Mays: Christian themes underlie 'Les Mis'
By Dr. Pat Mays
Jan. 25, 2013 at 11 p.m.
<em><strong>Editor's Note:</strong> This is the first in a new series of columns called "Faith Today" that will run the last Saturday of each month. Each column will be written by LeTourneau University theology professors and discuss faith and life in society today.</em>
The scene is heart-wrenching. The tormented protagonist, Jean Valjean, is dying. He has made his last confession, revealing his dark secrets to his newly married adopted daughter and her husband, Cosette and Marius. Unseen by the two of them, Fantine, Cosette's departed mother, appears to Valjean. No longer the distraught, desperate woman who died a penniless, wretched death, she appears as a vision of wholeness, health, and joy. She is there to guide Valjean to heaven. Valjean asks for forgiveness and to be taken to glory. The moment culminates in the sung words which summarize the moral of the drama and offer a solution to navigating a broken world: "To love another person is to see the face of God."
Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," originally published in 1862, continues to fascinate audiences, first as a literature classic, then as a powerful musical adaptation for the stage. Now, the musical comes to an even wider audience with the movie release from Universal Studios. I should make full disclosure here that I am a Les Mis fan. I have seen the stage production four times and the movie twice. I shamefully have not read the book, but it is on order. I will tackle all 1,200 pages this year.
Every time I encounter the story different facets captivate me. First, it was the powerful musical score. Then, it was the spectacle of seeing people sacrifice their lives for a cause. Most recently in the movie version, I have been marveling at the Christian themes that unfold. As a professor of theology, I have to wonder how clear and accurate these Christian themes are presented.
First, let's look at the quotation from above. Is it really true that loving another person is a way to love God? The line seems to be a paraphrase of Jesus's words in Matthew 25:40: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." This verse is in the context of a parable that Jesus is telling about the final judgment. Who are the righteous? They are the ones who serve the needs of the poor and oppressed. And, when one serves them, one is serving Jesus himself.
Mercy is a second major Christian theme. The plot of Les Mis twists through a series of remarkable acts of mercy. Early on, Valjean is a parolee unable to find work. He steals silver from a priest. But, the priest does not press charges and amazingly gives him even more silver to take with him, encouraging him now to live his life for God. Valjean's life is redeemed and transformed, and he later promises the dying Fantine that he will take care of her daughter, Cosette, which he does at considerable risk. What is intriguing is that these acts of mercy are not depicted as merely humanistic endeavors. The priest says to Valjean, "By the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness." This is a direct reference to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the salvation of human souls. That, then, becomes the motivation for Valjean's capacity to offer mercy to others.
These acts of mercy lead Valjean from despair to hope, another Christian ideal. Christian hope is not just the wish that things will get better. Christian hope speaks specifically to God's gift of eternal life. Paul writes in Titus 3:5-7 that God saved us through his mercy demonstrated in Jesus that makes us "heirs according to the hope of eternal life." In Les Mis, Valjean's life becomes a parable of hope. He moves from bondage to freedom, from poverty to riches, from bitterness to love, and ultimately from death to life.
"Les Misrables" triumphantly ends with both the living and the resurrected singing, "They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord." They entreat the audience, "Will you join in our crusade?" It's an invitation that this writer - a Christian, a theologian, a willing but imperfect servant - finds compelling.
<em>Dr. Pat Mays is a professor of theology at LeTourneau University.</em>