Where Misery and Mercy Meet
This was, in many respects, an amazingly powerful film. The gospel merits of Victor Hugo’s novel are significant, and some of them carried over into this latest adaptation. If you aren’t familiar with the real story, I would encourage you to read Tony Reinke post here, and let that whet your appetite to go read the book! What I want to do in this post is offer a few reflections coming out of the (2012) movie, which would not necessarily hold as reflections of Hugo’s book.
As much as I appreciated the movie, I left the film with a general sense of uneasiness. This general sense can be parsed in two directions. Some of the discomfort resulted from a good and necessary work the Lord can use this film to accomplish in my heart. As a 21st century American, I recognize my need to be discomforted! Some of the dis-ease, however, arises from deficits in the film when seen from a biblical perspective. If these deficits are not identified they can be uncritically assumed into the emotional impact of the film.
I. Beneficial Discomfort:
(1) The vocal quality in the film was well below that of the broadway cast. This was disappointing at first because the score of this musical is so powerful! Upon reflection, however, recording it “live” made for a much grittier feel to the songs which corresponded faithfully to their pained and pleading message. It is good to remember that these kinds of stories should not be engaged as entertainment, where the “feel” imparted by the music does not necessarily correspond to the message of the lyrics. If a message is weighty and raw, it should be delivered in a weighty and raw way, and be received as the same. This is a good reminder in worship (preaching and singing) as well as daily conversation. The messenger and the medium must reflect the message.
(2) The details of the story, seen on the big screen rather than the stage, come across much more clearly. And it is a devastating story. It is devastating in what it shows about the oppression of the poor, the ravages of sin, the outrage of lecherous “benevolence”, the foolishness of anarchic rebellion (where every man is to be king), the emptiness of sacrifice for a cause not eternal, the impossibility of either perfect human justice or perfect human substitution. The film is tactful enough not to be gratuitous, but unflinching enough to hold up a mirror to the wretchedness of the human condition. It is a condition worth weeping over. Any means the Lord can use to tenderize our hearts and incline us toward enacting His love is beneficial.
II. Dangerous Discomfort:
(1) The film could be dangerous in that its narrative sweep brings us to a point of crisis in reaching for the gospel – some help, some light, some good news – but it does not deliver. Of course, this presents an opportunity for the church to proclaim the true gospel to hearts that have been thus awakened! But the danger lies in the fact that the film is not aware of its deficiency. It presents a kind of “pay-it-forward-and-the-stars-will-shine-on-you” gospel that lacks the power to redeem the darkness it pictures. It presents a life ruined (though unjustly!) by sin being redeemed through the accumulation of self-less works. Valjean’s substitutionary sacrifice, the salvation of little Cosette, proves unable to pay even for his own sins. In the end, his deliverance comes as Javer cannot reconcile justice and mercy and so takes his own life. The suicide of Justice, and our escape from its demands thereby, is not the gospel of salvation!
The true gospel – the only power that can offer hope to the Valjeans, the Javers, the Fontaines, and the Cosettes of this world, or even the Thénardiers for that matter – is that Jesus Christ came as a man to live a perfect life, suffered under the just wrath of God as the substitute for our sins, and rose in power on the third day. He now can redeem us by taking all our guilt and offering us His perfect obedience to the Law of God. He absorbed our misery and provides us His mercy! Here is a story more devastating in its portrayal of sin, and more powerfully beautiful in its offer of hope than anything approached in the film.
Of course, it is unfair to critique a film for failing at what it never set out to do! My concern is not that the film makers got redemption wrong, but that those viewing the film may not be helped to feel the lack. If you can “look down” on the film from a robust understanding of the biblical gospel, then you can worship as you find echoes of the true Story of Redemption. But if you “look up” to the film as the ideal expression of redemption, you are left clutching an unsaving sentimentality.
(2) The final scene in the film portrays “heaven” as a massive barricade thronged by a lustily singing crowd (this in stark contrast to the single-street barricade manned by a handful of students in the ill-fated “revolution”). This was the most troubling aspect of the film to me. The church has traditionally held that the highest good of heaven is a vision of God – the so called beatific vision. To dwell with Him – who is the embodiment of every perfection – to gaze on Him, to enjoy Him with all the thrills of your recreated being is what heaven is. The film gives us hints that it knows this tradition. The priest sings to Valjean that he will soon “see the face of God.” But it also hints throughout that it will replace this supreme vision with another. As a dying Fontaine glimpses Cosette, as Valjean sings with Fontaine at his passing, we are seeing a popular view of heaven where God is on the periphery when He is there at all. These hints are solidified in the final scene at the barricade. Heaven is now the fulfillment of dashed temporal dreams. Friends are reunited, social causes are taken up with full throat, and the dawn of the “new day” turns out to be the long-awaited realization of man’s commitment, “we will not be slaves again.”
This scene, somehow, is supposed to elevate the tremendous suffering and loss endured throughout the film and inject it with meaning. “See, it wasn’t empty sacrifice! We have achieved our aim! The black night of oppression has past and the red dawn of liberty and fraternity has come – forever!” This is a fine sentiment. And it deserves a place in our prayers and in our policy. But it is no substitute for heaven. The barricade cannot rival the beatific vision! True hope and true meaning comes not when our temporal aims are achieved but when the fullness of His eternal purpose is accomplished! Our significance comes not from our leadership being vindicated, but from our being led by Him and looking to (and upon) Him!
In both the redemption and the final vision that it offers, the gospel of this Les Mis is dangerously hollow. To step out on it, to rest upon it, is in the end to be ashamed – shown to hope in something unworthy of trust. Ironically this shame is the very fate both protagonists long to escape.
My recommendations to believers would be threefold: (1) If you chose to see the movie, allow yourself to be challenged and discomforted in helpful ways by the power of this story. Don’t observe. Engage. Let your emotions identify places of prayer to take to the Lord as you meditate on what you have seen. (2) If you enjoyed the film, read the book! Not only is the story stronger, the gospel is clearer. Instead of reading a book that just came out and maybe be out of print by next December, read a 150 year old book adapted for popular consumption almost 70 times since! (3) As you watch and read, ask the Lord for strategy in how you might take the hunger for the full feast of redemption awakened by this film in your family and friends, and fill it with Jesus!