Grace > Penace: My Take on Les Miserables

My wife and I went to see Les Miserables last weekend. We got the rare chance to see the movie on a Friday afternoon when the only other patrons were a handful of elderly couples. Which gave us the opportunity to hear this beauty yelled out during the preview, “Tell Harold with it being this loud he won’t need his hearing aids.” Not all elderly couples liked Les Miserables. One elderly couple walked out halfway through the movie. I heard them say to their friends, “It wasn’t what we were expecting.” I am not sure what they were expecting, but to each his own.

Much has been written about Les Miserables and better reviews are out there. Like this one:

I have about as much ability to review this movie as Sam Richardson does. (Whoever that might be), but there are some things I really liked about the movie.

1. The Music:

Either you’ll love it or hate it. I loved it. It made sense to me. It gives me hope that I can still fulfill my life-long, boyhood dream to sing horribly off-key on a Broadway stage.

Some have criticized Russel Crowe’s selection as Javert, mainly because he seems too stiff and his singing is nasely and stale. But what represents the rigidness of the Law more than someone stiff, stale, and lacking the Technicolor that represents the spectrum of life’s experience.

“I Dreamed and Dream” Until the movie, I had never realized that song was actually quite sad and void of much hope. Susan Boyle surprised us all with her, now famous, rendition of it on American Idol, or was it Britain’s Idol, some Idol show. Either way, although Susan sang it beautifully, we were all miss led by the way she sang it. Seeing how Anne Hathaway sang the song in the musical brings the emotion of the situation and the lyrics of the song into new light.

2. Grace or Penance

There was one thing that I loved about the movie above all other things and that was the way in which Grace was portrayed in the movie. Law vs. Grace is an obvious major theme of the book and musical. If the story is anything it is about the stark contrast between a life impacted by the Law and a life changed by Grace. This is weaved, by and large, through the lives and interactions of Jean Valjean and Javert.

What I thought the musical/movie did so well was portray how a life can be completely changed by Grace. Grace, loosely defined theologically, is the unmerited favor of God onto sinful humans through, in, and by Jesus Christ’s saving work on the cross. The movie did a great job of portraying this on the big screen. While there wasn’t a stong present of the Christ exalting grace, that most evangelicals would identify with, it was still more than most any Hollywood movie has dared to put on the screen in a while. I was so surprised by this in the movie because so often, instead of giving us a character changed by Grace, Hollywood gives us a character pursuing penance.

My definition of penance is an act whereby one tries to absolve themselves of past sins and wrongdoings by performing some morally good act to even up the scales hoping in the end the good will outweight the bad. Often times in movies and tv shows when a character goes through a transformation from bad to good, we see this character living with this dark past and trying to make it right through good acts. This has less to do with Grace that transforms a life and more to do with the idea of earning God’s favor through good deeds.

Too often movies and tv portray a life transformation through the life of a character pursuing penance, not transformed by grace. It makes sense. Grace is hard to comprehend. Unmerited favor from the God of the universe? Let me absolve my guilt by earning it. That seems more in line with my human sensibilities and experience.

I was glad to see Les Miserables the movie, display more grace rather than penance. Through Jean Valjean, we see on the screen, a life touched by unmerited favor at the lowest point in his life. This grace changes him from an angry, bitter man to a man giving grace to all those that cross his path. He does hide his past, but it seems less about guilt and more to continually protect those he loves. Jean Valjean seems to be a man living a life of freedom that only Grace can bring and not constantly dragged down by the guilt of past sins.

All this begs the question to my fellow Christians: Are you living a life changed by grace or are you pursuing penance? Have you let the full weight of God’s unmerited favor through His Son Jesus Christ change your life or are you daily trying to pursue penance, as if your “good works” could bring balance to God’s scale of justice?


About Todd Van Dyke

Father, Husband, Son, and most of all lover of Christ.
This entry was posted in Christian Life, movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Grace > Penace: My Take on Les Miserables

  1. Larry says:

    Excellent. Keep up the great writing.

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