Les Miserables: A Lesson In Grace

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So I’ll start this post off with a confession… I have never read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I love reading and Les Miserables does seem to be a book that would be right up my ally, but at the time or writing this I my only experience with the story comes from the 2012 and 1998 films. Since it’s been forever since I saw the 1998 movie, this post will be almost entirely based on the 2012 version…. which is incredible!

I’ll go ahead and say that I am a sucker for musicals and I own more broadway soundtracks than I’d care to admit. I could go on and on about the music in this movie, but I’m going to hold back because that is not the reason I wrote this post. I’d much rather talk about what really made me fall in love with this movie. To my surprise this movie was easily (in my opinion) the best Christian movie to come out since End of the Spear in 2005. Now we have had plenty of Tyler Perry movies to come out with Christian themes and messages in them, and of course there were films like Facing the Giants and Fireproof that were so Christian it felt like a Sunday school lesson.

These films were fine for what they were, but I wouldn’t call any of them “great” and several of them I’d go so far as to call bad films. I love Tyler Perry, and even though he has a habit of turning up the drama to soap-opera levels, he at least manages not to beat around the bush and show the world as the messed up place it is. The Christian lessons he teaches are hard learned and a most of the time his films are not “family friendly” because of the issues they address. Despite the clownish nature of some of his characters and his extremely dramatic tendencies he at least isn’t afraid to deal with real issues and show that sometimes things don’t always come up rosy for everyone.  That’s more than I can say for Facing the Giants, Flywheel, and Fireproof (I haven’t seen Courageous) that tried to be so family friendly that they forgot to use real people.  I don’t want to come down too hard on these films because they were targeted at a Christian audience and a “Christian Family” audience at that, so they had to hold back a lot so as not to offend.

I say all this to point out that where these films struggled, Les Miserables succeeds. It manages to teach a lesson in redemption, grace, mercy, and selflessness that is unapologetically Christian in nature. I’m going to reveal some plot points from the film, so if you haven’t seen the film or aren’t familiar with the story and don’t want details spoiled, I’d suggest you stop reading right now and get your butt to a movie theatre.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman)

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman)

The film’s two predominant figures from beginning to end are Jean Valjean and Javert. Played by Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. Both actors do an amazing job (though at times it’s clear that Crowe is not a singer) and are great portrayals of two often conflicting concepts in Christianity. It’s pretty obvious from the beginning that Jean Valjean comes to represent mercy and grace, while Javert represents justice.

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Javert (Russell Crowe)

The film opens up with Jean Valjean enslaved to the state (as he has been for 19 years) because he stole bread. Even though his intent was nobel he was a law-breaker who’s sentence was extended because he tried to escape before serving his full sentence. Javert is his task master and a man of whom concepts of mercy and grace are foreign concepts and signs of weakness.

After finally serving his extended 19 year sentence, Jean Valjean is set free under the condition that he report back in to government officials on a regular basis to report his whereabouts since he is a “dangerous man.” Jean Valjean is an outcast whom no one wants anything to deal with. His criminal status leaves him homeless and abandoned by society. It’s clear that Jean Valjean has been forever labeled and in his society he is viewed as unworthy to even be allowed to sleep in a barn. This is not unlike the hopeless state that sinners (aka all of us) find ourselves in when we really become aware of who we are. Jean Valjean (like all sinners) is a broken man who is destined to die lost and deserted.

This all changes when an old priest comes across him and welcomes him into his church. The priest (God) shows Jean Valjean (the sinner) grace and mercy by allowing him to escape the bitter world. Valjean is given a warm meal, drink, a bed, and all the things he needs free of charge. Jean Valjean did nothing to deserve these things, and as far as the priest knew Jean Valjean deserved to die out in the cold (he was a “dangerous man” after all), but the priest’s love for this lost soul saw through Valjean’s unworthiness.

How does Jean Valjean repay this Priest’s kindness? By stealing all the Priest’s silver and gold and running away in the night. Much like the Prodigal’s Son, Valjean saw only opportunity to get ahead of the game. He was willing to steal from the only person who had shown him any mercy and he was caught. When police brought him back to the Priest, rather than see Valjean return to prison the Priest insisted that he had given Valjean all that gold and silver as a gift, and then went on further to give him “the best” that he had left behind. His only condition was that Jean Valjean use this treasure to make something of himself and give himself to God.

This scene is beautiful and really encapsulates what it means to truly embrace grace, mercy, and forgiveness. How often do we as sinners rely on God’s grace and mercy only to continue sinning against God. How amazing it is that in spite of our weakness and sin God continues to love us even when we are completely beyond the point of redemption. We worship a God of second chances, and as a result of this Priest’s kindness, Valjean leans this lesson well.

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Fantine (Anne Hathaway)

The rest of the film evolves Jean Valjean doing whatever he can to show this same grace and mercy to others, but as we see through the character of Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway) he is still flawed and his inability to perfectly live this out has terrible consequences. In spite of this Jean Valjean is determined to live a life that is helping others and making good on his promise to the priest. He gives of himself and risks his own life many times, always striving to live a selfless life and always granting grace and mercy whenever possible.

The other prominent character is that of Javert, who is an equally religious man, but sadly mislead. Javert is obsessed with Justice and believes that it is God’s will to see justice served and the law upheld. While Javert understands Justice, he cannot understand mercy and grace. He tirelessly pursues Jean Valjean (who had abandoned that name and started a new life) because he cannot allow a guilt man to walk free. If Jean Valjean is the Prodigal’s son who was lost but found mercy, Javert is the prideful son who demanded justice to be served and sins to be punished.

Though Javert continuously refuses to give Valjean even an inch of mercy, Valjean is quick and ready to spare Javert every chance he gets. Javert refuses mercy, he despises grace, and he demands justice to be served (even when he is the one receiving punishment.  He demands that the world be fair and he cannot see past his narrow black and white view of reality. He is not a man who understands repentance, redemption, or the notion that a man can escape his past sins.

In the end Javert is overwhelmed by the repeated mercy he is shown and rather than accept that he was wrong, that a man can change, and that grace and mercy are available for event he worst of sinners, he chooses to take his own life. He chooses death rather than mercy or weakness. He died in his own self-righteousness and was never able to truly embrace love.

While Javert dies literally “falling from grace” his counterpart Jean Valjean dies surrounded by those whom he had helped save. He is embraced by the Priest who had first shown him mercy (representing God embracing him and welcoming him into heaven) and we are finally treated to a scene where Valjean, Fantine, and all those whom had died in the film singing a song of celebration that they had finally reached a life of no more pain, where victory and love resound.

This film is beautifully shot, superbly acted, and wonderfully written. What is more important though is that it was a film about true Christianity. The life of those who choose to actually strive to live out Christ’s teachings is not easy and the dark world we live in will sometimes fight back in very cruel ways. Times will come when it will be easy not be kind, merciful, gracious, and loving. In spite of these struggles we are commanded to hold fast to the truth and reflect the love of our God to the world around us.

Les Miserables, whether it was their intent or not, managed to show a beautiful example of a life devoted to Christ, and they did so in a way that is reaching a very wide audience. I pray that some of this rubs off on those who go to see the film since it’s one of the rare times I think we’ll get to see a film that portrays the Christian religion in a positive light, that isn’t produced by Tyler Perry or Alex Kendrick.

  

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