Saturday, January 19, 2013

Les Miserables

Bonnie and I saw Les Miserables (the film) last night.  It was almost a spiritual experience for me.  Why isn’t everyone who sees that film in Church the following Sunday?  Light shines in darkness.  I have not read the novel, but based on the plot of the movie, this film should be considered Christian propaganda, an evangelistic tool, a proclamation of the Gospel.

[Spoiler Alert! Skip the next four paragraphs to avoid the summary]

An absolutely miserable man, Jean Valjean, who has vowed to hate and never forgive is changed through the Christ-like kindness of a priest.  Valjean assumes a new identity and eventually becomes a successful businessman and mayor.  When his nemesis, Javert, a police officer obsessed with the law, tells him that another man has been caught and will go to prison in his stead, Valjean goes to court and confesses that he, the mayor, is actually the convict.  No one believes him, except Javert.

Meanwhile a single mother, Fantine--played convincingly by Anne Hathaway--unjustly loses her job in Valjean’s factory and in her desperation to continue to support her daughter, sells everything (including her body) to send support to the corrupt inn keepers who are caring for her.  Valjean learns of Fantine’s plight and on her deathbed vows to raise her daughter as his own.  Over the next ten years, Valjean raises Cosette as his own daughter even as he must flee from place to place hiding from Javert.

Cosette eventually falls in love with a wealthy young man, Marius, who is involved in an attempted revolution.  Valjean learns of this love and joins the revolutionaries in an attempt to save Marius’ life.  While he is among the revolutionaries, he discovers that Javert has been captured by them and convinces the revolutionaries to allow him to “deal with him.”  However, Valjean refuses to take vengeance on Javert, and rather lets him go with no strings attached--he makes no deal with Javert.  It is merely an act of mercy, something Javert does not understand.

Valjean is able to save the wounded Marius by escaping through the sewers, but is confronted again by Javert who is unable himself now to kill the criminal who saved his life.  Once Marius recovers, Valjean leaves Cosette in his care and flees to a monestary to die alone so that his past will not bring any scandal to Marius and Cosette’s new life together.

Wow.  Now if that is not Christ-like, self sacrificial love, I don’t know what is.

So why aren’t the Churches packed?

Well one reason, perhaps, is that what people see in Churches generally looks very little like sacrificial love.  Most of us in the Church are what I imagine the character Valjean would have been like in the early days of his conversion: convinced that God’s love is real, but an absolute mess himself, confused and not sure what to do.  After his conversion, the huge turning point in Valjean’s life, the the point at which is revealed whether the Grace shown him would die in him or be shown to another, is eight years later when Valjean has to sacrifice everything to try to save a poor wretch who has been falsely accused of being him.  Would Valjean give up everything to save an innocent man?  Yes.  Grace does not die in him, the “talent” is not buried.  However, Christian life is not just one cross and that’s it.  St. John Chrysostom said that if God saves you from death on one cross, it is only so that you can bear others.  And Valjean goes on courageously bearing the crosses that fall to him.

I imagine that many people who see this film wish they could encounter real Christianity.  They wish there really were men like the priest who initially showed Valjean kindness, really men like Valjean who change from being a man full of hate to being a man who lived a life of self-sacrificing love.  They wish that the possibility of such love were real.

And yet, I imagine that they probably don’t wish too hard or too long for such a reality.  They don’t wish hard and long enough themselves to sacrifice much.  Like many of us in the Church, the non-Churched who watch this film may appreciate the beautiful ideal portrayed through the plot--call it good, call it virtue, call it true--but they themselves are not ready to give very much, to sacrifice their comfort, and certainly not to jeopardize their illusion of control over their life and destiny.  And this unwillingness does not even make us weep.

That’s probably the saddest part.  The worst thing is not to fail, to fail to live up to our own standards, our own plainly stated standards of what is good, right and true.  The worst thing is not to be sad that we fail.  I’m not talking about the sadness of shame or even guilt, not the sadness of “I could have done better if I tried harder.”  Such sadness is often merely a form of pride coated with regret and sprinkled with self-pity.  No, the sadness I’m talking about is the sadness of the moral cripple, the spiritual epileptic, the one who has tried and failed, who knows that only God in His mercy can save no matter how hard he tries.  Trying is necessary, but not sufficient.  

But even this, even trying, we eventually come to know is also a matter of Grace.  

We live in a fallen world.  That there is so much evil in the world should not surprise us.  We need only look into our own souls to see why so much evil is around us--it comes from within us.  However, that there is any light, that there is any kindness, that love is possible at all, this should surprise us.  That some kindness, some gentleness, some generosity and goodness is there, does shine in this messy, messy world, this should give us pause.  This should give us pause to consider that perhaps God still saves.  Perhaps saintliness is still possible--in some modest form.  Perhaps I too may be healed, if only a little, of my own moral stumbling and spiritual epilepsy.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for share..