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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Gospel of Les Mis

The movie, Les Misérables, is all the rage right now, winning 3 Golden Globes and earning 8 Oscar nominations. It's based on the novel by Victor Hugo, which many consider one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. The story begins in 1815 and ends in 1832, at the time of the June Rebellion in Paris. It follows the life of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who after being released from prison (for stealing a loaf of bread), breaks parole in order to create a new life for himself and consequently is pursued mercilessly by Inspector Javert, who knew Valjean when he was a prisoner (in this respect the movie differs somewhat from the book).

One of the novel's (and movie's) themes is how the Gospel is lived out by Valjean and Javert. For Valjean the Gospel's characterized by mercy and forgiveness, largely because of the (largely undeserved) mercy shown to him by an elderly Catholic priest shortly after Valjean release from prison. By contrast, for Javert, the Gospel's characterized by law and judgment, which is why he relentlessly pursues Valjean for his past crimes. Toward the story when Valjean spares Javert's life, Javert discovers that he's unable to turn Valjean over to the authorities. Unable to resolve the conflict between his belief in the law and the mercy shown to him by Valjean, Javert throws himself into the Seine and commits suicide.

The centrality of this theme is interesting because the same debate continues to this day. It appears that for some Christians the Gospel's all about mercy and forgiveness, while for others the Gospel's all about law and judgment. I don't want to suggest that people shouldn't be held responsible for their actions, but a little dose of mercy when dealing with the shortcomings of ourselves and others is surely the better way.

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