My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What a huge novel. Imagine how much was left out for the stage musical. And imagine how much is left out in any review.
And I am also a leaver-out. Because, apart from enjoying the storyline, my reaction to Les Miserables is to ponder the kind of Christianity it presents. Everything else I will leave out.
This novel’s Christianity has high regard for Jesus, but not for the gospel. It loves the practice and consequences of Christianity, but not the heart of Christianity.
Consequently, I think, it is deficient. But more than deficient – this deficiency is also misrepresentation.
Time for some detail, to see if my impression fits the details.
Firstly, the high regard for Jesus. This is from the start to the end. The first primary character is a humble, servant-minded bishop. He lives on almost none of his stipend, in order to give it away – he copies Jesus. It’s the encounter with this bishop that transforms the life of Jean Valjean, Les Mis’ central character.
In the final pages, Jesus and the cross appear again. A crucifix features, with subtle significance, and Jesus is named as the true martyr.
But secondly, I think there’s no gospel. Jesus is good as an example to follow but no more. The bishop imitated and sacrificed, Valjean sacrifices too. Therefore they are demonstrated as real Christians.
They sweat and toil in efforts to copy Jesus. They do not seem to have any time to joyfully rest by faith in the grace of God’s forgiveness. There is no grace, and therefore no ‘faith apart from works’.
Valjean’s immense strength is physical, but I believe it’s also a symbol of his spiritual status – he’s a hero because of what he does. He’s an impressive man, and it feels like it’s all his own work.
It’s telling that the frequently-used divine name – the good God – is perfectly austere and distant. The God of the Bible is not Immanuel, God with us in the grace of Christ’s gospel. He is, rather, the mysterious force who ordains, and desires that we turn ourselves into good people.
Finally, this is not just a deficiency but misrepresentation.
It is perfectly possible to talk truly about God, but never possible to say everything about him. There is a point to God-talk, despite our limits! This is, we might say ‘deficiency but truth’.
Unfortunately, Les Mis is so lacking that the omissions twist God into a lie. The God of Valjean is not Father, gracious, forgiving, welcoming. He is instead austere, stern, and clinically pure. This God is not quick to condemn, thankfully – not judgemental over minor error. Yet neither is he the Abba, Father of Romans 8:15.
Going back to the plot, I think this deficiency drives one of the features of the novel. Valjean is decidedly committed to following his conscience (which is actually called ‘God’ at one point). But he remains disconnected from people, hiding facts and ‘protecting’ those he cares for. I think, in the end, Valjean’s relationships with people are all duty and not really love. In this, the hero relates to people just as he relates to God.
So, let’s enjoy Les Mis! It’s rightly a classic. And let’s enjoy the fact that it does not disparage God, but places him at the centre of concern for the miserable of the world. But do not be tricked – this novel does not present to us the God of the Gospel, the true God whom we meet by faith in the Lord Jesus.