More thoughts on 'Les Misérables'

Prison Fellowship's own Jenni Weatherly has an excellent piece at RELEVANT, explaining "Why We Really Love 'Les Mis.'" She writes: "Such storytelling fills an audience with more than empathy. It awakens real, visceral compassion. If the character is humanized, then it follows she is not demonized, and her story may well be true. It could belong to the homeless woman you saw walking downtown last weekend. That's the truth every one of us needs—the truth a strong story will use to punch us in our collective gut."

Over at Her.meneutics, Laura Ortberg Turner shows why complaints about female stereotypes in the movie are mistaken: "The women of Les Mis may not be feminist icons by modern-day standards. But they are faithful representations of the lives of lower-class women in early-19th-century France. Hugo writes these characters with admiration and sympathy for the unthinkable plights they endure. Fantine was a singular portrait of widespread problem: the selling of women out of poverty and into prostitution."

In case you didn't see it yet, my own review is here. And Eric Metaxas recommended the movie the other day . . . which brings up an important point.

After Eric mentioned the movie, we got a couple of comments reminding us of the movie's sexual content, which was exhaustively detailed by Focus on the Family's Plugged In. In fact, that Plugged In review seems to have gone viral; all over the Web lately, I'm encountering Christians who cite that review as a reason to stay away from the movie.

Now, as some of you know, I'm a longtime admirer of Focus. I respect and appreciate much of the work they do. I've even written for them before. But I've had my concerns for some time now about the approach that Plugged In takes. I understand that they're trying to help parents to be aware of film, TV, and music content, but the way they go about it -- teasing out every single little questionable element, and giving equal weight to the major ones and the almost invisible ones -- means that often, readers can't see the forest for the trees. Their approach makes it all too easy to get hung up on small things and miss the big picture.

That's demonstrated by the very fact that, on balance, the Plugged In review was actually more positive than negative, and yet many of their readers seem to have missed the positive altogether. I fear that's an attitude that the Plugged In approach has inculcated.

Yes, "Les Misérables" has sexual content (and some violence and bad language as well). That's why it's rated PG-13. Am I suggesting that you bring the whole family? Most definitely not. Am I advising you to ignore your own standards and conscience in these matters? Not at all. What I'm saying is that sometimes, movies with messy, ugly elements can still be good and valuable movies.

A movie isn't just about its content. Thinking that way is what has pushed such a wedge between faith and the arts in the first place. We have to pay attention to all aspects of a work: the way the story is told, the reasons it's told that way, the redemptive elements, and so much more. It's not necessarily an easy endeavor, but it's an important one and a worthwhile one. We can complain all we want to about the separation between Christians and the arts, but until we're willing to acknowledge that the arts are, and should be, more than just a vehicle for sending shiny happy messages, nothing is going to change on that front.

(And where did we get the idea that Christianity is all about shiny happy messages in the first place? Haven't any of us looked into the Bible lately?)

Among movies playing in theaters at this moment, "Les Misérables" offers probably the most powerful, most explicit picture of God's grace. Even if you feel your conscience is calling you to avoid it, let's try not to stand in the way of those who, when they go to see it, might come away with a clearer understanding of that grace than they've ever had before.


Thanks for the thoughtful and complementary response, 24601. (Flattery will get you everywhere, BTW).
I always enjoy your perspective and wit.

The fact that I agree with all of your points makes me wonder how “articulately” I presented mine.

I greatly value the freedom to amiably disagree with each other, both in reviews, organizational focus, and here on the blog …part of the spice of life, you know. My thoughts were intended more as an appreciation for the format that Plugged In uses than a desire for uniformity. In a nutshell, I understood Gina’s concern with the hurdles PI’s approach might create for potential viewers and wanted to mention that I found it useful. (wow, that was certainly a shorter way to say that, wasn’t it? …must be the coffee.)

It’s often said that the Christian community is notorious for “shooting its wounded.” Disturbingly, we also seem to be doing a fair amount of the wounding, often through grace-less condemnation. (Anne Rice’s ordeal comes to mind.) I’m not Moravian, but a little more “In essentials: Unity. In nonessentials: Liberty. In all thing, Love.”, generously applied among the Body is would be of great benefit. It grieves me deeply that your childrens’ faith was so affected by someone's mean-spiritedness. From what I know of you through your posts, I suspect that they have been saturated with Truth that they will struggle in vain to escape their Pursuer. I'll join you in asking for His gravity to recapture their orbit.

Thanks again for the “Sharpen the Focus of the Newbies” segment. Of course, after your eloquent wax on the current version of the movie, I’ll have to see it now. 8-)

Excellent points, Lee!
Actually, Lee it IS like forces clashing in battle-at the Joint Readiness Training Center.

Oh and I'm OPFOR. So all you greenhorns better get in shape.
I am delighted that you've taken the plunge and commented here so brilliantly and articulately, Doc. (And I'm resisting the temptation, encouraged though it is by some here, to ask you "What's up?"

