The Eschatological Vision of Les Miserables

My wife and I finally got around to watching Les Miserables, the movie, on Amazon streaming. Not a bad thing to do when a good friend is in town, the kids are sound asleep, and you’re buried under 18″ or so of snow.

I became familiar with the music back in high school, I think, in the late 80s or early 90s, and then when studying at Princeton in the late 90s went up to Broadway with my wife to see it live. Very good stuff.

Watching the movie this time round, though, I find myself captivated with the finale. Here’s the song, not from the movie but from the ten-year anniversary concert, complete with subtitles. Note the lyrics:

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

Eschatology. Instead of the earthly, merely political eschatology that revolutionaries promise, a secular eschatology which is at heart denatured Christianity, and which the prior version of the song (“Do you hear the people sing?”) puts forth:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free!

Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs
Will water the meadows of France!

I haven’t read the original novel, nor have I read anything about the writing of the musical. But it is obvious that in the film the heavenly vision of God’s vindication of the suffering supplants human hopes for revolutionary justice on earth. Were I an enterprising and clever graduate student, I suppose I could write up something about how Les Miserables collapses and sells out justice for the sake of some non-existent heavenly reward, how it deals in the opiate of the masses, an exercise in tedium that would miss the profound dimensions of the story.

The whole thing seems to me an exercise in exploring Christian hope and despair, represented in the first instance by Jean Valjean on the one hand and Javert on the other, but also experienced by various characters along the way. Hope not only for heaven, but hope that one might be transformed in this life a la Jean Valjean, or rescued in this world, a la Cosette, or that one might receive justice in the eternal. For that is what the closing scene of the film, at least, suggests to me: all these characters who have suffered injustice and died along the way (Gavroche, Fantine, Éponine) find themselves alive again, singing an eschatological song, way, way high up above the city, obviously suggestive of heaven. And I find it eminently powerful.

Note too at the end of the film, at least, as Jean Valjean dies, he’s welcomed by the archbishop into the church, crossing a sort of threshold. Note also that in the finale those who appear are only the just, not Javert or the Thenardiers, for instance. Personal sin and revolutionary fervor forgiven and fulfilled in the heavenly kingdom…

Here’s the movie finale. Tell me that’s not a depiction of reconciliation with God, a cinematic form of the achievement of the beatific vision:

A Reflection on Holy Saturday

I wrote this last year (so a couple things are out of date, like my kids’ ages) and published it at Mere Comments:

The Christ is dead; the corpse of the Son of God lies on a cold slab in a suffocating, lightless tomb.
Holy Saturday is a difficult day to keep holy. My parish marked it with morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, but most churches don’t do anything, which is certainly appropriate; Jesus Christ is liturgically dead. And so I’ve taken to my own observances. Late last night after the Good Friday communion liturgy, my wife and I watched The Passion of the Christ, and today I’ll keep things low-key while listening to Bach’s Matthäus-Passion and Johannes-Passion as well as Mozart’s and Verdi’s Requiems.
But life goes on. Our young kids (almost 4 and 2) can’t help but play today, sometimes cooperating, sometimes protesting in shrill tones some grave injustice the other has perpetrated by encroaching on (say) a Thomas the Tank Engine track layout. My wife’s parents arrive today, and so we’re preparing for their arrival — cleaning, cooking, more cleaning. And for many people, even those who will be in Easter Sunday services tomorrow, today is another Saturday filled with shopping, yardwork, fishing, and the like.
Holy Saturday started to hit me differently a few years ago. I suspect it had to do with three major events occurring within a period of several months. First, I turned 35, which meant my life was half over, as I’d count myself blessed to make it to seventy. I began to feel life was now downhill. Second, our son Hans was born, and as those of you who are parents know, having children entails epistemological paradigm shifts: we see the world differently. Third, just a few weeks after Hans’ birth, I buried my father. And so I came to the existential realization that life was short and moving ever faster and that we play for keeps.
Sensitive now to the fragility of human life and the grave responsibilities laid upon us by God and Nature and newly alive to the joys and terrors of life in this beautiful and horrible world as a member of a glorious and murderous race, Holy Saturday punched me in the gut.
They killed him. They really did.
Many Christians in modernity, I think, have a conception of the crucifixion restricted to a legal version of penal substitutionary atonement: Our problem is guilt, for which God must punish us, but loving us and desiring to forgive us, God punishes Christ in our place.
True enough as far as it goes, but when compared to classical soteriologies, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, it doesn’t go very far. For it leaves the horror of the human condition outside of us, as this model concerns merely our legal status, and thus leaves no remedy for the wretched realities ruining us.
What about sin as a condition within us, in our very natures? What about the our four traditional enemies of Sin, Death, Hell, and the Devil, those hypostasized forces which animate mortal and demonic violence against us, often from within us?
Sin, Death, Hell, and the Devil afflict us from within and without. Our problem isn’t only God’s posture of wrath towards us, which can seem far away, terrible as it is. Our problem is that the we and the World are both fallen and afflicted, evil within, evil without, near us.
The cross isn’t just a component in the economy of our salvation, something God needed to do to Christ to acquit us. The cross also reveals the hatred of the human race towards God. They killed him: God comes into the World in Jesus Christ, and Jew and Gentile conspire to cooperate in killing God for reasons of convenience.
The World stands guilty of deicide.
And so on Holy Saturday I feel generally sick to my stomach. The one man who could have helped us, we hammered him to a cross. And that means two things: Deep down, I’m capable of murder and being murdered. We mustn’t deceive ourselves about our capacity for sin, and that of others.
Most people have a theologia gloriae, a theology of glory in which we bypass the cross as we affirm ourselves and affirm God for affirming us in a circle of moral therapeutic deist bilge. True theology, as Luther so rightly and so often stressed, is a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross in which God’s murderers are saved by God through the very instrument of His murder. Our salvation cannot consist in self-improvement; our salvation consists in our own crucifixion.
God doesn’t affirm us; God saves us.
But not yet, not today. Tomorrow.
We killed Him. Kyrie eleison.

