Sin, Suffering, Love, Mercy, Forgiveness, Grace and Hope - these are the religious themes that flow through the musical 'Les Misérables' now playing as a major motion picture. They are particularly associated with the main character, Jean Valjean who travels from the depths of despair, receives forgiveness from the Bishop of Digne, shows sacrificial love to the daughter of the suffering Fantine, offers mercy to his persecutor Javert, and finally seeks forgiveness for his own life in the lyrics sung in the finale which state that:
"To love another person is to see the face of God".
But which 'face of God' do we see behind the drama? Is it a God who brings suffering to those who have disobeyed His law; is it a God who grants each person free will and then provides unconditional grace for their failings; is this a God of punishment or a God of forgiveness?
Who is the God of 'Les Mis'?
I listen regularly to a BBC program entitled Everyday Ethics which is hosted by William Crawley, an alumni of my High School the Belfast Royal Academy. Recently, Crawley's guest was Ian Bradley who is a British academic, author, theologian, Church of Scotland minister and broadcaster.
Bradley's book ‘You’ve Got to Have a Dream – The Message of the Musical’ explores the spiritual dimensions of musical theatre. His thesis is that Churches have a great deal to learn from modern musicals and could usefully incorporate their spiritual and theological values, and the pastoral care they offer, into their services. As a Past President of the Clarkstown Summer Theatre and pianist for my church's youth choir I find that music and musicals can have a very positive influence on the lives of young people.
Crawley interviewed Bradley about the religious themes in Les Miserables. Bradley’s observations reveal some interesting theological insights underlying the 2012 movie.
Bradley: Essentially Les Mis is a story about the power of forgiveness. The central character, Jean Valjean, is a convict who has been imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and we meet him when he is out on parole. He is taken in by the Bishop of Digne, a very saintly figure, and he repays the bishop's hospitality by stealing his silverware. When he is brought back by the police the bishop not only forgives him but says he wants to give him more – he wants to give him his precious candlesticks which he says Valjean forgot to take. This act of completely unmerited grace kicks off the whole story and leads to Valjean’s transformation from someone who hates his fellow human beings to being a kind of ‘Christ-like’ figure who performs a whole series of acts of sacrifice. Essentially the story is about Valjean and the way he redeems himself becoming a saintly figure. It is about sacrifice and unconditional grace. Les Mis has a huge spiritual punch.
What are each of us prepared to sacrifice in order to stand for what is right, to make the right decision, to do the right thing? The way of the coward can be both easy and safe as Valjean knew when he asked the question "Who am I?" after another person was mistaken for him and would be sent into slavery if he did not step forward. This song tells one that the only choice is the right choice and that the right choice is the sacrificial choice.
Listen now to Who am I? as sung by The Dream Cast at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the 10th anniversary concert of Les Mis.
Bradley: A song with a lot of spiritual resonance is ‘Bring Him Home’, a prayer addressed by Valjean to God. It actually begins “God on high”. Valjean is carrying the young student, Marius, who has been wounded at the barricades. It is an extraordinary hymn-like prayer and it has been taken up widely in funerals. A young American student said that it made him think of all the American soldiers fighting abroad.
Here is Bring Him Home performed by Alfie Boe and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
'Empty Chairs At Empty Tables’ is sung by Marius the great student hero of the revolution. So many of his friends have been killed in the barricades and he sings this lament, this anthem, which has been taken up across the world as an anthem for victims of HIV/AIDS. It has been sung on many occasions when celebrating the life of someone who has died of HIV. Probably it is used because so many young people succumbed to HIV and it speaks poignantly about the sense of there being empty chairs at empty tables of young people going away.
This version of Empty Chairs At Empty Tables is performed by Michael Ball.
Trevor Nunn the English theatre, film and television director has directed musicals and dramas for the stage, as well as opera. His well-known musicals are Cats (1981) and Les Misérables (1985) says that Les Mis is essentially a musical about different views of God.
The three central male characters all have different views of God. Valjean is somebody who comes to believe in redemption and that God is just and forgiving. Javert, the police inspector, who pursues Valjean as a lifetime’s mission, has the sense of God as a judgmental, angry figure and Thenardier, the boozy innkeeper, not only believes that God is dead but that God died a long time ago and we are therefore all fair game for exploitation. So there are at least three views of God and others as well such as the Bishop, Myriel, who witnesses to a Divine Being of infinite mercy. In a sense Fantine in her song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ has a sense of ceasing to believe in a loving or forgiving God because life has been so cruel to her.
Listen to I Dreamed a Dream sung by Anne Hathaway from the official movie trailer.
C.S Lewis, in his book 'The Problem of Pain', addressed the question of why a 'good' God would permit the existence of suffering. Lewis's answer has many levels. Foremost, is that nature had to be created with certain unchangeable properties. For example, the same hardness which allows wood to serve as a beam in one's house allows it to serve as an instrument of potential injury, as when that beam collapses and hits your head. The world also had to be created neutral so that humans could interact equally with one another, i.e., those same, unchanging properties of wood allow it to be manipulated similarly by anyone. But, obviously a neutral world contains the potential for good or evil. Wood can be used to build a home, which is good, or to create a weapon, which is evil.
But, this is what makes us human; we have free will.
Bart D. Ehrman, in his book 'God's Problem' writes that the problem of suffering has haunted me for a long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith. Consider these competing explanations for suffering put forth by various biblical writers:
1) The book of Job, which offers two different answers: suffering is a test, and you will be rewarded later for passing it and suffering is beyond comprehension, since we are just human beings and God, after all, is God;
2) Ecclesiastes: suffering is the nature of things, so just accept it;
3) The apocalyptic texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: God will eventually make right all that is wrong with the world;
4) The prophets: suffering is a punishment for sin;
Did Valjean 'sin' when he stole the loaf of bread and when he stole the property of the Bishop of Digne? Is that why he is suffering? The bishop, Monseigner Bienvenu, says:
If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.
