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Not Miserable at Les Mis

I went somewhat under duress, trying to be a good husband. One child wondered how dad “deigned” to go. The other told us she “fell off the couch” when she heard that Sophie and I went to see Les Miserables last Saturday.

Les Mis, the movie, has been out since Christmas, so you’ve probably already seen it, and/or read numerous reviews. This really isn’t a review, per se. As the credits rolled, I told Sophie “that was pretty good and really irritating.”

The film clocks in at 157 minutes—that’s two hours and 37 minutes. At times it felt bloated and over-the-top. And lengthy. Like some of my less-than-stellar preaching efforts, there were about four or five times when everyone figured it was over, only to have it go on for a few more ponderous scenes. Did I mention it was very long?

That said, I was taken by what I considered the film’s boldness. It puts forth good and beautiful notions without apology or quibble. It dares to tackle big questions—law and grace, freedom, transformation, responsibility, certainty, self-righteousness, compassion—all in a compelling manner. At several points, I felt like the Gospel, in all its wonder and agony, was flashing before us. Les Mis is especially strong on the suffering nature of love. It uses images and the language of “substitution” in ways that obviously echo Christ’s atonement, but also could enrich, nuance, and exemplify substitution in our ongoing atonement conversations.

I think of how I typically try to convey the Gospel of Jesus. In our postmodern world, I tend to take a minimal and modest approach. Quiet decency. Shades of gray, not light and dark. Irony is ubiquitous. Better to under-promise and over-perform than vice-versa. Chastened by Reinhold Niebuhr, I am always cognizant not to be “unrealistic.” To be labeled “naïve” is damning and discrediting.

I think of two films of the recent past considered to be “redemption tales”—Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both are gritty stories of perseverance. And of course Les Mis also has more than enough grit and suffering. But the redemption in Winter’s Bone or Beasts of the Southern Wild seems small and lowly. Very contextual. Individual. Pushing through. A sort of survival, really. Hope feels very much downsized.

Les Mis, by contrast, pulsates with hope. Occasionally it spills over into manipulative sentimentality, but it dares to try to inspire, to try to unite, to say big things. Might that be a reflection all the way back to 1862, when Hugo published Les Miserables, when there was hope of humans coalescing for noble purposes? Or maybe, despite my postmodern protestations, I’m still a sucker for martial music that begins

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

During some of those slow moments of Les Mis, and especially in the closing, I realized that what it has is eschatological energy. As I watched I was reminded of the book of Revelation—St. John’s Apocalypse—minus the weird beasts and numerology, of course. It is a story of hope and triumph for weak and desperate people. Things are not what they seem. Some great and unforeseeable change is coming. The day is coming when good will finally triumph. And this allows us to do more than just hang on by our fingernails. We yearn and dream big time. It is a social and shared hope.

So how do I, with an unassuming, shorn-by-postmodernity-Gospel, keep this eschatological energy? How do I preach a social and shared hope, not just individual endurance? Someone rightly said that it has proven difficult for the church to stand on the tiptoes of eschatology for 2000 years. No doubt. But Les Mis reminded me that people are still drawn to big hopes. People are captivated by goodness free of irony. Proclaiming that in Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come near, would seem to fit that bill

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

One Comment

  • Cathy Smith says:

    I really liked this post. Thank you for your insight about the unassuming, postmodern gospel as opposed to the eschatological, revolutionary kind of gospel, the individual versus the social impulse. I found it a helpful and valid distinction.

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