The Theology of Les Miserables (Part 1)

Movie Poster. Universal Pictures

Movie Poster. Universal Pictures

This is Part 1 (of 3). Stay tuned for future posts!

Part 2 – The Suffering of Fantine
Part 3 – The Shackles of Javert

With my sister back in town for winter break, I’ve been getting out of my house a lot more. While I’m content to stay in my room and quietly read, my sister is not. If we were compared to a marathon, she’s the woman five miles ahead while I’m the guy that’s wheezing a few feet past the starting point waiting for a break. Please, just let me stay in one quiet night.

However, I’ll admit that every time we go out, it’s always enjoyable. On Sunday, I was dragged to a movie with my sister and a friend at the Ronnies Movie Theater in South County.  We got our tickets, fought our way through the crowds of people,  and sat down in the front row disappointed there were no other open seats. As I craned my neck watching the opening scene and praying it was a short movie (it isn’t), I remained unprepared for the emotional roller coaster* and deep rooted theology of Les Miserables.

Spoiler Warning: This post may contain some plot spoilers, but you should still see the movie regardless.

The plot of Les Miserables(or Les Mis) takes place in France around 1815. Jean Valjean was arrested 19 years ago for stealing bread for his family and was recently released on parole. Finding that no one will hire an ex-convict, he falls asleep in the street and is found by Bishop Digne who invites him into his home, feeds him, and offers him a warm place for the night. Reverting back to his old ways, he steals silver plates and dinner ware, is quickly caught, arrested, and led back to the bishop. The bishop smiles and acts as though he had given the silver to him all along even going so far as to say that in his rush to leave he had forgotten the best gift, two silver candlesticks. When he handed the candlesticks to him, the bishop said that Valjean must use them to become an honest man. Ashamed but yet humbled by the bishop, Valjean decides to respond to this kindness, rips up his parole form, and begins a new life. Eight years later, he becomes mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a wealthy factory owner.

Let’s pause here for a second. Despite the fact that we live in a society and culture that values pulling oneself up by his own bootstraps and bringing one’s self out of poverty despite the odds, we don’t really expect people to change that much. If someone wronged us at some point in our lives, they remain forever engraved in our minds as the man who was rude to us or the woman who didn’t help us out. We like watching redemption stories on the big screen, but when it comes to our own lives, the concept that people can change immediately goes out the window.

This part of the movie was masterfully written providing the perfect allegory for our Christian redemption story. We have someone who despite good intentions broke the law and was marked for it. People refused to talk with him or associate with him because of his back story. He then clearly sinned again by stealing from the one man who showed him kindness. While seeming to defy all logic, perhaps we’ve found ourselves in similar situations where we revert back to old ways because of our need for a false sense of self-sufficiency. But Bishop Digne responded so wonderfully well. Lately, it’s been hard to be a Christian character on the big screen often being painted as amoral, so hypocritical you make others queasy or just an unintellectual buffoon. It was a wonderfully refreshing change of pace to see someone who clearly embodied Christianity and represented the church to behave…well…Christ-like. Not only did he offer forgiveness to and share his wealth with Jean Valjean but simultaneously lovingly urged him to repent of his thieving life style leaving it behind and turning toward something better and more fulfilling. He didn’t make him feel guilty but by loving Valjean, he showed him the error of his lifestyle and a model of what it’s like to love God.

Let’s see this acted out in the Gospel of John:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:1-11 Emphasis Mine)

So often, we as Christians are quick to criticize and slow to love. We critique others by their external actions. We believe people are bad people because of how they lead their lives. When it comes time to share the Gospel, we cut it down to a legalistic set of rules: if you just clean up your mouth, be kind to your spouse, and go to church each Sunday, God will love you. This is a false Gospel. Just as Jesus (and then later Bishop Digne) showed love and forgiveness first so must we.

This one simple act of forgiveness and charity in the beginning really sets up the rest of the movie in a profound way. In the next two posts, I’ll show you how those around Valjean act, how he responds, and how the entire movie wraps up so well from this one solitary action. Stay tuned.

*Just so you, the reader, are aware. I am completely comfortable in my masculinity to say that I almost cried several times during this movie, and I am not ashamed of that.

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3 responses to “The Theology of Les Miserables (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Theology of Les Miserables (Part 2) | A Crown for Ashes·

  2. Pingback: The Theology of Les Miserables (Part 3) | A Crown for Ashes·

  3. Pingback: The Theology of Les Miserables (Part 2) | A Crown for Ashes·

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