The Violence of the Crucifixion

Catholic World Report has been kind enough to run a piece I drafted in a sudden fit of inspiration about the true locus of the violence of the crucifixion. Hint: It’s not the physical torture. Excerpts:

Everybody in the ancient world knew what crucifixion entailed. It’s not like Jesus was the only person crucified. The Hasmonean king of the Jews, Alexander Jannaeus, once crucified 800 Pharisees who had crossed him (pun not intended—honest) for the entertainment of his guests. Upon crushing Spartacus’ revolt Crassus crucified 6000 slaves up and down the Appian Way. The Jewish historian Josephus records that at one point during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 Titus crucified 500 Jews per day; “their number was so great that there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies.” And while crucifixion has fallen out of fashion in the modern West, it retains its fascination for us, precisely because of its extreme nature.
Shame is meant to separate. Shaming is shunning. And thus the cross isn’t incidental or accidental or arbitrary, as some misguided theologians like Occam have thought. It’s necessary, but what’s necessary about it is not the physical suffering it inflicts upon Jesus, but what it reveals about the human race’s attitude of utter hatred towards God—Jew and Gentile conspire to murder God’s Son, making us guilty of deicide—and even more, how it separates Jesus from both humanity and God so that he experiences utter Hell for us. For what is Hell, ultimately, if not separation from all love?

Read the whole thing.

Church Planting

I’m so very clever, as witnessed by the following exchange with my good friend from our shared time in Wheaton, Illinois, together, Rob Moll. Rob is now in the Seattle area, writing good books and such.

Dalrymple Signs Pro-Life Legislation

(Cross-posted at First Thoughts)
My beloved North Dakota has been in the middle of a national firestorm concerning abortion politics and policy for some weeks, as our legislature has passed three particularly strong pro-life laws with bipartisan backing. (Others are in process, including one which ban tax monies from funding abortion providers, and another has been passed which will give ND voters the opportunity to put pro-life language in our State constitution.) Our Governor, a Republican, in a state dominated by Republicans of widely varying political temperaments, did not sign the bills right away, causing some concern in the pro-life community. Some thought he might veto them, setting off a war in the ND GOP, while others thought he might follow a moderate course split the difference.

He signed all three today. From the Governor’s office:

BISMARCK, ND – Gov. Jack Dalrymple today signed HB 1305, HB 1456 and SB 2305 and provided the following statements to the Legislature:
North Dakota House and Senate presiding officers:
I have signed HB 1305 which would ban abortions performed solely for the purpose of gender selection and genetic abnormalities.
I have signed HB 1456 which would ban abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. Although the likelihood of this measure surviving a court challenge remains in question, this bill is nevertheless a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed state restrictions on the performing of abortions and because the Supreme Court has never considered this precise restriction in HB 1456, the constitutionality of this measure is an open question. The Legislative Assembly before it adjourns should appropriate dollars for a litigation fund available to the Attorney General.
I have signed SB 2305 which requires admitting and staff privileges at a nearby hospital for any physician who performs abortions in North Dakota. The added requirement that the hospital privileges must include allowing abortions to take place in their facility greatly increases the chances that this measure will face a court challenge. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate and new question for the courts regarding a precise restriction on doctors who perform abortions.

