I finally got to see Les Miserables at the movie theater. I have seen the musical stage presentation seven times; twice in New York on Broadway, in London, and in four regional presentations, one in Memphis, St. Louis, Atlanta, and of course in Nashville at Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC). I think the emotional impact for me has never been as potent with any of the stage presentations as it was in the movie rendition with Hugh Jackman, Ann Hathaway and others. More importantly, the reflections of the Gospel for those with sensitivity to see and celebrate it, are numerous and powerful. My adult children certainly responded to the potency and spiritual overtones of the movie. My wife and I found it necessary to sit an extra minute or two during the running of the credits so that we (aka “I”) could wipe the tears and dry up the runny nose before stepping into the lighted hallway of the theater. It is a rare movie that draws instantaneous applause at movie’s end, but Les Miserables was an exception. Again, my grown children reported the same response in the theaters where they viewed the blockbuster’s debut.
You may wonder what this has to do with worship, just as some may be thinking of how they can conscript video clips from the Les Mis movie to use in their Sunday worship gathering to gen up an inspirational buzz. The application I would call to mind is really not Sunday morning specific at all in the sense of how Les Mis might be brought into Sunday worship. I will leave that to preachers looking for sermon illustrations. Instead, I would ask that we consider how Sunday worship might influence our sensitivity to shades of Gospel wherever found, especially in public presentations of art forms. It seems to me we evangelicals may have been so concerned with preventing fellow believers’ exposure to that which we deem inappropriate in the arts that we may have missed the power of Gospel message that is sure to be present wherever good collides with evil. My experience at the movies has me reflecting on a section of doctoral study that dealt with the arts, and a book I discovered during that section of study. The book was Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Engaging Culture) by Robert K. Johnston. I recall meaningful discussion with colleagues regarding ways that Jesus figures show up in the arts. Whether a protagonist in a movie or play, a color hue in a painting, or a pastoral music motif in a symphonic work, sensitivity to good news can serve the believer through expanded appreciation of the struggle represented in the art form. Participation in such art also gives potential witness platform to believers.
Of course a Christian message is much more overt in some artistic expressions than others. Works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien reflect the Christian faith of the authors themselves. Les Miserables author, Victor Hugo, on the other hand, eventually became something of a Rational Deist, though the Catholic faith of his youth is surely reflected in characters of his stories. Indeed, the final song in Les Mis seems rather openly indicative of a faith expression with which Christians can surely identify:
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.
- lyrics by Herbert Ketzmer (based on novel by Victor Hugo)
While exercising caution against an indiscriminate brand of spirituality in our culture and culture’s artistic expressions, it seems that disciples of Jesus who are students of the Word and sensitive to Spirit discernment, have opportunity to participate in culture through art. Indeed, in the case of Les Miserables, for example, engagement in interpretive discussions would surely yield openings to testify to Heaven’s true fruits.