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Law and Les Miserables, Revisited

January 8th, 2013 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Ed. note:  I'm thrilled to publish this reflection by on Les Mis. by Dr. Jason Hood, a friend of mine and author of an important upcoming book on imitation that you should really preorder right now

In its opening weeks at the box office, some reviewers have reluctantly praised Les Miserables while panning it for being too sincere and epic, laden with “unashamed, operatic-sized sentiments.” This criticism is similar to the objections raised against Babel, the recent effort from Mumford and Sons. But just as many Christians praised Mumford and co. for letting music and faith take them soaring above cynicism, the epic new production of “Les Miz” has been racking up acclaim from Christians, including bloggers Tim Dalyrmple and Owen Strachan.

les miserablesCNN suggests that a marketing effort concentrated on evangelicals, including large institutions like Focus on the Family, is paying off at the box office. But the story’s themes of radical, beautiful grace are widely and justly celebrated. Even those who didn’t see the film in advance were pulsing with excitement. Mike Cosper wrote a paean for The Gospel Coalition even before seeing the film, urging readers to see it. Cosper’s pre-review rightly highlights the powerful depiction of grace in the film and garnered a great deal of attention (over 2,000 tweets and Facebook posts and likes at my last visit).

Cosper, Dalrymple and Strachan rightly highlight the beautiful depiction of the gospel in this classic tale. Dalrymple began his post: "I cannot think of any work of fiction that conveys the contrast between Law and Grace as vividly and profoundly as Les Miserables.” All three authors cite the distinction between law and grace in the titles of their posts, a distinction that has often been a common theme in analysis of Les Miz.

But what if the story also shows us a beautiful picture of law?

In a famous scene at the beginning of the story, we encounter a thief named Valjean who is newly released from prison. After being turned away for being a convict he is finally welcomed by a priest. He repays the kindness by stealing the priest's silver and running away. When he is caught and dragged back, the priest forgives him and even gives him more than he had taken. In the musical version, the priest sings, “By the Passion and the Blood,
 God has raised you out of darkness; 
I have bought your soul for God!”

This encounter with grace is far more beautiful and sacrificial than I can portray in this summary, but I also haven't spoiled it for you. Valjean is reformed and transformed. Yet the antagonist, a policeman named Javert, hunts Valjean down ruthlessly, as he is convinced of his own righteousness and Valjean's depravity. The common approach is that the story presents a sharp contrast between the law (Javert) and the gospel (the priest and Valjean).

But there’s another way to look at the narrative. Rather than seeing Javert as a law-riddled villain and Valjean an anti- or post-law hero, perhaps we should see two different approaches to law: one fueled by grace and the pursuit of mercy and true righteousness, the other fueled by anger and self-righteousness. When the priest and Valjean depict grace, they are in fact keeping the law. The priest is obeying the commands of Jesus: loving his neighbor, turning the other cheek, doing mercy, and forgiving freely as he has been freely forgiven by God. In other words, the picture of grace and gospel in Les Miserables is also a beautiful portrait of law and commands.  Hugo's priest isn't just a Christ-figure; he's also a Christ-follower.

Conversely, Javert might sing “Mine is the way of the Lord” while he ruthlessly pursues Valjean, but he’s wrong. His desire for justice and order is right, but his practice doesn’t represent law in any sort of biblical sense. Javert didn’t need to ditch the pursuit of law and justice; he needed grace and redemption that led to new law, a godly law that wouldn’t imprison a man for five years for stealing bread. He needed to discover merciful justice that wouldn’t imprison the poor inhumanely or treat the at-risk with ruthless contempt. In other words, he needed a law more like the law of Moses and Jesus.

Of course, any command can be used cruelly. But a healthy approach to law--an approach infused with beauty and grace--is possible, and helps us contribute to the creation of a more merciful world. In conversation with Cosper and others on Twitter, Jamie Smith pointed out that some celebrations of the story seemed to reject law wholesale, leaving little room for the vital cultural task of lawmaking and the pursuit of justice. Yes, there is a difference between law and grace, or law and gospel. But uncritical acceptance of a radical dichotomy between them can be spiritually harmful, hermeneutically disastrous, and culturally damaging. (Let me hasten to add that Cosper, Strachan, and Dalrymple aren't guilty of those charges.)

Given that the word nomos in the NT is used in many different ways, an adjustment in our taxonomy might be helpful. Joe Rigney, a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, asks why we aren’t using the label “legalism” (the ruthless, unbiblical application of constraints) instead of “law” to describe Javert.

In today’s climate, where law and constraint are dirty words and “freedom” and “liberty” are feted and glorified to the point of idolatry, it’s all too easy for law to become a derogatory label, which makes it helpful to have other terms in hand. Many contemporary Christians see law primarily in negative hues, wrongly taking Paul’s relegation of Old Testament Law—Torah—in Romans 6-7 as a rejection of any sort of command or law. But as OT scholar Jay Sklar puts it, biblical laws “are windows into the heart of the lawgiver.” When Moses gave Israel laws, he began by stressing God’s gracious redemption of his people (both versions of the Ten Commandments begin with a note of grace; Deut 5:6, Exod 20:1-2). When Jesus commanded his disciples to lay down their lives, he only did so on the basis of the fact that he was doing the same for them. And in Hugo's story, obeying Jesus’ commands on the basis of grace becomes a vehicle for the extension of grace and mercy.

Consider the irony of trying to pit mercy against biblical law. As Rigney notes, Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees for their lawlessness (Matt 23:23 and context) fits Javert: by neglecting mercy and perpetuating injustice, he was showing his utter disregard for God’s law, neglecting what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law.”

It’s the law informed by grace and mercy, not pitted against it. We find that law in the Bible; I also think we can see it in Les Miserables.

Jason B. Hood is author of Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (IVP, 2013). Among other fun activities, he teaches graduate courses in Old Testament for Union University.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.