Les Mis: A Worldview Lab

Contrary to popular assumptions about “worldview,” the issue involves much more than simply the propositions you think. Thinking certainly is an important part of it all, but much more is necessary—as a particular case study of Les Mis may show. For many reasons, I believe that reactions to Les Mis are a great way for Christians to check up on how many unexamined assumptions from the surrounding world they may have picked up.

Now before anybody rushes off to man the barricades—heh—I am not saying that liking Les Mis makes you a bad Christian. I am saying that liking Les Mis means that you need to grow in your worldview sanctification—and because this is true of every mother’s son of us, there need be no offense taken.

A worldview is comprised of a culture’s framework of assumptions about reality, and these assumptions manifest themselves in four basic elements. Two of them are propositional, and two of them are lived out or enacted. A worldview consists of much more than what a person says or thinks. It includes that, obviously, but it also goes well beyond the articulated level of propositions. Many Christians believe that if a movie (or play or show) avoids flatly contradicting biblical propositions, or if biblical propositions can be successfully projected onto the production, then all is good. Obviously the propositions do matter, but they are not the only things that matter.

So what are the four elements of a worldview? The first propositional assumption is catechesis and answers the question “what do we believe? What do we confess?” This is the element that most people think of when the word worldview is invoked. The second is narrative, and answers the question, “Who are we, how did we get here, and where are we going?” The main key to understanding Les Mis rightly, as I will tell you right now, is found in this second element.

The first of the two non-propositional assumptions about reality is symbol, and the fourth is lifestyle. These two will enter our discussion a bit, but they are not where the main action is.

Now suppose I tell you a story of an officer who is serving his country during the course of a war that his side is losing, but he is not in the front lines. He is an aristocrat, and he falls in love with a peasant woman in a nearby village. His family is unalterably opposed to the match, and her family is filled with doubts and suspicions. Behind all the romantic drama, the ins and outs, the ups and downs, is the prospect of him being called up to combat duty. A fellow officer, married and with three small children to support, is called up to the front lines. Our protagonist, after much turmoil and soul searching, volunteers to take his fellow officer’s place, a request which is granted. He does this with the support of his love interest, and she sends him off with many tears. He is killed in action two days before the war is over.

Now on the surface, we can easily identify the Christian elements of love and sacrifice in a story like this. They are right there, lying on the surface of the story. It has Christian “themes,” right?

But what happens if we fill in a few more contextual elements? What happens to the Christian “bones” of the story then? Suppose we fill them in without altering anything we have said so far. The officer is a German officer in the course of the Second World War, the girl is a Bavarian peasant, and the American soldier who shot him was your great-grandfather. Now what you do think about it?

I hope that you grant that this would be an easy story to tell in a stirring way if it were situated in the War of the Roses, while at the same time it would be an extremely difficult story to tell successfully if the farewell scene had swelling music from Wagner and a swastika fluttering patriotically in the background. If you made a movie like that, all your friends would take you aside and ask, “What the heck are you doing, man?”

But the structure of the story is the same, whether or not the protagonist’s name is Fritz the German or George the Yorkshireman. So why and how do these extra contextual elements completely transform the story? The answer is that they are an essential part of the worldview presented—in this case, the narratival part (Nazis were actually the bad guys) and the symbolic part (the swastika).

Now we can throw in another factor that seems to ameliorate everything. A Christian storyteller could pick up this theme two hundred years from now, when virtually no one knows what a Nazi is, what a swastika is, what the Second World War was, and now it is just—to a popular audience—on all fours with the War of the Roses. That is what has happened, in my view, with Les Mis. But the mere passage of time is not a worldview disinfectant.

And that is why I said “seems” to ameliorate. As Santayana memorably put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Dabney urged us to be sure that the former issues are really dead before you bury them. And it was Faulkner who said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What do Antifa protesters think they are doing? When some punk throws a brick through the window of a jeweler’s shop during a presidential inauguration riot, and he has ear buds in listening to music while he is doing it, what music is he listening to? Whether he is actually listening to the finale of Les Mis . . . that is what he is actually listening to.

C.S. Lewis rightly called Rousseau the “father of the totalitarians.” That awful planted the toxic seeds which resulted in a century or more of poisonous plants. He had a marked impact on Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables. Rousseau’s brand of egalitarianism is what wise theological historians call bad juju. The nineteenth century was the century of revolution, bracketed just outside that century on one end by the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution on the other. The uprisings in the first part of the nineteenth century, the setting of Les Mis, were part and parcel with all of this. I do not include the American War for Independence in this for reasons that I will explain later.

So the worldview that is (quite ably) represented by Les Mis is a worldview held together by romantic sentimental violence. The enemy in this worldview was Christendom.

Red: the blood of angry men!
Black: the dark of ages past!
Red: a world about to dawn!
Black: the night that ends at last!

The “dark of ages past” is a civilization that I love, and I have spent my adult life trying to teach other people to love that civilization as well. The “night that ends at last” is the culture, legacy, and heritage of my people. The “world about to dawn” has been two hundred years of one socialist disaster chasing after the next one. If you want to see the world about to dawn, visit lovely Venezuela.

The thing that is striking about all of this is that Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism, called out what was going to happen before it happened. He was unalterably opposed to the French Revolution before the Terror. He saw the principles that were in play, and he saw where it necessarily had to go. And go there it most certainly did.

And so here we are, on the far side of all the carnage that “the blood of angry men” was able to bring about—which to date includes about 100 million dead people—looking back over two centuries or more of failed socialist mayhem, and we still can’t see it.

We have been told that this promised commie utopia has been about to dawn for quite a while. We have been assured of it again and again. The next great leap forward will finally get it done, promise. It hasn’t yet, and it never will, because God put the sun in the sky. In His kind providence, He did not place any lies there. They do not rise above the horizon, and if they did, they would give no warmth, and no light.

You say you got a real solution . . . but when you show us the plan, it turns out to be the same old humanistic sentimental treacle, accented and made to seem really serious through the bloodshed. All I can tell you, brother, is you have to wait.

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