The book/play is set in France in 1832, not the French Revolution Era of 1789-99. The war aspect of the play serves as a foil background to develop the main character, Jean Valjean. It truly puzzles me that one could zoom in so closely on this minor rebellion sub-plot and say that it eclipses all other powerful worldview aspects of the over-arching story. Link:
Daniel, you are correct. I don’t believe the play was set during the French Revolution. But I do believe that the percolating revolutions throughout the nineteenth century (e.g. ’32, ’48, ’61) were all part of the same fomenting movement.
Pastor Wilson, I appreciate your work. One quick correction on your “Les Mis” piece: the story portrayed there is not the French Revolution properly speaking. The story takes place in 1832, during a 24-hour June rebellion. Unlike the French Revolution, the rebels in Les Mis lose after one night of fighting. Your overall point is still correct: the Age of Revolution was (is) at enmity with all things past. But Les Mis represents a later flashpoint.
Matt, yes. I have already been over this with Daniel.
On Les Mis—a worldview lab—I’m not sure that Les Mis is so sentimental about the violence or the revolution. The revolutionaries certainly are, and it’s not wholly consistent but consider: 1) the bishop who shows grace to Valjean is the most consistently positive character in the show and shows up at the end (in the film, at least). 2) The revolutionaries’ stand is shown to be futile and a waste of life 3) Valjean dies in a convent (tradition), and Marius and Cosette pretty much abandon the revolution in favour of aristocratic, married (traditional, hierarchical) life. And 4) the dead revolutionaries finish with a song suggesting that in God’s justice all wrongs are made right. I’m not saying that it’s perfect, and some will certainly go along with the revolutionaries and get the idea they were bold, freedom lovers. But I think the work itself is a bit more critical of them then you’ve suggested there
Paul, reasonable points. In a future installment I am going to be writing about how and why Les Mis appeals to Christians who haven’t given away the store, and some of what you say will be part of it. But I don’t think we can say that to treat the revolutionaries as naïve idealists is sufficient.
I understand your criticism of Les Mis and the evils of socialism are undeniable. The evils of the French Revolution are often blatantly ignored. I think that your illustration comparing a story set during the War of Roses against a story set during WWII is excellent. I guess I have two questions and I should preface that I am only familiar with the musical. First, how do you square that Les Mis is a worldview held together by sentimental violence and the protagonist Jean Valjean? Someone could reasonably think that the story prefers the priest, Fantine, and Valjean’s road to “beyond the barricade” over and against Enjolras’s. My second question might seem obvious, but when are narrative and catechesis elements forgivable? For instance, I like the writings of Homer but I also know that paganism has been responsible for an immense amount of bloodshed. I like Thucydides but the “might makes right” fatalism he seems to promote is also wicked. I would never say “¦liking the Iliad means that you need to grow in your worldview sanctification” without first knowing what a Christian liked about the Iliad.
Joshua, this will be developed further later on, but I think the redemption of Valjean is the sentimental part (kindness, not sacrifice), and the revolutionaries are the violence part. More about this later. And you are right that it is possible to appreciate Homer without buying into his worldview. But this is the failing of many “great books” programs—it is all about appreciating the greats without understanding the greats. Lord willing, more about this later also.
Les Mis: A Worldview Lab Pastor Wilson: You may have to forgive my lack of knowledge surrounding the French Revolution, but my view on that moment in history has always been that Christendom was not the enemy of the revolutionists, but rather the monarchical greed that was keeping the aristocratic class wealthy and the peasants poor. Certainly, even in the play Les Miserables the church itself was represented by a loving priest that aided Jean Valjean at his greatest moment of grief and desperation. Furthermore, I believe that the Christian leaders of France were also guilty of greed and protecting an abusive monarchy. I hope that you might speak to this and whether it is true that Christendom itself was being attacked or rather “Christian” leaders who were using their religious leadership and power to weaken the impoverished. For me, this would clear up your example, although I do accept your argument about how we so often fail in filling in the context of our worldview narratives.
Nick, Christendom was very much part of the establishment that was being attacked, and there had been many abuses that Christendom had been complicit in. That is why there was such a need for the Reformation. It is my conviction that because the French Reformers were persecuted, slaughtered, and harried out of France in the seventeenth century, thus making godly reformation impossible, they delivered themselves over to an ungodly “reformation,” the kind of reformation that makes everything worse.