What is meant by this? Who is the cause of the darkness? .....
In his book The Heart of Christianity Borg develops the thought that although “disobeying God’s laws” is the most popular meaning of ‘sin’ there are other more important meanings and we should perhaps use multiple images to speak about what is wrong in our societies. If we are enslaved, we need liberation, not forgiveness. Although ‘sin’ is often involved in our human condition, our sad state is not always because of our deeds. We can be in bondage through no fault of our own. The use of the word ‘sin’ today usually focuses on an individual’s actions and obscures the reality of ‘social sin’; much of human suffering and misery is due to collective sin, for example, the political systems of our world. Borg emphasizes that we need to enrich our understanding of the condition from which we need deliverance.
Both Javert and Valjean are Christian men, acting in the name of God but they represent two different Christianities and “Javert’s Christianity is winning big time in today’s America. We live in a world where sentencing is harsh (drug sentencing laws is one example) and biased and the Javerts among us are happy to seek maximum punishments.
And she goes on to point out, as does the Presybterian Church to which I belong, that:
Convicted felons can’t get access to public housing because of their felony conviction even after they have served their sentence. If their families live in public housing, the families can be evicted from their homes for housing a felon. They need to find a job, but employers can legally discriminate against them. They need to eat, but felons can be denied food stamps for the rest of their lives.
With no job, no house, no food, and no allies it’s no wonder that there is a 70% recidivism rate. Valjean too would have returned to jail but for a grace that is too often denied in our modern world. Having played the role in the the recent film, Anne Hathaway notes that Fantine is “living in New York City right now; she’s probably less than a block away.” When we see someone digging through a trash dump, or sleeping on the park bench, we’re not humming “Do you hear the people sing?” Instead, we’re averting our eyes and clutching our purses.
Listen now to Do You Hear the People Sing as performed by The Dream Cast at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the 10th anniversary concert of Les Mis.
Simone Weil, the French philosopher, who suffered with depression and an illness which took her life at age 34, argued that:
The presence of suffering in the world is the evidence of God's love and love which expects reward is not love at all.
According to C.S. Lewis, the English word 'love' encompasses four distinct ideas which the Greeks described as "storge" (affection), "philia" (friendship), "eros" (sexual or romantic love) and "agape" (selfless love). Lewis suggests that all earthly love will be eventually lost and one outcome of accepting love in any form is that it must eventually lead to suffering. Weil would surely have been able to identify which one of the four types of love Fantine might have experienced. Perhaps 'agape'?
Bradley: The image of God in the song ‘Stars’ is not one that Christians would want to lift up. Stars, is the big aria for Javert, the dark, twisted, bitter police inspector. It is about the ordering of the Heavens and it is all about order and righteousness. But it is also about a very narrow, judgmental God. Trevor Nunn describes it as an Old Testament God, a vengeful God. Javert has no room for mercy or forgiveness and he sings this song just before he takes his own life. It is because he cannot believe in being forgiven; he believes in an ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and he can not cope with forgiveness.
Listen here to Stars as performed by The Dream Cast at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the 10th anniversary concert of Les Mis.
Javert would never have understood Jacques Derrida's comment about forgiveness that:
There is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgiveable".
Yet that is what precisley Valjean had come to understand when, with a rope around Javert's neck and a pistol at his head, he released him with mercy and forgiveness. Richard Holloway explains it this way in 'On Forgiveness' ....
The fundamental insight is that we can and must retain an attitude of disgust towards the offending act, if we are to justify the legitimate claims of human justice; nevertheless, we must find a way of preventing these irreversible offences from locking us permanently into the past; and the remedy for the dilemma is forgiveness of the person, not what the person has done.
This is the philosophy of restorative justice as portrayed by Valjean and not the philosophy of retributive justice as practiced by Javert.
The song I Dreamed a Dream is seen by Bradley to be about the betrayal of women and he points out that many people involved in the counseling of women through difficulties after having been abused have used this song.
Fantine is alone, unemployed and destitute. Here is part of her lament ......
There was a time when men were kind ... When their voices were soft ... And their words inviting .... I dreamed that love would never die ....I dreamed that God would be forgiving ... But the tigers come at night ... With their voices soft as thunder ... Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
Susan Boyle might have gone the way of Fantine. She was briefly deprived of oxygen during a difficult birth resulting in a learning disability. Bullied as a child she was nicknamed "Susie Simple" by her peers at school. Leaving school with few qualifications, she was employed for the only time in her life as a trainee cook in a kitchen. Boyle had dreams that one day she could aspire to something better and one evening she used 'I Dreamed A Dream' to lift herself from poverty and ignominy to world fame.
Here is that restorative moment of grace when a compassionate Spirit passed over an initially unforgiving and disbelieving audience and Susan Boyle's 'sins', that existed nowhere but in the eyes of others, were 'forgiven'.
Listen to Susan Boyle sing I Dreamed a Dream as she auditioned in Britains' Got Talent.
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of THEE, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with THY God .....Micah 6:8
Beati misericordes : quoniam ipsi misericordiam consequentur.
Michael N. Hull is an elder of the Germonds Presbyterian Church, New City, working primarily with the youth of the church in its musical program. As a Past President of the Clarkstown Summer Theatre he was involved for over 10 years in the production of musicals performed on the stage at Clarkstown South High School. Michael also writes a blog Looking In The Distance which focuses on theology and philosophy. As a member of the Clarkstown Taxpayers Group he writes commentaries on local affairs concentrating primarily on rising taxes and government patronage issues. The views expressed in this article come from his own personal enjoyment of the Les Mis musical and do not necessarily represent the views of any of the above organizations.