THE GOSPEL ON BROADWAY
Written by Doug Ponder on January 16, 2013
The Gospel on Broadway?
First published in 1862, Les Misérables is widely considered one the greatest novels of the 19th Century. Over a hundred years later, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece has been adapted as a Broadway musical. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, its powerful story of brokenness, injustice, vengeance, corruption, mercy, forgiveness, freedom, and hope portrays facets of the gospel in powerful ways. (Recent adaptions of the story also include two movies, a non-musical rendition released in 1998, and an adaption of the Broadway musical released in December of 2012.)
One of the true strengths of Les Misérables is its accurate depiction of human experience. Life in this world is broken, and people respond to that brokenness in different ways. Some use the world for their own advantage, seeking relief from the brokenness at the expense of others. Other people respond to the brokenness of the world by judging themselves worthy to earn the approval and acceptance of a higher authority. Yet there are some people who respond to the brokenness of the world through humility, realizing that they are part of why the world has come to be the way it is. When the last group of people reach out to God for help, they find mercy and grace in their time of need (Heb. 4:16).
That view of reality is different from how most of us see things. We tend to divide the world into two kinds of people—good and bad. But this is wrong. As C.S. Lewis famously said, there are not just two kinds of people in the world; there are three, and Les Misérables depicts all of them beautifully.
The First Kind of Person
The first kind of person lives for their own sake and pleasure, manipulating the world (including other human beings) to suit their own ends. They are narcissistic and selfish, having no concern for others. They are not ignorant of their corruption and brokenness; they merely do not care. And in their hardness of heart, the last thing they’d do is submit to some authority, especially if it involves someone else’s well-being.
Example: The Thenardiers, the innkeepers, take from everyone anything they can. They care nothing for the wellbeing of others, and they show no signs of remorse for their misdeeds, despite having been shown mercy more than once in the story. Here is how Victor Hugo described them in the book, “There are souls that, crablike, crawl continually toward darkness, going backward in life rather than advancing, using their experience to increase their deformity, growing continually worse, and becoming steeped more and more thoroughly in an intensifying viciousness.”
The Second Kind of Person
The second kind of person lives under some authority—whether religion, the good of society, or some notion of justice—trying to appease their conscience through moral performance. Such people may either feel guilty and depressed, if they suppose that they have done poorly, or else they will be prideful and self-righteous, if they suppose that they have done well. But in neither case, the last thing such people do is ask for help. In their despair, they redouble their efforts to obey and earn the authority’s approval and acceptance. In their self-righteousness, they deem themselves worthy to judge others, since they have already attained the authority’s blessing.
Example: Javert, the rigid inspector who is always looking to punish the “unrighteous,” cannot comprehend the notion of forgiveness and mercy, nor does he think he is in need of such things. Notice the self-righteousness that seeps through every line of his solo featured in the musical adaption of Les Misérables:
There, out in the darkness,
A fugitive running,
Fallen from God,
Fallen from grace.
God be my witness,
I never shall yield
Till we come face to face.
He knows his way in the dark.
Mine is the way of the Lord.
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward.
And if they fall as Lucifer fell,
The flame, the sword!
And in a later verse he sings:
And so it must be, and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!
Notice it is only the fugitive who has “fallen from God, fallen from grace.” Javert believes that he knows “the way of the Lord,” that he has “follow[ed] the path of the righteous,” and that he “shall have [his] reward.” Thus he is perfectly happy to overlook his many sins and injustices, while insisting, without mercy, that “those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.”
The 3rd Kind of Person
The third kind person is one who recognizes that he is not good in himself. Such people know their history in the past and tendencies in the present to act like either the first or second group of people. But because of their honesty about their condition and their belief that God has shown them mercy in Christ, they are changed.
Example: Jean Valjean, the protagonist of the story, is a man who served punishment as slave for 19 years—five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children and fourteen years for attempting escape. After being released on “parole” Valjean discovers that life after crime isn’t easy. No one trusts him and everyone mistreats him because of his past, except for a merciful bishop who offers to feed him and give him shelter from the cold. In a moment of desperation, Valjean foolishly steals from the bishop in the middle of the night, only to be caught by the police later that morning. Then something happens that Valjean did not expect. Though the bishop had the right to see him punished for the crime, he tells the police that he “gave” Valjean the silver that had actually been stolen, and he blesses Valjean, singing:
By the witness of the martyrs,
By the Passion and the Blood,
God has raised you out of darkness.
I have claimed your soul for God.
Because he understood the mercy of Jesus toward his own sins, the bishop could show mercy to a criminal like Valjean. But having never known forgiveness before, Valjean struggles to understand the mercy he has been shown:
What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack.
Instead he offers me my freedom.
I feel my shame inside me like a knife.
He told me that I have a soul.
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
Valjean discovers the “other way to go,” the way of the third kind of person, by recognizing his need for forgiveness and believing that God has shown him mercy. Having felt the sting of his sin, having tasted forgiveness and mercy, Valjean is changed forever.
When Tomorrow Comes
There are many other “gospel themes” in Les Misérables that time doesn’t allow me to explore: a woman sacrificing to save the life of her child, a stranger adopting an orphan to love her as his own, a man who spares the life of his enemy, and the promise that, when tomorrow comes, “We will live again in the garden of the Lord. We will walk behind the plough-share; we will put away the sword. The chains will be broken and all men will have their reward.” (cf. Isaiah 2:1-5)
The question for us all is this: When tomorrow comes—when Jesus returns—what will our reward be?
Like the Thenardiers, will you receive the “reward” that awaits a life spent only in selfish pursuits, in which you trampled over others to benefit yourself? Or like Javert, will you receive the “reward” that awaits a life spent judging others by a law that even you can’t keep? Or like Valjean, will you receive the reward that awaits all those who say to God, “Forgive me for my trespasses and take me to your glory”?
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.