But . . . are not the revolutionaries contrasted with Jean Valjean’s life of grace? Marius is saved from the revolution by an act of grace. Looking at the story of a world in need of justice, with Valjean being the protagonist and the others as foils, we see the Christian life of Grace as superior to: 1. Javert’s life of Law, 2. The Revolutionaries life of Violence, 3. The “Master of the House”’s life of Lawlessness What good did the Revolutionaries actually do in the story? They brought nothing but death. Valjean, on the other hand brings life. He provides work, saves the lives of others, feeds the poor, and prays. The Revolutionaries want to change the world, but take no responsibility for the destruction that they bring. Valjean loves individual people and takes responsibility for them. I love Les Mis!
Ron—and you clearly love it for good reasons.
Re: Les Miserables—I don’t like the idea of surrendering all the good stories. Granted that the revolutionaries are a bunch of commies, is it not the case that the main narrative, Valjean’s, to which the revolution is a backdrop, is one of grace and redemption, and formally in tension with the vindictive materialism of the communards? The musical tries to paper over this tension by having everyone sing the same song at the end, but this is only partially successful; Hugo’s plot is at best skeptical of the aims of revolution. If leftists happen to appropriate the story for their own purposes—well, they do the same thing with the Gospel, and that doesn’t necessarily imply that we should cede the ground there either.
Point taken. But the music is amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And Jean Valjean’s response to grace versus Chavert’s response to grace is so thought-provoking! And the music is amazing!!!!!!!
Rachel, thanks very much. I think a small book may be coming out of all this. If it does, there will be a chapter on the music. That may be the point where friendly critics become my enemies.
“Those Letters Keep Coming” I know it was tongue in cheek, but one can appreciate Les Miserables without being in love with the French Revolution. The love which Hugo shows for the Revolution is inconsistent with, and tempered by, his vivid depiction of God’s mercy and sanctification which comes out in the story of Jean Valjean. Now, if you love the musical Les Miserables, then you might have a problem. It’s such a large work that any adaptation gets to pick and choose, and the musical happens to fall more squarely on the humanist side of Les Mis, without accurately reflecting the strange division that the book shows between Hugo’s humanist asides, and Christian story.
Carson, I enjoy debating this subject, on the merits, with people who understand how bad the French Revolution was. So kudos to you, and all the rest of you, both above and below. But the question is whether Valjean is saved by grace or by a counterfeit grace. I hope to dig into that later.
As I have on occasion read in your prose, when you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one that got hit. Well, please permit this dog to bite back a bit. Allow me to tell you the same story, one where the protagonist is neither the revolutionary or the state: A man lives in poverty to the point of starvation. In desperation, he steals some food in order to feed his sister and nephew. He is caught and sentenced to hard labor. Over the next nineteen years he grows angry and embittered at the injustice of his disproportionate prison term. When he at last paroles, he has completely transformed into a bitter thrall who hates the world. When a bishop offers him shelter from his wandering, he betrays his host and steals the bishop’s silver. He is quickly caught and expects the worst, perhaps this time knowing he deserves punishment. Instead, he is completely surprised when the bishop lies to keep him free, makes a gift of the silver, forgives him, and shows him the Gospel. Completely overwhelmed, he repents, throws off his former self, and vows to live a life worthy of the gifts he has been given. Several years later, he has demonstrated his reformed character. He is a responsible and just businessman. He is the mayor of his town. He rescues a dying prostitute from the streets, and although he was too late to save her, he adopts the prostitute’s daughter. Unfortunately, an agent of the state catches up to him and uncovers his identity as a former convict. He knocks the agent unconscious and flees. Yet more years pass and his daughter grows up and falls in love with an unfortunate student revolutionary. The man had planned to flee the revolution and his pursuers with his daughter, but knowing what the young man’s fate will be and unable to bear the pain that would cause his daughter, he sneaks past the royal troops and joins the revolutionaries to provide what protection he can to the young man, whom he has come to view as a son. Simultaneously and separately, the same agent infiltrates the revolutionaries as a spy but is caught and put under the man’s guard. They recognize each other: the agent his former parolee and the man his pursuer. The agent expects the worst now that he is in the man’s power, but the man instead forgives him and sets him free. A battle between the royal troops and revolutionaries ensues and the revolutionaries fall, the young man among them. The man rescues him by dragging him through the sewers. The agent catches up to the man there and exults in his triumph, but the man begs him to allow him to bring the young man to safety, and promises to give himself up. The agent, having known only the law, is unable to comprehend the man’s kindness and forgiveness, and overwhelmed, throws himself into the sewer’s maelstrom, killing himself. The man is at last free. This a parable of many things, and I agree with you about the danger, idiocy, and incompatibility with Christianity of socialism. But the (failed) socialist revolution is just the setting for this story. This is more a story, at least in its modern musical incarnation, if not Victor Hugo’s original manuscript, of the injustice of a State that itself does not value repentance, the stupidity of student revolutions, and the triumph of forgiveness and redemption. In other words, it is a story of Christian and conservative values. You quoted the song of the revolutionaries. Allow me to quote the song of the redeemed: “They will live again in freedom In the garden of the Lord They will walk behind the plough-share They will put away the sword The chain will be broken And all men will have their reward!” By the time the curtain falls, this is not a story of the glory of revolutionaries and the state; it is a story of their follies. It is simultaneously a story of Christian redemption.
