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Perceptions of Grace, Take Two: “Les Miserables” and True Christianity

June 11, 2013

A few weeks ago I graced you all with my opinion on the controversy surrounding John Piper’s tweets about the Oklahoma tragedy and Rachel Held Evans’ interpretation of it, along with the Sovereign Grace Ministries abuse lawsuit.  My conclusion was that it was a matter of perceiving God’s grace properly.  God’s grace is freely given because he loves us.  He saves us from our sin and the punishment for it.  This does not mean we are to tell people who are suffering tragedy that they originally deserve it, so they should suck it up and be thankful that at least Jesus died for them.  That is an abuse of the God’s word.  God is not a belligerent judge handing out spiritual favors.  He loves his children.  He sent Jesus to save the world because he loves it.  The Bible clearly states the God is love (1 John 4:8).

Les Mis Poster These thoughts washed over me afresh when Matt and I watched the new musical movie version of Les Miserables this past weekend.  What a feast for the mind, eyes, ear, and heart!  In the words of Matt, Victor Hugo (the author) was a genius who understood the gospel.  I want to read this book, though it looks quite intimidating.  (My sister has read it, kudos to her.  She accidentally read the abridged version.  She said even that was a challenge.  What must the unabridged version be like?) It is a truly majestic story.

Are you familiar with it?  If not, I would get to changing that! 🙂

The movie sets up a fundamental question throughout: who has the true answer for the problem of pain and sin: Inspector Javer or the hero, escaped convict Jean Valjean?  The question is not a simple one.  Both Javer and Valjean are portrayed with images of a cross in or near a church as they ponder their lives and their problems.  They both appear to be Christian, but their worldviews are radically different.

The lyrics (er, libretto?) of the musical by Herbert Kretzmer clearly portray this tension.

valjean convict

At the beginning of the story, Valjean’s soul is given to God.

“Yet why did I allow that man

To touch my soul and teach me love?

He treated me like any other

He gave me his trust

He called me brother

My life he claims for God above

Can such things be?

For I had come to hate the world

This world that always hated me

 

Take an eye for an eye!

Turn your heart into stone!

This is all I have lived for!

This is all I have known!

 

One word from him and I’d be back

Beneath the lash, upon the rack

Instead he offers me my freedom

I feel my shame inside me like a knife

He told me that I have a soul,

How does he know?

What spirit comes to move my life?

Is there another way to go?

 

I am reaching, but I fall

And the night is closing in

And I stare into the void

To the whirlpool of my sin

I’ll escape now from the world

From the world of Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean is nothing now

Another story must begin!

 

[He tears up his yellow ticket-of-leave]

[Constables leave. The bishop addresses Valjean]

 

But remember this, my brother

See in this some higher plan

You must use this precious silver

To become an honest man

By the witness of the martyrs

By the Passion and the Blood

God has raised you out of darkness

I have bought your soul for God!”

 

valjean courtWhen Valjean, having created a new, successful identity for himself, finds out 8 years later that another man is being tried in his place as Jean Valjean, he knows this is not just.  His conscience dictates that he reveal himself and not allow this other man to take his punishment for breaking parole.  Valjean’s confidence is in God’s love for him, not his earthly success.  So with boldness he goes to court and declares that he is the true Jean Valjean.

Why should I save his hide?

Why should I right this wrong

When I have come so far

And struggled for so long?

 

If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!

 

I am the master of hundreds of workers.

They all look to me.

How can I abandon them?

How would they live

If I am not free?

 

If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!

 

Who am I?

Can I condemn this man to slavery

Pretend I do not feel his agony

This innocent who bears my face

Who goes to judgement in my place

Who am I?

Can I conceal myself for evermore?

Pretend I’m not the man I was before?

And must my name until I die

Be no more than an alibi?

Must I lie?

How can I ever face my fellow men?

How can I ever face myself again?

My soul belongs to God, I know

I made that bargain long ago

He gave me hope when hope was gone

He gave me strength to journey on

 

[He appears in front of the court]

 

Who am I? Who am I?

I am Jean Valjean!

 

[He unbuttons his shirt to reveal the number tattooed to his chest]

 

And so Javert, you see it’s true

That man bears no more guilt than you!

Who am I?

24601!

Wow, reading that brings tears to my eyes.

Continuing on…

javertAs you can see, Valjean’s faith in God is crucial part of his life.  Yet so is also the case with Javert.  After finding out that the real Valjean is still on the loose, he sings:

There, out in the darkness

A fugitive running

Fallen from grace

Fallen from grace

God be my witness

I never shall yield

Till we come face to face

Till we come face to face

 

He knows his way in the dark

Mine is the way of the Lord

And those who follow the path of the righteous

Shall have their reward

And if they fall

As Lucifer fell

The flame

The sword!