Bishop David D. Kagan, Bishop of the Diocese of Bismarck and currently administrator of the vacant Fargo diocese, issued the following statement:

The protection of all human life from the moment of conception to natural death is the primary purpose of government. All persons, including our elected officials, are obligated to unceasingly seek protection of this basic human right. I applaud the members of the North Dakota legislature who bravely supported measures to extend protections to unborn human life and to advance the health of women.
I also applaud Governor Jack Dalrymple for signing SB 2305, HB 1305, and HB 1456. His signature affirms our state’s commitment to the protection of all human life.
Finally, I ask that all Catholics of the state join me this Holy Week in praying for our all of our elected leaders. May the Author of Life grant them wisdom in all their endeavors.

More, beyond what I put up at First Things’ First Thoughts:

One thing particularly interesting and gratifying to me has been to see Rob Port’s support of this legislation; Rob is ND’s leading libertarian blogger, and an atheist. Social issues are matters of reason, not pure revelation. Social conservatism need not be religious.

I’m also really happy for Sen. Margaret Sitte, who’s worked very, very hard on this legislation, and taken a lot of arrows.

Support Sen. Sitte Saturday

Senator Margaret Sitte is one of the good people on the planet. I’m a big fan. Right now she and the rest of the ND legislature are keeping themselves busy legislating; we’re in the thick of the session here.

Sen. Sitte is speaking tomorrow, along with other legislators, at a “Legislative Forum” sponsored by the League of Women Voters & Dakota Media Access. It’s at 9:30 tomorrow (Saturday, March 23), in the Tom Baker Room at Bismarck City Hall, 225 N 5 St.

Sen. Sitte will be speaking sometime after 10:30, but it might be good to get there early to get a seat, as it should fill up early. Word on the street is that people who are not big fans of Sen. Sitte are going to show up to try to dominate the proceedings and make her uncomfortable.

So if you’re free tomorrow morning and a friend of life and marriage, make time Saturday morning to come out to support Sen. Sitte. She’d appreciate it, as would I.

Update: This morning went well, as Sen. Sitte saw sufficient and significant support, while ugliness failed to materialize. Thank you all.

The Sacred Page

Thanks to my friends at The Sacred Page (TSP), especially Michael Barber, for the shout-out. Michael writes:

Those who listen to my podcast are probably familiar with Leroy Huizenga (go here and here). Leroy is a brilliant New Testament scholar as well as Chair of the Department of Theology and Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.
Among other notable items in his curriculum vitae, he earned a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University.
After teaching at Wheaton College for five years, Leroy returned to the Catholic faith he was born into when, at the Easter Vigil of 2011, he was reconciled with the Catholic Church.
And, on top of all that, he has a great blog.
Among other things, be sure to check out this post in which Leroy reproduces a letter of St. Francis of Assisi to his brothers on the topic of liturgical propriety. Fascinating stuff!

We should remind Michael that deliberate lying is a mortal sin, and that such praise is for me an occasion for the cardinal sin of pride. That said, thanks for the shout-out!

TSP readers, I do a lot online with First Things: On the Square pieces here, blogging here.

I’m also on Twitter.

And finally, I’ll come speak.

Amy Welborn En Fuego on Papal Transition

I’ll just repaste the whole thing. Bold is mine:

