“Les Misérables” has finally been adapted to the big-screen, and, to put it simply, it is stunning. The impression that it leaves will be lasting. Yet what issues does it explore? What is the impression that it gives? What is the worldview in “Les Miserables”? There are SPOILERS below.
Natural Law and Human Dignity
One of the most clear themes throughout the movie is the challenge raised in balancing natural rights, natural law, and human dignity. Jean Valjean starts off the movie as a prisoner. He has been imprisoned for 19 years–5 for stealing a loaf of bread, and 14 for trying to escape. These prisoners are essentially slaves. Their personhood is denigrated, and Javert, the Inspector, insists on calling them merely by their numbers. During this scene, the prisoners sing of calling for Jesus to save them, but complain that Jesus has not heard them. Yet God is not dead in this story, as we shall see below.
Several questions are raised here. It seems clear that the human dignity and therefore the natural rights of these people is being violated by the way they are treated, as well as the cruelty of the punishment for petty crimes. Not only that, but it seems that natural law is being violated in that the poor continue to cry out for help to no avail. They need food, shelter, and the like. They are willing to work but can’t find any. The movie provides a poignant commentary on the violations of natural law, rights, and human dignity that continue to be found in our own society.
Javert is the story’s foil for natural law. He brings in a kind of Kantian certainty about moral questions. For him, the law is morally right, and one cannot violate the law. Yet it becomes clear through the film that Javert’s view is actually that which is mistaken. He is operating under a skewed vision of natural law which cannot stand up to scrutiny. His view equates natural law with the law of the land. Valjean grants Javert mercy and Javert later does the same for Valjean, but unlike Valjean, Javert cannot understand mercy. For him, the law of the land is always absolute. Finally, he cannot reconcile his view of the law with the realities of the world which include not just natural law but also the redemptive mercy that God has embedded in it and he kills himself.
Jean Valjean is not the only person whose very worth is questioned. Fantine suffers immensely in the story. She is reduced to selling her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body when she loses her job. Again, her very humanity is threatened by her treatment. She is dehumanized and forced to give up hope. However, Jean Valjean, as she is dying, comes to her aid and promises to take care of Cosette, her daughter. This gives her hope, and restores some of her human dignity.
Despite the apparent hopelessness in many scenes, it becomes clear that evil has not won the day. Indeed, Jean Valjean is given another lease on life by Bishop Myriel, who is an extremely positive example of Christian concern for other persons. The Bishop saves Valjean from imprisonment and torture and tells him that he has saved him. He tells Valjean God has a plan for him and in an extremely poignant scene, Valjean struggles with his feelings of hatred and anger in a church. He cannot seem to reconcile the mercy shown to him by the Bishop with his view of the world. It is Valjean’s initial view which loses out. His anger and hatred are given over to providing hope and taking care of the needy. He becomes a moral hero, despite the necessity of his continuing to flee from the authorities.
Ultimately, the grounding for human dignity and rights is found not in the tribulations of the world but in God’s justice in the hereafter. The epic closing scene depicts all the dead lined up in heaven praising God and glorying in redemption. Without this, the movie would be nearly hopeless. Instead, Jean Valjean is guided into the afterlife by Fantine and Bishop Myriel. The explicit Christian elements in this final redemption are clearly portrayed, crucifixes are prominent and it is the Bishop into whose hands Valjean is accepted.
It seems clear from the story of “Les Miserables” that God is operating even in the darkness and bitterness of the poor, the downtrodden, and the weary. Jean Valjean comes to realize that God’s plan can be carried out even by him in the mercies that he is able to show by taking care of Cosette and giving to the poor. His struggle over the fact that Bishop Myriel did not condemn him leads him to a view of reality that is a stark contrast with that of Javert’s view, noted above.
Jean Valjean sees the world through the eyes of one to whom mercy has been shown. He realizes that he did not deserve the mercy he was given, but he instead lets it change him forever. He fights against the evils of the world and ultimately, at the end of his life, he realizes that is what he was called to do.
One cannot help but see how stories of all the characters interweave in such a way as to show foreknowledge and planning. Valjean is shown mercy, but to what end? Ultimately, the end is to provide hope into a world with little hope (Fantine) and to save the life of a girl (Cosette). The way these people are brought together provides an abundance of grace and mercy, but not without suffering.
The characters cry out to God throughout the film, asking where He is or why He has allowed some evil. But it becomes clear that their eyes have been focused upon the suffering here-and-now instead of God’s plan for salvation. Without the foreknowledge of God, it is easy to see the ills of this world as reason to hate God. Indeed, that is exactly what some people do. But in “Les Miserables,” God’s plan wins in the end: he brings his people to salvation and they sing in heaven at the end of the film.
Water is a recurring theme in “Les Miserables.” As a Christian I could not help but think of baptism. Valjean is baptized in the rain, but Javert uses water to bring about his own destruction.
There are crosses featured prominently throughout the movie. The barricade behind which the revolutionaries fight has coffins on the front during the battle. However, at the end of the movie, when all the dead are lined up and singing in the glory of heaven and God’s presence, there is a cross prominently featured. When Jean Valjean struggles with the mercy Bishop Myriel showed to him, crosses are featured all over the screen. All of this seems to tie into the themes of redemption, God’s will, and salvation noted above.
