In its opening weeks at the box office, some reviewers have reluctantly praised Les Miserables while panning it for being too sincere and epic, laden with "unashamed, operatic-sized sentiments." This criticism is similar to the objections raised against Babel, the recent effort from Mumford and Sons.
But just as many Christians praised Mumford and co. for letting music and faith take them soaring above cynicism, the epic new production of Les Mis has been racking up acclaim from Christians, including bloggers Tim Dalyrmple and Owen Strachan.
CNN suggests that a marketing effort concentrated on evangelicals, including large institutions like Focus on the Family, is paying off at the box office. But the story's themes of grace are widely celebrated, and even those who didn't see the film in advance were pulsing with excitement. Mike Cosper wrote a paean for The Gospel Coalition even before seeing the film, urging readers to see it. Cosper's pre-review highlighted the powerful depiction of grace in the film and garnered a great deal of attention (over 2,000 tweets and links and likes on Facebook).
Cosper, Dalrymple, and Strachan rightly see a beautiful depiction of the gospel in this film. Dalrymple began his post: "I cannot think of any work of fiction that conveys the contrast between Law and Grace as vividly and profoundly as Les Miserables." All three authors cite the distinction between law and grace in the titles of their posts, and this has been a common theme in analysis of Les Mis.
But what if the film also shows us a beautiful picture of law?
In a famous scene at the beginning of the story, we encounter a thief named Valjean, newly released from prison named. After being turned away for being a convict he is finally welcomed by a priest. He repays the priest by stealing sliver at night and running away. When he is caught with the silver and dragged back to the priest, the priest forgives him for stealing and even gives him more than he had stolen. In the musical version, the priest sings, "By the Passion and the Blood, God has raised you out of darkness; I have bought your soul for God!"
Through this encounter with grace, which is far more beautiful than I can portray in this summary, Valjean is reformed and transformed. Meanwhile, the antagonist, a policeman named Javert, hunts Valjean down ruthlessly, convinced of his own righteousness.
The common approach to the story is that we see in this story a sharp contrast between the law (Javert) and the gospel (the priest and Valjean), and there's certainly a sharp distinction between the two approaches.
But there's another way to look at the narrative. When the priest and Valjean depict grace, they are in fact keeping the law. The priest is obeying the commands of Jesus: loving his neighbor, turning the other cheek, doing mercy, and forgiving freely as he has been freely forgiven by God.
In other words, we're not just seeing a beautiful portrait of grace and gospel in Les Miserables. We're seeing a beautiful portrait of law and commands.
What's more, when Javert ruthlessly pursues Valjean and sings, "Mine is the way of the Lord," he's wrong. His desire for justice and order is right, but his practice doesn't represent law in any sort of biblical sense. Javert didn't need to ditch the pursuit of law and justice; he needed grace and redemption that led to new law, a godly law that wouldn't imprison a man for five years for stealing bread. He needed to discover merciful justice that wouldn't imprison people inhumanely or treat widows or orphans with contempt. He needed a law more like Moses' law.
Rather than seeing Javert as a law-riddled villain and Valjean an anti-law or post-law hero, we should see two different approaches to law: one fueled by God's grace and the pursuit of mercy and true righteousness, the other fueled by anger and self-righteousness.
One of those approaches reflects the law in the Bible. When Moses gave Israel laws, he began by stressing God's gracious redemption of his people. When Jesus commanded others to lay down their lives, he only did so on the basis of the fact that he was doing the same for them. As Old Testament scholar Jay Sklar puts it, biblical laws "are windows into the heart of the lawgiver."
Many contemporary Christians see law primarily in negative terms, wrongly taking Paul's relegation of Old Testament Law—Torah—in Romans 6-7 as a rejection of any sort of command or law. But in Hugo's story, obeying Jesus' commands becomes a vehicle for grace or mercy in the case of Hugo's priest and, consequently, Valjean.
Or again, what if a healthy approach to law--an approach infused with beauty and grace--is possible, and contributes to the creation of a more merciful world? James K. A. Smith, philosophy professor at Calvin College, tweeted, "I must be a terrible person because I have remarkable sympathy for Javert. #LesMis". In conversation with Cosper, Alissa Wilkinson of The King's College, Makoto Fujimura and others on Twitter, Smith pointed out that some celebrations of the story seemed to reject law wholesale, leaving little room for the vital cultural task of lawmaking and the pursuit of justice. A radical dichotomy between law and grace can be unhelpful and culturally damaging, if uncritically accepted.
Joe Rigney, a professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, rightly inquires why we aren't using the label "legalism" (a ruthless, unbiblical application of constraints) instead of "law" to describe Javert. In today's climate, where law and constraint are dirty words and "freedom" and "liberty" are feted and glorified to the point of idolatry, it's all too easy for law to become a derogatory label.
Finally, consider the irony of trying to pit mercy against biblical law. Rigney observes that Jesus' critique of the Pharisees (Matt 23:23) fits Javert: by neglecting mercy and perpetuating injustice, he was showing his disregard for God's law, neglecting what Jesus called "the weightier maters of the law."
It's the law informed by grace and mercy, not pitted against it. We find that law in the Bible; I also think we can see it in Les Miserables.
Jason B. Hood is author of Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (InterVarsity Press 2013).