Saturday, January 19, 2013

Les Misérables: Law and Gospel

My husband and I just got back from seeing Les Mis.  (Spoilers for book, movie, and musical abound, obviously.)  I had never actually seen the musical before- I've rarely lived in places with access to good theater- but I've listened to a cast recording I have a lot over the last several years.  So I thought I knew the plot pretty well.

Imagine my astonishment when I realized there was a major, ongoing, and surprisingly Lutheran theme I'd missed entirely.

The only two characters who we follow from the beginning of the story, Valjean and Javert, epitomize two very different approaches to life, and to faith.  They both speak frequently with God, they both take actions based directly on their faith, they both try their best to be "good."  And yet their approaches could not be more different.

Valjean, an ex-convict who hates God and humanity after a cruel and lengthy prison sentence, experiences unexpected forgiveness at the hand of a bishop early in the movie.  Because of this, he divorces himself from the strict regime of laws he'd been abiding by (that is, rips up his parole papers) and seeks a place where he can help others who had also suffered.  He starts a factory where he can employ people who would otherwise have no hope, and feels a clear responsibility to them and their well being.  After this, he continues to embrace the Gospel over and over again.
  • He saves the life of a man trapped under a cart- despite the chance that Javert will see him and recognize him by his unusual strength, shown at the prison previously.
  • He rescues Fantine- to whom he felt he owed a debt for failing her earlier- from the authorities and makes sure her last hours are spent in comfort.
  • He turns himself in to the authorities (well, he intends to do so permanently, but it winds up being temporary) to save a stranger from unjust imprisonment.
  • He raises Cosette, Fantine's daughter, as his own.
  • We see him giving to the poor over and over again, in montages as the scenery changes, and he remains generous to those in need.
  • He saves Javert's life, despite the promise that Javert will continue to chase him down.
  • He saves Marius's life, under very... unpleasant conditions.
And in contrast, we have Javert, who, coming from a similar background, has embraced the Law- free of grace or forgiveness- as the way to God (and the good life).  Over and over again, he is given the chance to be merciful- towards Fantine, Valjean, the Thénardiers, the students at the barricades- and he never, never does.  He sings again and again of those who "fell as Lucifer fell", the "faltering and the fallen", and holds that mitigating circumstances are worthless and that people cannot change- those who have broken the Law once will only go on doing so and cannot redeem themselves or be redeemed.  There is no Gospel in his world view at all.

And then we come to the climactic scene of their relationship, where Javert tells Valjean, who is holding Marius's body, that if he takes one more step, Javert will kill him.  And Valjean walks away, and Javert cannot bring himself to fire on the man who had saved his life hours before.  Unable to handle the difference between his civic duty- to bring Valjean in, or kill him if necessary, for breaking his parole- and his moral duty- to pay back his life debt to Valjean- and with no Gospel to bridge the gap, he cannot go on, and commits suicide.

Personally, I tend to think of this as Javert's "Norman" moment, but it's entirely possible that's just me. In some ways it could be a stronger story if he was talked through this scene and didn't commit suicide, but, frankly, that would make a very long story even longer (and I've read the unabridged English translation), a very long movie even longer, and probably ruin the whole "everybody dies" theme they've got going, so.

I would also like to make it very clear, at this point, that I do not condone breaking one's parole (parole in the USA being a very different thing than in post-revolutionary France), shooting people in general, armed revolution in particular, bribery, perjury, robbery, or certain various other actions Valjean takes and considers in this story.  He is a flawed character- and if he wasn't, he wouldn't be the proper vehicle for the Gospel theme anyway.

Javert is an illustration of the limitations and inability to cope with the realities of life that living by the Law can bring.  The Law, in this movie, is designed to work best under ideal circumstances, but it cannot cope with unusual or less-than-ideal realities.  It has no mercy for those who have made mistakes, no grace for the unexpected, no room for change or growth.

Valjean is the epitome for the changes that the Gospel can work in the world.  He saves lives, he gives second chances and what redemption he can offer, he is merciful and giving.  This is not a Prosperity Gospel that he's following at all- he ends up fairly well off but perpetually on the run, he knows friendlessness and despair.  But he acknowledges the true suffering in the world, does what he can to mitigate it, remains at the side of those who go through it, and never considers himself "above" another person.  No wonder an old friend of mine found enough Gospel in this story for a sermon.

An even the narrative allows enough Gospel for Javert to join the others who have died "at the barricade" at the end, reaffirming the author's choice between Law and Gospel.  Thanks be to God!

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