Christians, or people who claim to be Christians, are not always good people. Javert’s skewed view of justice prevented him from taking into account God’s mercy. The innkeeper and his wife claim to be Christians but spend their lives trying to swindle and steal from others. This is a reflection of the truth. Jesus himself noted that there will be weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). That is, there will be those who claim to be among the saved who are not and may even seek to destroy the saved.
Victor Hugo was not necessarily a friend of organized religion. His religious beliefs changed throughout his life. It seems he became frustrated with the suffering of the people and the inactivity of organized churches in response to this suffering. Some have pegged him as a deist, though a bit of exploration turns up hints that he may have maintained theism through his life. Regardless of Hugo’s own spiritual state, it is clear from the film “Les Miserables” that Christianity is largely beneficial. Not only that, but the story is such an epic tale of redemption with Christian themes interwoven throughout that I can’t help but think (having, admittedly, not read the book) of the extremely positive overall impression I had of the power of Christianity to change people.
“Les Misérables” is a stunning film. Its impact will last for years. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the movie, however, is the way it tackles worldview questions head-on. Humanity is found even in the darkest pits, and God’s work continues to be done even in the most desperate of hours. The movie is not for children, but it will serve as an inspiring foil from which to start discussions about Christianity. The beneficence that comes from the Christian worldview is very much on display, along with Christian themes of God’s sovereignty and plan of redemption. I encourage readers to see the film and realize the way it can be used to discuss issues central to Christianity.
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Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal(hereafter NLL) presents a collection of essays from Lutherans of different backgrounds on the topic of natural law. Together, these essays are extremely strong, covering a broad array of topics and successfully bringing to light many of the issues one must deal with when approaching natural law theory.
The individual essays presented in NLL are almost all extremely strong. The topics covered include the views of early Lutherans on natural law (including Luther and the authors of the Confessions) , the view of several later Lutheran individuals (like Barth and Forde), and a kind of “applied ethics” section which uses natural law in individual instances.
The strength of many of these essays is a credit to the Lutheran scholarship which went into the work. The insight into Lutheran thinkers’ views on natural law helps to refute some notions that Lutherans do not “believe in” natural law. In fact, it seems the opposite is the case. “Luther,” argues Thomas Pearson, “understands natural law not as a Christian teaching, but as an observation of human nature in general” (63). Later, Carl Rockrohr expands on this idea to view natural law as a place of common ground for evangelism (196-197).
NLL really shines when it demonstrates that even topics which may at first seem unimportant (like an essay on Friedrich Stahl’s rejection of natural law) can serve to develop a modern view of natural law (Jacob Corzine argues in the aforementioned essay that Stahl’s critique helps ground a Christian natural law theory not in reason but in God ).
The applied ethics section of NLL has its ups and downs. “Natural Science, Natural Rights, and Natural Law: Abortion in Historical Perspective” by Korey D. Maas is a simply amazing critique of abortion which presents the case for pro-life not as a religious issue, but as one which can be established on common grounds of natural law (228ff). On the other hand, Albert Collver III’s argument against the ordination of women struggles because it only presents one Lutheran view on the issue (more on that below). The section (and book) concludes with Matthew Cochran’s great summing up and case for the use of natural law as a “Way Forward” for discussions of epistemology and natural law (see esp. 274ff).
The strength of NLL is therefore found in the fact that the essays manage to cohere to the point of building off one another. Whether this was intentional or not, it strengthens the whole work. The early essays provide the framework for the later developments into applied ethics.
This is not to say the book is without faults. One such fault is the woefully inadequate glossary. While the terms included are defined in detail, some terms are inexplicably left out. For example, while the glossary takes lengths to define idealism, it makes no mention of “epistemology,” a concept which was referenced several times. This makes the book seem at times unsure of its purpose. Is it written for the layperson or the professional, the philosopher or the theologian? It includes study questions and a glossary, which suggests use as a textbook in undergraduate (or high school) theology classes, but the very nature of the essays included and the inadequacy of the glossary suggests that only those already familiar with some of the issues will get the most bang for their buck. A final criticism I would level against the book is that while it does present essays from various Lutheran traditions, it is clearly founded specifically upon LCMS teaching. This is unsurprising, given that it is published by Concordia Publishing House (the official publishing arm of the LCMS), but this could cause some confusion when the book devotes an entire chapter to a critique of a different Lutheran tradition (the ELCA). This small shortcoming can also be seen when the book only presents a complementarian view of natural law (that is, a view that natural law excludes women from the ministry) despite the fact that other Lutheran traditions (for example, the NALC or ELCA) are egalitarian (ordain women).
NLL is a simply fantastic work. Lutherans looking to learn about the concept of natural law would be well served to pick the book up and read it cover-to-cover. Those outside of the Lutheran tradition would surely find NLL useful as well, as the essays on applications of natural law can serve as foils for the development of one’s own position. For those wishing to explore the important issue of natural law, I recommend the book highly.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.