Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Les Miserables: depictions of a Christian critic

Les Miserables, the film adaptation of the book and musical of the same name, has garnered rave reviews from both the secular and religious media.

Christians have noted the themes of grace and redemption lining up with a biblical worldview. Others are wary of the depictions of violence and sex in the film, suggesting that those counteract any good that may be found in the story.

It may be that the Christian critics of the film inadvertently reveal the gospel-centered point of Les Miserables with their criticism.

Jean Valjean from Les Miserables
Art, not being a person who can place their trust in Christ, cannot be called "Christian." It can, however, flow from and point to the gospel. That is the question to ask of Les Mis – is it a film that is consistent with the gospel and can Christians affirm the message of the film?

I would say without a doubt the film is drawn from gospel themes: grace, salvation, redemption, the emptiness of legalism, the inability to find life in the law, sacrifice. All of these are pictures of the work of Christ.

Some have said these are drowned out by the film show prostitutes, rape, abuse, having characters use sexual innuendo and other depictions of actions that are far from biblical.

One of these critics is Travis Ragon, a graduate of a Baptist seminary and a licensed professional counselor.

"As a mental health professional, I have worked with the victims of rape, incest and abuses that many do not want to know exist and most deny happens in their worlds," Ragon wrote to Baptist Press. "I see no entertainment value in their graphic depiction on a movie screen."

The irony of much of the film's criticism is that it seems to mirror the legalism of Les Mis antagonist, Inspector Javert, who is unable to recognize grace because of his obsession with the law.

I don't know Ragon, so I do not want to make comments about him personally. Criticism of a film, however, that focuses solely on particular scenes while ignoring the overarching theme of the movie is legalistic.

Ragon, like many of the critics, has not seen the movie. It is much easier to pull out isolated examples of unacceptable behavior when you do not have a grasp of the whole. As Javert, who was never able to see Jean Valjean for anything more than a bread thief, critics are unable to see beyond one scene of rape.

I would hope that Ragon and other critics of the film would not want the Bible to be judged by individual scenes pulled out of the larger context of the grand story of Scripture.

Should the entire Bible be dismissed because it mentions Lot having sex with his daughters?

Or because it describes Tamar dressing as a prostitute in order to sleep with and get the attention of her father-in-law Judah?

The Bible depicts slavery, unmarried sex, rape, racism, prostitution, murder, demon possession and virtually any other sin of which you can think. Should it be judged based only on those things? Would that be fair and right?

As a graduate of seminary, Ragon would have taken a Hermeneutics class, which helps students understand how best to interpret and understand God's word. One of the first rules in biblical interpretation is "Context is king."

You do not pull verses or even passages out in isolation in an attempt to understand them. They must be interpreted within the context of the passage, the particular book and the Bible as a whole.

It is equally wrong to attempt to evaluate and understand the message of Les Mis by pulling out certain scenes that depict sinful behavior.

Anyone who has seen the film would know that the scene in which Fantine is raped is anything but appealing or sexual. It shows the brokenness of humanity and the depths at which people without hope will go.

The scene does not glorify the behavior or the lifestyle. It laments their reality and aches for someone to bring hope into the situation, as Jean Valjean later does.

Les Miserables is about a man without hope is shown grace physically and spiritually and is redeemed from a life of slavery to the law he could never obey. That is the gospel and something that Christians can rejoice is presented so clearly in a modern movie theater.

We are Jean Valjean. God has radically saved us from a life of sin and slavery. Our tendency, however, is to become Javert. Les Mis is a beautiful reminder of both of those realities.

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