Faith, Hope, and Les Misérables

Les MisWhile visiting Toronto on Christmas vacation (no, not that kind), I had the opportunity to see Les Misérables (2012). The film was great. I saw the production on Broadway nearly two decades ago and loved it. Many years back, I even bought the book (admittedly, I never finished the weighty tome, but I frequently see it on the shelf beckoning for my complete attention). I’ve watched the BBC production of the 10th Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall on PBS numerous times—so many times, in fact, that my wife purchased the two-disc collector’s edition and gave it to me as a gift last year. Listening to my children sing songs from the film on our nine-hour drive back to Chicago was priceless.

The story, music, drama . . . there’s no denying it: I love Les Misérables.

But a recent report indicating that part of the recent success of the film was target marketing to religious groups—especially Protestant evangelicals in the U.S.—has me scratching my head. When overt religious themes emerge in films and books, corporate marketers publicly court faith communities. In the process, they risk impoverishing the broader public conversation by bifurcating the audience, polarizing discourse, and dismissing the needs of society as a whole.

Had I been duped? Did a marketing campaign lead me, unwittingly, to seek the film out on my winter break? I don’t recall ever attending a special viewing. My (evangelical) college never ran advertising for the film in the student paper. My church never held special discussion groups either (though, to be fair, my church is a United Methodist congregation and not identifiably evangelical). Perhaps the film, with admittedly sub-par renditions of some songs, only appeals to me because of my religious background.

The film’s pronounced themes of love, forgiveness, and redemption certainly appeal to me as a Christian. And, as with so many other great works in the history of literature, Les Misérables draws deep from the wellsprings of the Old and New Testaments—a fact we too quickly overlook in an age of alarming biblical illiteracy (alarming, at least, for all those who wish to understand the history of Western politics, philosophy, science, and literature).

The day after I watched the film, I happened to sit down and read the Bible with my family (certainly not something we do every day, but it’s not unheard of either). We were reading from Hebrews 11 on the meaning and history of faith (“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”). In time, we began discussing the film—the yearning for freedom and hope, and the complex vision of heavenly redemption in the final scene of the movie.

Let’s be clear: the fact that my family was engaged in devotional Bible-reading places us squarely in the evangelical orbit. There’s no denying it. Family Bible reading is a tradition going back hundreds of years. Theater-going . . . not so much (but that’s for another day). Surely I don’t love Les Misérables just because I am a Christian though, right?

No, I suspect a better explanation exists. Les Misérables addresses fundamental aspects of human existence—just as the Bible does. Great artistic works resonate with the human heart because of a deep (religious) longing within all humans. Les Misérables encourages—demands, even—reflection on the human person, freedom, poverty, justice, and redemption. We ought not be surprised when great writers capture a reader’s imagination with ideas of universal concern.

Perhaps the real question, after all, is not why Hollywood markets films such as Les Misérables to Protestants, Catholics, or any other religious body. If ideas such as love, freedom, justice, and peace—the themes that Les Misérables and other artistic masterpieces portray—are universal concerns, then the real question is why religion is so often marginalized, pidgeon-holed, and portrayed as the exclusive concern of a few.

Dialogue about themes of ultimate concern are essential to the public good. Religion provides answers to the existential questions raised in the human heart. Great works of art—not only Les Misérables, but even so sacred a text as the Bible—enrich the conversation, challenge unreflected social norms, and offer symbols of faith, hope, and love.