Les Miserables: the power of a story #hermeneutics #biblical worldview

May 1, 2013

As the last American to have finally broken down and seen the movie, I felt that a review should be forthcoming before any further mention becomes irrelevant. It is a fine movie, but you already knew that. It has been my tremendous privilege to have seen the stage production twice. The first occasion for my viewing was in the general context of civil unrest in Russia, so the themes were especially hard-hitting.

People who study scripture have a fancy word for the portion of biblical interpretation that has to do with drawing the meaning out of the text. It is “hermeneutics.” It is a wonderful study and has all sorts of applications in secular usage. This skill allows one to draw a more complete understanding of press releases, speeches, news stories, lessons, editorials and works of literature. Of course, the Bible is full of stories that tell us about the nature of God’s character, the failings of human nature and the hope of an eternal city.

I watched the movie at my brother-in-laws house in Springfield, Missouri a few weeks ago after we had consumed some Jameson Irish Whiskey and an Arturo  Fuente cigar. These are the words of a huge fan of this marvelous narrative. It pack holds a huge punch and I was, once again, led into this human tragedy.

Here is the thing that struck me like a bolt of lightning. The first two times I was this production at Robinson Center, it was over 20 years ago. Politics was such an all-consuming obsession and changing the world still seemed to be within reach. So when the patriots were wiped out at the barricades, that grievous loss is the cost of doing the business of improving humanity by encouraging progress. The brave young rebels live on in the works of world-changing activists everywhere. Of course, that kind of thinking is nothing but a big stinking load of unspeakable human refuse.

Now, approaching my 63rd birthday and having been coaxed and shamed into the study of theology since 2007, the musical drams is now observed through a different hermeneutic “lens.” The damn story so brilliantly told once upon a time by Victor Hugo is not about politics at all. (Well, maybe it is a little, but that is a secondary storyline.) Les Miserables is the narrative of one man’s (Javert) absolutely misguided moral certitude and unwavering service to law living along side of, and contrasted with, another man’s (Valjean) moral conviction and need for grace. But you already knew all of this, and are probably wondering how on earth anybody could be so blind to the redemptive aspect.

My own misinterpretation is a reminder of the human tendency toward self-justification. Previously, there was a wrongful exclusion of the moral aspects of the story. This refers to the deep moral content that concerns more than civil order, but extends to family, true Christian religion, personal integrity, and the need for those who are recipients of God’s grace to also be grantors of regular human grace.

There is quite an irony here. In some ways, humankind has gotten a lot worse since those many dreadful uprisings on the streets of Paris. We present Hiroshima and Nagasaki as evidence of this proposition. The world is a dangerous and morally corrupt battlefield, and seems to get a little worse every day. You can see that those naive aspirations have fallen way short. At the same time, however, Valjean finds a path to friendship with God and benefits many through his spiritual advancement. It is possible for even the beggars and outcasts, with God’s help, to bring light to a darkened world. The really cool part is that changing social and political order of the world is not my job.That is Javert!

Get this straight, please. Man needs law and God has instituted human government. Christians honor those in authority, recognizing that worldly statutes and organizations have their limitations. The other way, the path of Valjean, takes risks and trusts God.

Even in the film and stage versions, Les Miserables is a complex story and this little essay is hardly a suitable review. The important observation that I have sought to sort out is that our interpretations of a story, even the story of our own lives, may easily be colored by many superficial things and our own flights of fancy. It is important to understand the possibility of misinterpretation.

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