Conversion in Les Miserables
Les Miserables is a work of art that has greatly moved my soul over the past month and a half. To be honest, the first time I was exposed to it was the movie/musical version that came out this past December. It has been a long time since a movie has struck such an emotional core in my soul. What moved me so much isn’t the amazing acting or the captivating song writing, but the incredible story written by Victo Hugo. I started reading the book in January, but with all the school reading I doubt I will be able to get too much into the massive 2000 pages of Les Miserables. However I hope to maybe read it through this year.
The story is filled with Gospel and Christian themes. The story addresses hope in the midst of suffering, tension between Gospel and the Law, conversion as seen in the life change of Jean Valjean as a result of the bishops grace, fatherly love and sacrifice. and forgiveness and mercy to the worst of enemies. This whole work is filled with those amazing themes that draw me to the true story of the whole world, the story of God.
It is a work that continues to flood my mind as I think about the emotions of the story and listen to the sound track over and over again. It is a story that I have yet to wear out. The wonderful themes come back and resonate my heart time and time again.
The character that amazes me the most in Jean Valjean. Here is a man who was thrown into prison just for stealing a mouth full of bread. His young life was taken from him, just for trying to survive. As he “looked down” in the chains of his slavery he grew embittered and hatred in his heart spread to the depth of his soul until the man has a conversion experience. A kind and compassionate Bishop shows mercy to this ex convict and invites him in for dinner and rest. Jean Valjean is amazed that the bishop would do this, but his heart had become so dark and bitter that he stole the precious silver of the bishop and escaped in the middle of the night. He stole from the only man who showed him kindness.
Jean Valjean gets caught and brought back before the Bishop with the silver in his hand. Valjean came up with the excuse that the Bishop “gave it to him”. When the Bishop is told the story, the Bishop does the most astonishing thing. He shows Jean Valjean compassion and he goes along with his story saying that not only did he give him the silver, but forgot the most valuable pieces. Jean Valjean, by an act of the Bishops sacrificial generosity, is spared from the return to the pit of imprisonment.
This incredible unimaginable act of mercy stands in stark contrast to the life Jean Valjean has come to know. The bishops generosity is out of place in the suffering of revolutionary France. This incredible grace shown to Valjean has a born-again experience in his life. He is converted in response to the grace given to him by the bishop.
This leads to my favorite song in the musical, Jean-Valjean’s soliloquy. I’ve yet to read this in the book, but the song’s lyrics and melody captures the emotional intensity of his conversion. He begins as a man hardened by the suffering and injustice of the cruel world. He hates the man that this world has turned him into. He is swimming in the whirl pool of his own sin, and it disgusts him. Jean Valjean gets up and declares “Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin!” Jean Valjean has been “born-again”. He is a new man who has been given a new life/
This moment sets up the whole rest of the story and powerfully communicates the beauty of the Gospel. For the rest of the movie we see Jean Valjean who extends mercy to others because he first was extended mercy by the bishop. He shows compassion on the suffering Fantine, adopts the helpless and abused Cossette as his own daughter, has mercy on his archenemy Javiar, and saves Marius from the lonely barricade. The whole movie is one man who responds to mercy with extravagant mercy himself.
Valjean’s transformation is foiled by the law keeping Javair. The themes are made complete at the end of the tale. When Jean Valjean shows Javair the same underserved mercy that the Bishop showed him, Javair experience despair rather than conversion. Javiar cannot accept mercy in his world of justice, rules, and legalism. Rather than accepting the mercy given to him, he hardens his heart and spits back Valjean’s mercy by taking his own life.
Two men and two different responses to grace. Humanity has those same two same responses to God’s grace. We either humble accept the forgiveness given to us in Christ or we reject it and harden our calloused hearts. Grace can melt our hearts our stiffen them with pride. When the Gospel is presented we have those same two options. We can respond like Jean Valjean or we can respond like Javair. Accepting God’s mercy and forgiveness frees us from our past and empowers to live lives of extreme compassion. Rejecting God’s mercy leads to hardness, intolerance, and hatred. Accepting God’s mercy leads to life. Rejecting God’s mercy leads to destruction.
What Gospel themes have you seen in the story of Les Miserables? Why do books and movies so often point us to the true story of the whole world? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments!