Theology of Film: Les Miserables

The “Les Miserables” movie isn’t my first encounter with the Les Mis universe. Back when I was still trying to woo the most beautiful and amazing woman I’d ever met “Les Mis” entered into my life and vocabulary. She was going to see a stage production of “Les Mis” at the Fox Theater in Detroit with one of her best friends. The two girls became huge fans and talked about what an incredible show it was. Since I really wanted to woo her and be a part of their conversations and show how cultured I was, I rushed out to Media Play (yup, MEDIA PLAY) and bought a boxed set of the entire production. It was a three CD set. I listened to it nightly and read the script a couple of times so I could sing the songs with them and discussed intelligently the story of Jean Valjean with the woman of my dreams.

This March we’ll be celebrating our 14th anniversary.

When I saw that it was being made into a major motion picture, I knew we’d be making a treck to the theater to see this movie and I’d have to say it was nothing short of amazing.

With Wolverine and Catwoman Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are highlights of the cast.  The acting and singing of the entire cast is nothing short of Oscar worthy. To hear Anne Hathaway’s Fantine sing “I Dreamed a Dream” will rock even the toughest man who is dragged to the movie of  and bring them to the edge of tears. There are tons of great performances outside of these two characters including Sacha Baren Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. The pair of three named actors bring great comic relief as the rotten to the core Mr. and Madame  Thenardier.

But perhaps the strongest narrative is in the story of Jean Valjean and Javert played aptly by Russell Crowe.

At the beginning of the movie we are introduced to these two and the majority of the movie is their relationship as it shaped by nearly 30 years of history.

Jean Valjean begins the movie as a prisoner. His crime was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her child. Many would see that as a moral gray area especially if we were in the same position. I think all of us would agree that it isn’t an offense that should get someone 19 years of imprisonment but that is the fate for Jean Valjean. Without diving into spoilers too far Jean Valjean’s life is changed by a single act of grace.

From that moment forward, Jean tries to live a life pleasing to God and helping the poor, under resourced and afflicted is the way he does it. Though he is on the run from the law for breaking parole his heart is set on doing what is right for his fellow man as an act of worship towards God.

The antagonist to Valjean’s protagonist is Javert – an officer who believes in upholding the law. Most of us would agree that a law abiding officer is a good thing. Javert believes that upholding every letter of the law is the way to please God. This often leads Javert to choose law over grace and makes showing mercy difficult. Javert sees himself as an agent of God dispensing justice to the rule breakers. This includes Valjean who he believes should be locked up because he is a hardened criminal (aren’t all bread theives?) who can never change.

It is in these two characters that one of the great dramas of the movie and in the world plays out: law vs. grace.

A misconception that has been happening since the Old Testament times has been that God established His law with His people as a means of creating a set of rules for them to follow the way Javert would. The people were afraid of God because He might smite them (who doesn’t fear smiting?) if they stepped out of line. The problem is that isn’t really in line with God’s character as a God of mercy and a God who is love.

When we try to follow God’s Law on our own we realize just how incapable of following the Law we are. This leads to something like what Javert experienced. All he knew was law and it made him miserable. He couldn’t see beyond the law to the purpose of the law. In Javert’s case, the law was to protect the people – something he often ignored for the sake of the law. In the case of God’s Law the same mistake was often made. People became slaves to the Law, trying to fulfill every part of it, and in the process becoming miserable because they missed the heart of the Law – to become dependent on God.

It is because many people believe that following God’s Law the way Javert followed his country’s law that many people find Christianity so difficult.  That kind of following is oppressive at worst and difficult at best. It also creates a God who is distant and needs to be appeased through the obedience of rules. There’s nothing personal or loving about that.

God eventually rejected the attempts of the people to follow the Law alone and said this through the prophet Jeremiah: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31.33)

With the coming of Jesus and his death and resurrection that new law was established. Like Valjean we all who are guilty and deserve punishment become free to live a life that follows and honors God. We have exchanged our chains for freedom and our slavery to law with a freedom to live as we were created to live.

This doesn’t mean we are free to live apart from law. We can’t do whatever we want so long as we believe that it is the right thing. That’s a mistake that leads to us wounding ourselves and others. What it means is that God’s commands aren’t a burden to us but are instead given to us to have relationships with Him and with each other that are honoring to Him.

This is the heart of the Valjean/Javert story. One has been set free by grace and as a result follows the heart of the law. That is his response to grace. The other tries to follow the law but when grace is given it is more than he can handle and he rejects it.

For us, we have to look at grace and the law the way Valjean did. We have been given grace in the form of Jesus and the forgiveness he brings. We can accept that grace and then follow that grace as it has been given to us the law.

Grace must come before the law.

Following the law must follow grace.

If we get the two confused or leave one part out then we will find our pursuit of God a heavy burden or an impossible chore.

God’s plea with us is to receive His grace and follow Him.

It will lead to a free life.



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