Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Evolution of Jean Valjean

Permit me to begin this post by apologizing for being such an infrequent blogger lately. Oh, I know I’m never all that consistent at the best of times, but I’ve been really slow lately since entering into my final semester of seminary three or four weeks ago. There’s a great deal of schoolwork piling up, but I’m trying to deliberately schedule times to do a little blogging each week, so we’ll see how that goes. And in May, God willing, I will have graduated with a Master of Arts in Discipleship Ministries from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. So yay!

When it comes to theofictionology—my little gibberish term to refer to the mining of fictional works for spiritual truths that we like to do around here—this post was always going to be so easy that it could write itself. We’re turning our attention today to Les Misérables, specifically the recent film adaptation of the 1980 musical directed by Tom Hooper. I’ve never read the book, but I suppose my daughter and I will read it together before long.

Seriously. Francis Chan couldn't
unearth spiritual themes in this rubbish.
Let me be very forthcoming by outing myself as a fan of musical theatre. Yes, I’m a heterosexual man who greatly enjoys the theatre, including musicals. My undergrad degree is in theatre (specializing in acting and playwriting), I absolutely love performing on stage and oh how I wish I had the ability to sing well enough to perform in musicals, so long as they are written by someone other than Andrew Lloyd Webber. Gosh, I despise Webber’s stuff. So you probably won’t see theofictionology posts here about Cats or Phantom of the Opera. I doubt we could find anything terribly godly in something like Jesus Christ Superstar anyway.

But I digress. I love musicals and I think I’ve seen Les Mis on stage more than anything else (with the exception of Beauty and the Beast, and only that if we count some truly awful children’s theatre performances—like, the kind that suddenly interrupt the show in the middle of the climax for unfunny banter by insipid characters created by the local director; you know the type). I was looking forward to this film so hard and the first teaser trailer featuring Anne Hathaway’s brilliant performance of I Dreamed a Dream made its Christmas Day release date ever so far away. But then some other clips of the film were made available, brief bits without context (although I was familiar with the story of course) that made me very, very worried. Especially Russell Crowe. He’s a fine actor and he looks pretty much how I expect Javert to look but the clips of his singing left a whole heck of a lot to be desired.
This hat is totally anachronistic but it includes an autotuner.

I was nervous, yeah, but there was no way I was going to miss seeing Les Mis. Christmas Day came and I was going to go online and buy tickets in advance, but there was that pesky service fee and the online system indicated there were plenty of seats available and so I didn’t and, well, that’s why we saw The Hobbit on Christmas. My wife still won’t talk to me. But the good news is that we did eventually see Les Mis in the cinema and it absolutely blew me away. Yes, Russell Crowe didn’t have the slightest business being cast and the movie would have been even better with a Javert who could sing and act at the same time, but the rest of the cast was so excellent, the story so incredible and the whole affair so heartbreaking and emotional that even he couldn’t ruin it for me. I know that the film’s pretty divisive, and that’s fine if you don’t like it, but it captured me and did not let me go. Hooper created a unique experience even from seeing it on stage and I thought it worked like crazy. Remarkable. I wanted to go see it again but, y’know, childcare and all that.

The reason that this blog post more or less writes itself, however, is the fact that Les Mis is, at its heart, a story of redemption. Oh, there are a great number of themes and I could point out many of them to amplify and focus on here, but the central journey, both physical and spiritual, of Jean Valjean resonates greater than all the rest.

Of course, since the bread was from Jimmy John's,
the theft carried harsher penalties than if it were a lesser loaf.
Under the strict laws of the French penal system, Valjean spends nineteen long years in hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving nephew. Upon his release, he seeks to put his life back together but, as a convict, he’s not paid the same wage as other men for the same work and inns won’t allow him to enter and stay. A godly Bishop, however, takes pity on him and gives him a place to stay. Bitter and angry at the world in which he lives, Valjean waits until the Bishop is asleep before stealing silver and taking off in the middle of the night. He is promptly apprehended and tells the police that the silver was a gift. They scoff at him, of course, and drag him back to the Bishop to learn the truth. Much to Valjean’s shock, the Bishop not only confirms his story but gives him two valuable silver candlesticks in addition to the rest. When the police leave, the Bishop makes it clear to Valjean that his gift is given with purpose: Valjean is to take these precious metals and use the money to become an honest man. “I have bought your soul for God,” he tells him.
The Bishop look familiar? He should! It's the
REAL Valjean! Like, from Broadway and the West End!