David, thanks. Capably stated.
American and French Revolutions
I appreciate your effort to differentiate the American and French revolutions, but a few of your points could use some additional context. 1. Burke “took the side of the Americans” as you say. Meaning he opposed parliament’s taxation regime and opposed their ramping up of tension. However, he was opposed to the Americans declaring independence and prosecuting a war. As in all things Burke view on this was pragmatic. 2. Left and right, in their earliest form, are from the National Assembly which was composed of the third estate who refused to be seated at the estates general after the voting arrangements were reneged on. Eventually, most of the first and second estates joined them. Those seated on the right were defenders of the Ancien Regime and really couldn’t be considered revolutionaries in any sense (Lafayette was among a large cohort of liberal nobles, and he was a revolutionary—though not of a kind with Danton or Robespierre).
Demosthenes, thanks for the additional background. I would agree that Burke was pragmatic, but I would call him a principled pragmatist.
Of course childbirth is cursed just as Adam’s task in the garden is cursed. But I hope you’re not suggesting Adam ought to be drugged and relieved of his senses in order to overcome that curse.
Katie, no. But I do think it is appropriate for Adam to use “artifice” in order to combat the curse. In other words, cursed nature, at the point of the curse, ought not to be made into the standard. And because we are fallen (not just the ground, and not just the child-bearing), there will be times when our attempts to ameliorate the curse will be stupid, and will make things worse. But nature left alone is not the standard. An all-natural garden is a garden full of weeds.
“Lots of them died.” And anytime an anti-vaxxer starts to get on her soap box, I merely say take a stroll around an old cemetery. Then ask yourself why are there so many young children buried here.
Jeff, yes. We have forgotten rather quickly.
Feeling Your Pain
Pastor Wilson, in your letters to the editor posts could you include links to the articles that each set of questions refer to? The headings above each set of questions isn’t usually the title of the post it is referring to, so it can be difficult sometimes to find the original post for context, especially if I haven’t read it yet. Thanks.
Brent, I will start trying to do that. But sometimes I have a hard time figuring out what the letter is responding to. Let this be a reminder to all you correspondents—tell us what you are talking about.
Thanks Again to All of You
Glad to hear you didn’t need radiation. Been there and done that in 2013. After a month I felt pretty awful; too tired to drive and wasn’t thinking well. I appreciate your ministry and continue to pray for you.
Scott, thanks very much.
For all his flaws, there is something in the Trumpster (no disrespect to the President of the United States) of noble character. The way he treats “the little people,” and the way he really speaks “truth to power,” is unique in the annals of American political life. All I know is that it took the, what appeared to me, the increasing irrationality of the NeverTrumpers to open my eyes about the man initially. When I closely looked at the children he’s raised, and how the people closest to him felt about the man, I concluded he was not the caricature his enemies claimed him to me. I’ve come to believe that God has chosen this very flawed man to give us a chance to Make America Great Again.
Mike, as we stagger toward the next round of elections, I am sure that we will be continuing to talk about this.
This letter is in reference to what I hope will be a future column of yours. I was recently struck by the media and liberal secularists’ outrage over President Trump referring to certain extremely violent gang members as “animals” . . . This from the same media and liberal secularists of course that never cease to remind us that every human is just an animal, slightly more evolved than other animals, the unborn of which deserve less rights than that of some other unborn animals, and who don’t really deserve significantly greater rights than all our other animal brethren. This just seemed the kind of item that you might have particularly insightful words regarding.
Daniel, moral indignation coming from the morally bankrupt is a sight to behold. Checks bouncing everywhere.