Okay, confession time.
I’m a musical theater geek. In my small Baptist college, I was in the communications department, which included theater. I was Arvide Abernathy in “Guys and Dolls” (thankfully, no video exists). I played a dynamite pirate in a summer children’s theater production (Aargh!) and performed what is generally considered to be the worst-ever performance of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet during a class. A rose by any other name, and all. I’ve written and produced plays (at church, not Broadway, of course).
My two youngest children both got involved in show choir and musical theater in high school. I would attend every night of their plays unless I had a serious conflict. I loved it! Ben gave up musical theater to pour all of this efforts into fronting a Christian rock band – a decision that still grieves me just a little bit.
So, it ought to be a surprise to no one that we stood in the long lines at the theater to see “Les Miserables” the day it came out. It was a show I’d never seen, though Ben’s musical theater group won the state banner (essentially a state championship for musical theater) performing cuttings of the show. The movie exceeded my expectations, though they should have hired a Javert who could actually sing! (By the way, if you can get the 25th Anniversary performance of the music by the Broadway actors, it is worth the time.)
The story revolves around two men. Jean Valjean is a criminal who spent 19 years at hard labor for stealing bread to feed a family member. He is paroled and embarks on a life of crime until a kindly priest shows grace to him and his life is changed. He becomes a new man. Unfortunately, his past never completely leaves him behind. He skipped parole and took on a new identity. In Victor Hugo’s classic, Valjean represents grace and the possibility of redemption.
That brings us to Javert. He is the law – unyielding, rigid, unforgiving. He pursues Valjean for decades, relentlessly, to bring him to justice. He denies the possibility that a man can change. Redemption and renewal are nothing but empty myth to Javert. His life is turned upside down when, facing death, he is rescued and freed by Valjean and his sense of justice is violated. He cannot set Valjean free, but he cannot arrest the man who saved his life either. His solution is suicide.
Les Miserables is a story of law, grace, tragedy and redemption. If you haven’t already, watch it!
I’d like to make a point about the movie, one that occurred to me as I watched the movie (again) last week. You need not point out that I am going beyond the precise intent and characterization of Hugo or those who adapted the story to stage or screen. I’m using Valjean and Javert as archetypes to make a point about the relationship of law and grace in biblical Christianity.
We Need Both Men
There is no doubt who is the hero and who is the bad guy in the movie. Javert is the antagonist who will not leave the redeemed and changed Valjean to enjoy his productive new life. Valjean heroically forges forward to demonstrate the grace he received to those in need around him. He is, perhaps, one of the best illustrations of biblical grace and redemption in literature. It is right that he is the hero.
But without Javert, the story would empty and sentimental. The relentless pursuit of justice is what gives power to Valjean’s redemption and his new life. Valjean is nothing without Javert’s unyielding hunt.
The heart and soul of Christianity is the redemption of lost sinners. We are Valjean. Jesus did not die as some kind of self-aggrandizing act of heroism. He died to save us from Javert. All humanity, lost in sin, was headed for an eternity enduring God’s holy and just wrath against sin. No amount of good works or religious ritual would change our eternal destiny. But Jesus stepped in to bear our sins, endure the death our sins deserved, satisfy God’s holiness and open the door to eternal life to all who would believe.
But we cannot understand biblical Christianity if we simply cast Javert into the outer darkness. The climactic scene of the musical is a heavenly vision of all of the characters of the movie who have passed on standing together. Noticeably absent is Javert, the man of the law. He is banished from eternal life because of his rigid pursuit of justice. That’s how righteousness is seen in our culture today. There are few actions that are evil, except any tendency to view another’s actions or choices as wrong. America is compulsively intolerant of intolerance. Javert and his insistence on moral standards has become archetypal evil.
The result of this is an empty redemption in Christianity. Without sin and guilt there is no forgiveness. Without death there is no resurrection. Without hell, there is no genuine rescue. We have created a Christianity of forgiveness from sins that aren’t really that big of a deal. Our salvation is not so much from death and hell but from unhappiness and unhealthiness.
But Valjean needs Javert. Christianity needs the commandments which are a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. We will only understand redemption, grace and renewal if we understand the depths of our plight of sin. And that is Javert’s role. He pursues us relentlessly until we cast ourselves on Christ’s mercy.
Modern Christianity needs to evidence the Valjean ethic. We need to receive grace and extend it to others. But we cannot ignore God’s law and his holy standards. We can only experience Valjean’s redemption if we also experience Javert’s pursuit which fills us with guilt and drives us to Calvary.