This act of Christian kindness and generosity changes Valjean. Well, let me rephrase that. The Holy Spirit uses the Bishop’s generosity to change Jean Valjean. Oh, no one explicitly says (or sings) that but was there really that many musical numbers when it happened for you? For the rest of his life, Valjean lives in a manner consistent with being granted salvation that day. He is not perfect and he doesn’t always do the right thing, but the rest of the movie shows a man changed to the core. It’s a tale of redemption. The old has passed away and the new has come and there is evidence of that in every frame.

Valjean breaks his parole. Remember that he was just a baby Christian at this point. Years later, God has blessed him and he is a fair and generous employer and even the mayor of a town called Montreuil-sur-Mer. The man who stole from a priest is now fair, hardworking and providing a better life for others. It’s not long before he encounters Inspector Javert, who worked at the prison where Valjean served his time. Javert thinks he recognizes the old inmate, still technically a fugitive from justice, but his suspicions are proved incorrect when he announces that Valjean has been captured. The real Valjean is torn about what to do, but he knows he cannot allow an innocent man to be punished for his crimes. Prepared to throw everything away in the name of justice, he reveals his true identity to Javert so that they will release their prisoner and take him instead.

Did I mention that the ladies go crazy for transformation?
Well, the introverted bookworm girl next door type do.
Witness the remarkable change in the man. I would suggest that such a powerful change is not possible without the awesome transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Valjean decided it was more important to be right with God than to remain free.

You see, it’s impossible to be an undercover follower of Jesus Christ. I’m not saying you need to have an ichthus on your car, but the Bible is extremely clear on the fact that saving faith has very real, practical consequences in one’s life. We are saved for the purpose of doing good works (Eph. 2:10); what’s more, so-called faith without deeds is dead and cannot save (James 2:14-17). No amount of good works can get anybody into heaven, but a Christ follower whose life does not bear the fruit of good works is not a Christ follower at all (John 15:4-6).

The fruit of Valjean’s changed heart and life is in evidence throughout the film. He rescues a child and raises her as his own after the death of her mother (why in the world are there still so many orphans without a family in our nation and our world, by the way, when you cannot possibly flip through the pages of Scripture without seeing God’s heart for the fatherless?). We see him giving to the poor and needy, both money and human contact, seeing to their physical and emotional needs. We see how selfless he has become, when even his instincts for preservation are overridden by his love for others. Before being drawn to Christ, shortly after his release from prison, Valjean had emphatically stated that he would never forgive those who had imprisoned him for so long. Of course, as believers, we don’t forgive because anyone deserves to be forgiven, but rather because Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32). Forgiveness is a powerful act (and a theme, incidentally, that has woven its way into my new book, The Savvy Demon’s Guide to Godly Living, countless times), and there can be no doubt that Jean Valjean is a changed man because of whom he forgives.
"Now that I don't have all that hair
holding me back, I can totally
concentrate on acting."

I love Les Misérables for many reasons. I love the songs (you might even remember an episode of Seinfeld about how catchy some of the songs are). I love the raw, powerful performances in the film (seriously, Anne Hathaway was SO good). I love the epic story and the incredible spectacle on stage (and on film) But what I may love most of all is the incredible story of redemption.

If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, you have your own redemption story. I have mine. They may or may not be as dramatic as that of Jean Valjean, but I believe there will always be sheer power in the story of a man or woman transformed by the Holy Spirit. Look at the way following Christ has changed you. Look at the other lives you’ve touched, the people you’ve served, the disciples you’ve made. Can you trace the progression from selfish to selfless (allowing, of course, that we are works in progress who will not be finish this side of heaven)? I feel like there are few more persuasive arguments for the reality of a living, loving God than our living, breathing stories of redemption. God is in the business of changing lives. Can you believe that there’s a major Hollywood film about it?

Wrong Tony.
I’d love to hear some of your redemption story in the comments below. If it’s particularly compelling, you might even think of sending it off to Schönberg and Boublil, the fellows who originally adapted Les Mis for the stage. They couldn’t certainly use another hit and, who knows, maybe there’ll be a Tony in your future? Whether your story is destined for the Broadway stage or not, nothing can compare with how it’s going to end. What remains now is to see how many other redemption stories you’ll help inspire along the way.


  1. Wonderful post, Brad, but you didn't even mention how Hugh Jackman was, and I needed to know!

    1. The answer is "very hairy." Well, at first. He's totally rocking that beard. I was apprehensive about Jackman too because his voice is in a different range than Colm Wilkinson, the Valjean I first knew and loved, and some of the clips I had seen made it seem like he was so focused on acting and being different from the Broadway performances that he was going to lose the beauty in the melodies, but I didn't need to have worried. There were times when his acting decisions deviated from the rhythm or normal cadence of the song, but he was so good and so intense that I wouldn't second guess him. His performance in this film worked on all levels - as a singer, as an actor, as Jean freaking Valjean.