Les Misthéologies

Les misA Boston Globe columnist by the name of Jennifer Graham has recently fallen under the spell of the theatrical and movie musical of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables. For some reason she has chosen to mark her love of the show by picking a fight with “professional atheists” in an op-ed published on January 1, 2013, titled “The faith personified in ‘Les Mis’.”

Having seen Les Misérables on stage for the first time a month ago at a local high school, Graham wondered, “Who’s the slacker who let God in the building?” She is impressed by the “deeply spiritual nature” of the show and imagines that the deity who has been “driven from classrooms” now “dreams a dream: of a culture that is receptive to religion.” I suppose it’s those pesky atheists who have driven her God from classrooms, but judging by the steeples and crosses that frequent the cities and towns of Massachusetts, where Graham lives, it’s hard to imagine why her God needs to dream of a receptive culture.

Her snipe at atheists out of the way, Graham focuses her attention in the column on the conversion of Jean Valjean. The well-known plot introduces Valjean, who has been a prisoner for fourteen years for stealing a loaf of bread, as he is finally about to be paroled. He immediately steals silverware from a bishop, but when he is caught the bishop claims to have given the goods to Valjean, and, in an act of radical forgiveness, gives him even more loot before sending him on his way. Valjean uses this small fortune to create large fortune with which he does much good. But in the process he breaks parole and is relentlessly hunted by the menacing Javert, whose sole goal in life appears to be to lock away a good man because of a technicality.

When I saw the original Broadway production of Les Misérables in 1987, the enduring images were those of the subplot of the rebels on the barricade. The staging of those scenes somehow embodied the ideals for which they were fighting, and the most stirring and forceful of the show’s lyrics and melodies come from the mouths of the young revolutionaries envisioning a new world for all:

Red — the blood of angry men!
Black — the dark of ages past!
Red — a world about to dawn!
Black — the night that ends at last!

Against that backdrop, Jean Valjean personifies, not faith in God, as Graham would have it, but faith in humanity’s ability to recognize the need for change and to fight for the common good, even at great personal risk. Yes, the musical drips with god-language. Many of the characters consider themselves to be “owned” by God, or to be the children of such a being. The bishop tells Valjean, “I have bought your soul for God.” Valjean sings, “My soul belongs to God, I know / I made that bargain long ago.” Fantine in her despair dreams of a forgiving God. But the actions of these characters are those of flesh and blood men and women who dare to attempt to improve their own lot and that of their neighbors in the face of an established order that wants nothing more than to keep them down.

Sitting in a movie theater a few weeks ago at an advance screening of the new film version of the show, I was not struck as much by the actions of the revolutionaries. The sweeping camera-work and realistic sets somehow diminished them. What hit me with incredible force, however, in this up-close-and-personal Les Mis, were the two theological ideologies that are at war throughout the show. Javert’s dogmatic obedience to a God of righteousness (“Mine is the way of the Lord,” he sings) is contrasted over and over with Valjean’s sense of a God who forgives, comforts, and provides guidance and, finally, an eternal home.

While witnessing the acts of the characters who embraced these theologies, I could not help but notice the utter inadequacy and ultimate harmfulness of both. It is easy to dismiss Javert’s theology, based in an image of a vengeful God who demands obedience and righteousness; in her op-ed column, Jennifer Graham doesn’t even mention Javert’s God. Describing the God of Valjean et al., though, she speaks of “the impermeable hope of people who believe there’s more beyond the barricade, that somewhere there’s a Garden of the Lord.” Scholar M. D. Faber has a more precise and pointed take on the theological underpinnings of many Christians, including, I would say, Valjean and his compatriots:

A multilayered, multifaceted system of magical behavior, Christianity as theology and rite is designed to accomplish nothing less than the veiling, or perhaps the removal, of our chief biological tormentors, namely, separation, smallness (or vulnerability), and death, and replace them with a perfectionist scheme whereby the believer enjoys loving union with a Parent-God from Whom he will never be parted, protection and empowerment through a Parent-God Whose omnipotence flows toward his dutiful followers, and immortality or an escape from death through Jesus Christ’s sacrificial gift, freely offered to all those who turn to Him sincerely and ask.

The goal of religion’s “magical goings-on,” says Faber, “is to infantilize the participant, to restore him . . . to the period in which he was secure in the protective, loving, salvational care of a big one, a parental shepherd after whom he followed like a bleating lamb for several crucial years” (emphasis in original). Nowhere in Les Mis is this more apparent than in Valjean’s beautifully melodic but dramatically overwrought death scene. The long-dead Fantine reappears and sings, “Come with me / Where chains will never bind you,” to which Valjean responds, “Forgive me all my trespasses / And take me to your glory.” I suppose one person’s Garden of the Lord may well be another’s infantilistic wish for a magical sense of security, but the overall effect of this theology in the film version was to inhibit the impact of the goodness of Jean Valjean in the face of his past in a repressive justice system and his efforts to turn that past on its head by being, simply put, a good man.

Placed next to the novel Les Misérables (which should never be reduced to Les Mis), the musical is narrowly focused and lightweight. (Jennifer Graham does not say whether she has read the novel; I suspect she has not.) Hugo biographer Graham Robb points out that Hugo himself provided many clues, via pre-publication press releases, about the “real” nature of the novel:

Long before it came out, everyone knew that Les Misérables was not just a novel, it was “the social and historical drama of the nineteenth century,” “a vast mirror reflecting the human race, captured on a given day of its enormous existence”; “Dante made a hell with poetry; I have tried to make one with reality.”

No less a reader than Robert Louis Stevenson assessed Les Misérables in this way:

The deadly weight of civilization to those who are below presses sensibly on our shoulders as we read. A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find Society rejecting, again and again, the services of the most serviceable . . . The terror we thus feel is a terror for the machinery of law, that we can hear tearing, in the dark, good and bad between its formidable wheels.

Quite distinct from Jennifer Graham’s narrow interpretation of the musical version, Les Misérables the novel is not a singular story of one man’s salvation, nor is it a statement of the faith of the author or any of its characters. The redemption of Jean Valjean is one aspect of the novel, but it is what societal systems do with this man that make up most of Victor Hugo’s palette. The experience of Hugo’s great story on stage or screen simply cannot rise to the level of the novel itself—and I say this as one who appreciates and is moved by much of the music, was absolutely bowled over by the Broadway production, and found much to praise about the film version. Reading the book, however, nearly 30 years ago, was a much more visceral and memorable experience than either of these.

Getting back to Graham’s silly charge against atheists and the “banishment” of God from schools, it practically goes without saying that such a charge is absurd. And the fact that a high school theater department puts on a production of Les Misérables does not represent a stealthy return of God to school any more than a stealthy promotion for Javert’s vengeful style of justice or the armed rebellion of students. It is a story in which fictional characters with various motives and traits work through the obstacles between themselves and their goals. It is a theatrical showcase that can entertain and inspire audiences with its plot, music, and the performances of the singers and actors. It is neither a sermon nor a profession of Christian faith. Jennifer Graham would do well to praise and support her local high school’s artistic endeavors for what they are—a vital piece of the education and development of a generation—rather than turn a good night at the theater into a diatribe in favor of state support of a particular religion.


Les Misérables:

Book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil; Based on the novel by Victor Hugo; Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel; Additional text by James Fenton.

Books cited:

M. D. Faber. Becoming God’s Children: Religion’s Infantilizing Process. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.

Graham Robb. Victor Hugo: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

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