Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Mis, Rescue, and the Real World, Pt. 1

Les Mis is one of my favorite stories, for about a thousand reasons. It is with exceeding difficulty that I narrow my thoughts and feelings about it for the length of one blog post, but here I will attempt to do so. I'll limit myself to discuss one theme that moved me this time around (thank you, Tom Hooper for putting it into another medium!). This theme concerns the whole meta-narrative, but is seen explicitly in the parallel stories of the two main characters, Valjean and Javert. So I'll start there.

Both grow up victims, in a sense, of the systemic evil of their time. Valjean is a child of France's urban poor, who ends up in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving child. The injustice is staggering, and the seemingly cruel indifference of his captor Javert is infuriating. But as the story unfolds, tiny pieces of Javert's own trajedy are revealed. At one of their first confrontations, he sings, "You know nothing of Javert/I was born inside a jail/I was born with scum like you/I am from the gutter too." This man was obviously marred by the corruption of poverty and injustice, just as Valjean. 

Both men start off in the narrative by seeking their own "way out"-- attempting to set things right according to their own means-- Valjean does so by attempting to cheat the system and Javert by trying to manage it. Both end up, at different times, realizing the hopelessness of their efforts. Valjean is confronted by the weight of his own sin and is utterly undone by the mercy of the Bishop who clears his name of crime and offers him a new identity. He realizes that life as he knows it-- his attempt to set things right on his own terms by getting bitter revenge-- has come to a dead end. He sings, "I am reaching, but I fall/And the night is closing in/And I stare into the void/To the whirlpool of my sin/I'll escape now from the world/From the world of Jean Valjean/Jean Valjean is nothing now/Another story must begin!" 
Much later, Javert experiences the same existential crisis. Finally caught by his enemy, finally expecting his own death at the hand of Valjean, he is instead offered forgiveness and freedom. No bargains, just grace. Javert is confronted by the weight of his own false judgment and is utterly undone by the mercy of Valjean who secures his release from captivity. Javert realizes that life as he knows it-- his attempt to set things right on his own terms by being "the Law"-- has come to a dead end. "I am reaching, but I fall/And the stars are black and cold/As I stare into the void/Of a world that cannot hold/I'll escape now from the world/From the world of Jean Valjean/There is nowhere I can turn/There is no way to go on"

Both come to the end of themselves and their ability to manage the evil that has marred their world. Both realize they must escape from "the world of Jean Valjean"-- the world of each of their making. The amazing thing is that these two very different men ultimately need rescue in the same form: Grace. Valjean needs grace to cover the multitude of his sins and Javert needs grace to melt his heart of stone. At their core, both the legalist and the sinner are in need of the same Rescuer.

Both are offered it, but only one chooses to receive it. Valjean accepts the grace extended to him and finds himself transformed by it. Things are set right in his world through the rescue of Another. As a result, the trajectory of his life is forever changed-- the rescued one becomes an agent of rescue for others. He knows what Power reached down into his life and saved him, and it is with that confidence that he is able to move forward in a world just as hard as it always was, only without being hardened by it as he was before. Javert, however, can't allow his life to be changed and so he chooses to end it. 

It struck me that this is at the heart of the Christian experience. In a world as hard and broken as ours, we must come to the realization that we can't "make things right" according to our own means-- we can't find our own "way out." God, in Jesus Christ, is the Rescue of Grace. He reaches down to us and gives what we cannot provide for ourselves-- transformation by way of repentance and forgiveness. And it is because of His victory over the sin that has so marred creation (including our own souls!) that we have any hope to stand in opposition to it in the here and now. Like Valjean, our confidence in moving forward without being hardened by the overwhelming evil in the world-- that would otherwise destroy us, just as it first destroyed Valjean-- is only because we have hope in the One who has defeated it, and will one day come again to bring His victory in fullness. 

Ok, so I can't limit myself to one post. To be continued...