Les Misérables and Spiritual Portraits

Figurative Portraits

The Bible often juxtaposes dichotomous characters to convey a message. Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and Saul, the Pharisees and tax collectors, etc.

The Bible teaches by explicitly saying, but also by figuratively portraying. This is a major difference between the Old and New Testaments—poetic reflection versus doctrinal precision. It’s a beautiful combination that accommodates the left and right-brained alike.

Victor Hugo imbues substantial spiritual meaning in his characters in Les Misérables. And, as any Proust reader would acknowledge, character development itself can spin a meaningful narrative quite apart from plot. A similar, deceptively concise summary as, “Marcel becomes a writer“, can be ascribed to the second half of Genesis—”Jacob becomes Israel.” The real plot here concerns, not events, but character development.

The Power of Parables

In the characters of a story, we may see truths more readily, or perhaps be impressed more lastingly. We see in them those elusive bits of ourselves that are impossible to articulate.

“Does not even modern man (and his mass media) live not only by arguments but also by stories, not only by concepts but also by images- often very primitive images- and does he not always need valid images and stories that can be retold?

As if men had only ears and not eyes…

As if Christian faith were merely a matter of intellect and did not have to stir the whole man.

As if being stirred could ever be replaced by intellectual comprehension…

The possibility certainly cannot be excluded that in any particular situation an apparently vague image or simple narrative may be able to say more of what is ultimately ineffable and lay bare more of the depth structure of reality than the apparently so precise and for that very reason so fixed, inflexible, restricted concept, than the supposedly clear and definite and for that very reason so one-sided and colorless argumentation or documentation. Just so does poetry occasionally come closer to the mystery of nature and of man than the most accurate description or photograph.”

-Hans Küng, On Being a Christian p. 413-414

Paul relied upon this method of pedagogy in 1 Corinthians and Galatians:

Now these things, brothers, I have transferred in figure to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us the matter… –1 Corinthians 4:6

These things are spoken allegorically, for these women are two covenants, one from Mount Sinai, bringing forth children unto slavery, which is Hagar. — Galatians 4:24

The Lord Jesus Himself taught through parables that juxtaposed characters with spiritual meaning. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14 is a great example and expresses a motif common to Les Misérables—righteousness, prayer, justification. The short story of the Pharisee and the tax collector makes a deeper impression on us than the concluding aphorism.

In the introduction to The Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee explains further:

“Christianity is not only built upon precepts, but also upon examples… God has not only directed His people by means of abstract principles and objective regulations, but by concrete examples and subjective experience… He worked in [others’] lives, producing in them what He Himself desired, and He bids us look at them, so that we may know what He is after.

We learn more readily by what we see than by what we hear, and the impression upon us is deeper. That is why God has given us so much history in the Old Testament, and the Acts of the Apostles in the New. He knows we learn more easily by example than by precept. Examples have greater value than precepts, because precepts are abstract, while examples are precepts carried into effect. By looking at them, we not only know what God’s precepts are, but we have a tangible demonstration of their outworking.”

In Les Misérables the principles of law and grace are transferred in figure to Javert and Jean Valjean. Through their story we can receive a deep and lasting impression of what Paul meant when he said,But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been manifested (Rom. 3:21).”

9 thoughts on “Les Misérables and Spiritual Portraits

  1. wow…it’s interesting that a worldly amusement such as a famous movie would be useful to give an impression of the Bible. I thank the Lord for giving us patterns! Even He Himself became a pattern to us (Eph. 4:32).

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    • Yes, but before it was a famous movie it was a famous musical, and before it was a famous musical it was a famous novel. What I am really responding to is the principles embodied in the storyline (really the lyrics of the musical). In Acts 17, Paul used the lyrics of pagan poets in his gospel message to the Athenians on Mars Hill. We need to learn how to enter into people’s situation with the gospel and have a conversation with them.

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      • Amen.. now I see.. thanks for making it clear. I always wanted to have a good conversation with my friends and eventually share them with the gospel. But I always had a difficulty of relating those things (movies, novels, stories) to the gospel just like Paul did. Should it really be that difficult? What do we need to do to learn entering into people’s situation and supply them according to their need?

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        • I think it’s a learning process. The most important thing is having a heart for people around us and acting on our burden for them. The more you speak, the more you’ll learn. But current events are usually a great opener for a conversation about Jesus, or meaning, or redemption.

          I’ve written about this before here: http://lifeandbuilding.com/2011/09/18/principles-in-contextualizing-the-gospel/

          Also check out “The Ministry of the Word” Vol 13, No. 7 July 2009 message 3 on the Gospel of the Kingdom if you want an example from Andrew Yu.

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          • Thanks brother. It was a very helpful post. I guess I’ll be needing more time to realize the Lord’s anointing…or maybe He did but I was just not taking heed. I have yet to read the ministry of the word. ..thanks for the references.

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  2. I remembered the matter of character development when a brother shared about the apostle Paul. On the way to Damascus, while he was struck by the great light, Paul said, “Who are you, Lord?” But during his ministry, Paul already said, “To know Him…”
    Paul the persecutor became Christ’s leading apostle! He leads us to pursue the Lord….

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  3. I appreciate your bringing up this literary work, Kyle. I encounter many Christians who mention Les Miserables as obviously Christian. Yet I’m still a bit confused with the parallel of the character development in Les Miserables and the spiritual portraits. Do you mind drawing it more clearly? For instance, which character portrays what.

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    • I was mostly thinking about Javert and Jean Valjean. They portray the difference between law and grace. I think the song Stars is a great example of Javert’s law-bent nature. I’ve been thinking about doing a post on them, but I’ve been traveling this last week. We’ll see!

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  4. Pingback: The Giver- A Christian Interpretation | life and building

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