I’m going to try to offer a short reflection on the explosion of reactions to Pope Francis. Perhaps if I put it in list form, that will force me to be more succinct than I otherwise would be.
(1) I believe that this conversation that is happening is being shaped, in a negative way, by the fact that Pope Emeritus Benedict is still alive. I think that if Pope Francis’ pontificate – what little of it there has been so far – less than a week – had occurred in the wake of Benedict’s death, the general tone would be more subdued, shaded as it would be by a period of grief and mourning and probably sympathy for a dying Pope. Instead there is what I’m going to come straight out and call a tone of “relief.” It seems to spill over from the normal level of interest in and hope that any new papacy evokes onto another level. Half of the Facebook posts on my newsfeed seem to begin with “At last!” or “Finally!” I don’t think I would be happening if Benedict were dead. It’s weird.
(2) I’m startled by the number of people who are under the impression that Pope Benedict neglected to mention Jesus Christ, mercy or the poor during his pontificate. Who don’t understand the substantial reforms Pope Benedict undertook over the past few years. So for example: Pope Francis mentioned the danger of the Church becoming seen as just another NGO, to wide acclaim – from some of the same quarters who have looked askance at Pope Benedict making exactly the same points – and putting them into action (as in his actions, for example, regarding Caritas last year ). The post below this one tweaks that reflex – and it’s a reflex to be aware of.
(3) Liturgical conversations have resurfaced with a vengeance over the past few days. Just a few points there: A few days ago, a church historian was quoted as saying, “You have to remember that Benedict was a clotheshorse.” What that expert fails to recognize was that Benedict’s attention to papal garb was not about vanity – I mean – really. It was about what he was always about: history And not history as a museum, out of an antiquarian interest, but as a link from the present to the past. The red shoes –- so maligned even by Catholics who should know better — are a symbol of blood. Blood, people. The blood of the martyrs and the blood of Christ on which His vicar stands, and through him, all of us. Popes – yes, even John XXIII and Paul VI – wore them until John Paul II stopped. Then Benedict reinstated them. That is, he humbled himself before history and symbol and put the darn things on.
(4) Why did he reinstate them? Because he was vain, monarchical and arrogant? Because he was out of touch with the poor? Because he was, in the terms of the esteemed professor, a “clotheshorse?” Because they look good? I doubt it, because, you know, they don’t, not really. Maybe – just maybe – because he believes was they symbolize? That his office is rooted in the blood of the martyrs, especially Peter? And that it is good for the Pope in the 21st century to maintain this link to and through other Popes who have done the same thing, to Peter, and then to Christ?
(5) But hardly anyone even bothered to go that far. Just think if we had. Just think if more of us had been open to being taught by these gestures and symbols and instead of reflexively looking askance at it because it is culturally distant from us, had asked these questions and let them inform our faith – our own willingness to be martyred, to give our lives and our hearts to Christ and his people.
(6) For me, it comes down to this. Both of these Popes were and are pastors. Both have given their lives for us, for Christ. We can – and should be open to being – taught by both. All I’m saying is that – as Pope Francis himself has acknowledged in his own words these past few days – Pope Benedict was all about Christ. He spent 8 years as your Pope, “proposing Jesus Christ” through his words and actions – even his red shoes. If Pope Francis’ actions so far preach Christ more clearly to you then so be it. Christ is who is important, and we are a Church of great diversity for a reason. But what has been so bizarre and even saddening over the past few days is a tone and implication that Benedict was somehow about something else besides Jesus Christ.
(7) There is much more to say on liturgy, and plenty of people are saying it, mostly from positions of uncertainty and fear. I have nothing to say about that because it’s all a complete unknown at this point. Who knows what will happen. My hope is that there are clearly huge problems in the Church that need attention. The liturgy, as reset by Benedict, is not one of those problems, but that’s just the way it seems to me.
(8) But one more comment on those conversations — the reactions to the reactions to the reactions — that are flying about. Here’s what is important to remember. The “changes” that Benedict made to the liturgical direction of the Church are not expressions of his aesthetic or taste. What Benedict did was to implement the Church’s liturgy in the Church’s practice. There are documents. Decrees and such. Books. Rubrics. Believe it or not, Benedict’s reset button was really nothing more than pointing us to what we are supposed to be doing anyway. If you don’t believe me, read them yourself. There is a deeper theological and spiritual reasoning and structure as well, but really, the basic goal was: fidelity to what the Church offers. If you read Ratzinger on liturgy, his thinking is quite pastoral. It basically comes down to: Every Catholic has the right to the Church’s liturgy.
(9) I’m not interested in debating the liturgical direction of Pope Francis, because I have no idea what that is, and besides..why? What I am interested in is that the discussion, which is inevitably coming back around to Pope Benedict’s liturgical work, be grounded in truth about what that was really about. The great thing about the Roman liturgy is (believe it or not) its flexibility. It can be celebrated from the back of a pickup truck in a field or in a Gothic Cathedral. It can be celebrated with no music or a polyphonic choir and everything in between. But – the Roman liturgy is also not formless. Benedict’s liturgical work was oriented towards reacquainting us with that form and deep spiritual substructure, not for its own sake but for the sake of the seeker encountering Christ there.
(10) And I hope that’s it for me on that score. I vow not to be one of those people. That is, like folks who never could quite get it through their heads that John Paul II wasn’t pope anymore. Promise you, and I promise myself.