Cosette if she has forgiven him not if God has forgiven him.

    Second – I think the movie makes it pretty clear that the earthly utopia the revolutionaries hope for cannot be won through earthly means. Yes, the final image is that of a revolutionary victory, but that is a metaphor (which is not how I would have chosen to picture it if I was the director). Still, we are not literally being asked to join the barricades. The final song speaks of an earth redeemed by God and makes multiple biblical references to that event. In the end it is not another republic we hope for, but the Kingdom of God. I think that is the message at the end.

    Valjean, the hero of the story, could care less about the revolution; he only shows up to save Marius. Hugo certainly wants his story to spark societal change. But how does he really do this. Not by envisioning a glorious revolution. The revolution is an utter pointless failure. This story focuses on individual redemption - not the overthrowing of systems. Through the individual redemption of Valjean we learn many things. The poor, the refuse of society, prostitutes and convicts even have value. God loves them and values them. They can actually be redeemed. And through individual change, society can be changed. Hugo wants Christians to get out and do some societal good.

    Hugo works to make Christians like Javert – self-righteous and pitiless, blaming the poor for their plight, thinking those who have fallen can never be redeemed – see how their mercilessness condemns and oppresses the poor. He wants us to see how individuals can change. He wants us to see how grace, such as that given by the Bishop, can save souls and redeem sinners, even sinners like Javert, if they let love touch their soul. Ultimately this story is written to change the hearts of the self-righteous Christians of Hugo’s day.

    This movie certainly has its limitations, but I believe it will help open up the hearts of non-Christians and Christians to the Gospel.

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  • Glad to see that Dr. Lee is able to pick up on the deep problems with reading any sort of orthodox theology in Les Mis. It's been surprising to me how many otherwise rigorous pastors and theologians are blinded to the substantial confusion of ideas in the work.

    What makes this pervasive trend all the more distressing is that it flies in the face of good hermeneutic practice which orthodox theologians and pastors follow every day. When we interpret Scripture, we know that we must understand the context before we can truly understand it: when in history was this written? who was the original audience? what was the author's intent in writing? If you ask these question first — before trying to find Christian themes — it's almost impossible to find more caveats than commendables. I find it perplexing that those who are so careful in practicing good hermeneutics with Scripture are so rash when it comes to Les Misérables — or perhaps pop culture in general.

    When Lee observes, 'Grace in Les Mis is imperfect, because there is no substitute, no one to bear Javert's punishment on Valjean's behalf,' he hits the nail on the head. This is but the peak of an iceberg-like problem with the supposed picture of law and grace.

    This should be no surprise to those who are acquainted with 19th-century ideas. Hugo wasn't particularly interested in law and grace as an orthodox Christian would understand it, and Javert and Valjean do not illustrate those principles well. What they do illustrate well, however, is the 19th-century debate of moral philosophy between various ethical systems. Javert, more than anything else, is a vicar for deontological ethics. Javert's inner struggle throughout the work is that his ethical understanding is based on the premise that the correct morality is determined by adherence to rules. His suicide is the result of being unable to reconcile that deontology with a subjective inner sense of right and wrong which denies the morality of those rules: the same Romantic sense of right and wrong which Valjean represents.

    Whatever one might say of the place for deontology, utilitarianism, or virtue in Christian ethics, the law which Javert purportedly represents is nohow like the Law from which we have been saved by grace. For starters, the conflict between law and grace for a Christian is not one where the law is disputed to be unjust. God's law is perfect, and we ever strive to follow it.

    Christian grace does not negate the law but fulfills it. In Les Misérables, the law remains unfulfilled instead. Valjean has still skipped his parole and no one has taken on the punishment for that crime. There is no need for Christ with the sort of grace which is shown to Valjean. Once one sees the problem presented here, the entire purported illustration of law and grace in Les Misérables begins to totally disintegrate and one starts to see Hugo's Romanticism truly overwhelms the work.

    Is the book/musical/movie something that can be a conversation-starter? Certainly. But it makes for some awful theology. It is never something I would point to as an illustration of law and grace without also being accompanied by the opportunity for critical discussion. It's not material for one-sided sermonizing. There are far too many contextual problems which surround. Not only that, it's interpreting the work that way is simply shoddy hermeneutics.

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  • Correction, second paragraph:

    'If you ask these question first — before trying to find Christian themes — it’s almost impossible NOT to find more caveats than commendables.'

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  • Thanks for all the comments and feedback. Interaction is much appreciated.

    Tomorrow I'll post my theological reflections on Skyfall.

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