 

Stars

In your multitudes

Scarce to be counted

Filling the darkness

With order and light

You are the sentinels

Silent and sure

Keeping watch in the night

Keeping watch in the night

 

You know your place in the sky

You hold your course and your aim

And each in your season

Returns and returns

And is always the same

And if you fall as Lucifer fell

You fall in flame!

 

And so it has been and so it is written

On the doorway to paradise

That those who falter and those who fall

Must pay the price!

 

Lord let me find him

That I may see him

Safe behind bars

I will never rest

Till then

This I swear

This I swear by the stars!

veljean and fantineHow can both of these men identify with the Christian religion yet be so drastically different?

Valjean’s response to people suffering from the consequences of sin is care— he takes in Fantine and provides for her.  Javert’s response is to put them behind bars without a fair trial.  Javert is right to know that the stars are evidence of God’s order in the universe- he is a just judge and sin must be punished.  But, as my church’s youth director explained in a sermon this past weekend, God wanted both to prove he is just and also loves us at the same time.

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation (a just substitution for punishment) for our sins. (1 John 4:10- same passage as the “God is love” statement).

Ultimately, the story of Les Miserables offers a challenge to both those who would brush aside the justice of God and those who would forget the love of God.

 Jean Valjean could have just embraced the idea of God’s love and not done the just thing, to reveal himself as the true convict Jean Valjean.  But his confidence was not only in God’s love, it was also in God’s justice.  Valjean knew that even if he was caught again and had to spend the rest of his life in captivity, that the ultimate judge in whom he placed his trust would still justify him based on his faith in Christ’s blood, and give him eternal life.  Ultimately, his identity as Jean Valjean did not matter.  It was his identity in Christ that mattered.  So he did what was right.

In contrast, Javert forgot about the love of God.  He didn’t see that God’s solution to sin and corruption was to first reach out in love.  It is true that government is a servant of God to keep order in society, but Javert’s self-righteousness shows that his confidence was not in God, but himself.

Jean Valjean died a peaceful death of old age, at his side Cosette and her husband Marius.

Javert threw himself into a river.

I am reaching but I fall

And the stars are black and cold

As I stare into the void

Of a world that cannot hold

I’ll escape now from that world

From the world of Jean Valjean.

There is nowhere I can turn

There is no way to go on…

He could not reconcile himself with the grace that Valjean showed to him.  If we don’t accept the love of God along with his justice there is no hope.  So why not kill oneself?

Will you be a Christian?  What kind of Christian will you be? Like Javert? Or like Valjean? A half-Christian? Or a true Christian?

Do you hear the people sing

Lost in the valley of the night?

It is the music of a people

Who are climbing to the light.

 

For the wretched of the earth

There is a flame that never dies.

Even the darkest night will end

And the sun will rise.

 

They will live again in freedom

In the garden of the Lord.

They will walk behind the plough-share,

They will put away the sword.

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?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes!

*[Les Miserables is just a story.  Stay tuned for real-life examples.]

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2013 10:50 pm

    I’m so glad you finally saw the movie! I love it so much.

    Although people have ragged on Hugh Jackman for his voice, I absolutely ADORE his performance of JV’s first soliloquy. The emotions he expressed in response to the priest’s forgiveness were perfect, and it fills ME with emotion every time I think of it.

    My friend Lynn told me something fascinating about Javert’s costuming. At the beginning of the movie, his uniform is bright blue, as if he is saying with his clothes, “BAM. Behold me, I represent the law.” As the movie progressed, however, his uniform got darker and darker until it is nearly black at the time of his suicide.

    I should stop now. Note to everyone: beware before engaging with me in conversation about this movie. I will talk your ear off.

    • June 12, 2013 5:49 am

      I didn’t think that Jackman’s voice was bad. Better than Anne Hathaway’s. Hathaway was good, especially up close with the visual of her excellent acting, but listening to the soundtrack of her performance was not quite like listening to other performances of I Dreamed a Dream.
      They first trained to be movie actors, so for an operatic musical I thought they did a great job breaking into the genre.

    • June 12, 2013 5:54 am

      All the actors did a great job of communicating clearly. It is difficult to sing in English, sound good, and be understandable. So I actually got more out of the story than when we saw it on Broadway. I guess it helps that you can read their lips in the movie.

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