. . . But I'm *thinking* it. ;-) )

You have prompted me to go on a rant of my own, contrary to yours but by no means in hostility to you, or to your position. Please accept what follows as presented in a spirit of iron sharpening iron, not swords colliding in battle.

Some Christians want all ministries to agree when those ministries make any kind of recommendation, and particularly a recommendation for entertainment. But a moment's reflection shows why this cannot be so; the ministries do not share the same focus. There are times when I wish Prison Fellowship Ministries would rename itself "Focus on the Prisoners", International Justice Mission (which serves slaves, particularly sex slaves whose numbers are skyrocketing due to sex-selective abortions in countries like India and China) would be "Focus on the Slaves", Abolish Human Abortion would be "Focus on the Babies", Medical Teams International would be "Focus on the Suffering", and so on. That would make the bias of each much clearer, and thereby put their recommendations in . . . uh, "focus".

And I do believe that each has a narrower focus than what we might like, in spite of the efforts of their founders and supporters to broaden the scope. The genius of both Chuck Colson and James Dobson was to recognize that the suffering of prisoners and within families was due to worldview, and (as I indicated above with International Justice Mission) one public policy, based on a flawed worldview, can cause great suffering in a seemingly separate area. So Dobson said "When you contemplate watching a movie, think of the content of that movie and its impact on yourself and your children." That was highly appropriate for a professional child psychologist. When Colson said "When you contemplate watching a movie, think of the content of that movie and its impact on how you view 'the least of these'." That was highly appropriate for a former prisoner.

So I think it's up to us discerning Christians to put these movie reviews into context. Let's not insist that they all agree.

I really appreciate the way you've suggested that perhaps some of us are better able to focus on a particular need than others of us. I wish more Christians permitted this kind of freedom to their brethren, rather than insisting that anyone who sees such-and-such a movie is instantly a carnal Christian, and therefore "them" and not "us", and to be disfellowshipped. Two of my three (all adult) children have left the faith due to such rigid attitudes on the part of some believers, and the third is struggling mightily. I dearly love Anne Morse for publicly noting how she was called “The Handmaiden of Satan” for supporting the Harry Potter books; my three kids saw that as one example of how pushing one's own quest for holiness onto other people can cause horrible, hateful divisions in the Body. So thank you for your thoughtfulness.

Finally (yes, *finally*; if you have reason to worry about being long-winded, I have all the more reason), I'll note that "Les Mis", and particularly this latest movie version, has profoundly affected me. I have said elsewhere, somewhat facetiously, that I want a "I am 24601" t-shirt, because I identify with Jean Valjean. I see myself as one ill-considered act away from being a prisoner myself. (This week in particular I'd be tempted to steal bread to give to "Focus on the Widows", if such a ministry existed.) I know I'm often too busy to help the many Fantines around me - most of whom wind up in prison. I don't give enough to Angel Tree to help the children of those prisoners, whose situations are much like Cosette's. Rather the opposite of your situation, I actually need to avoid the suggestions of Plugged In, because otherwise I would be helping to burn Anne Morse at the stake and I would see the Fantines and Cosettes as "those people", and I'd commit the same sin that Jean Valjean committed in not helping Fantine and thereby condemning Cosette to a horrible childhood and possibly even the same fate as her mother. I am a wretch, prisoner of my own sinfulness that pushes me to "Focus on Me". I am Jean Valjean. I am 24601.
No forgiveness necessary! :-) Your opinion is welcome. Glad to have you commenting!
Newbie Comment
Gina, as an admirer of your articles and blog entries for years, I thought I'd chime in on this one. I have been a fan of most of the incarnations of Les Mis, and two thoughts occur to me after reading your blog and the Plugged In review:

First, I share with you an appreciation for most of what Focus does and produces. In my experience, the reviews on Plugged In effectively dissect various entertainment content, sometimes going out of their way to find positives in the most carnal of material. I have found the format used to lay out potentially objectionable content (language, violence, sex, drugs, etc.) with a little editorializing at the end very useful. My children are able to understand why we shield them from certain movies (TV shows, songs, etc.) and for what we do allow, they are prepared for negative elements before they are exposed to them. But they aren’t the only ones who need looking after.

Like a food content label for those with a peanut allergy, factual reviews like these also help me avoid consuming what is bad for my spiritual health. I find their sections easy to weigh and factor, in accordance with my sensitivities or those who accompany me to the show. To extend the food allergy metaphor, I appreciate that PI reviews read more like a content label with a summary than a Zagat’s review, since I’m looking for a simple content overview with no spoilers to taint my enjoyment.

My second thought concerns your comment that “A movie isn’t just about its content.” It’s true, but not sufficient. My ability to safely consume and enjoy entertainment is most definitely limited by its content. There are considerations that can be of greater import than the overall worthiness of the subject matter, theme, message, etc. None of this has to do with a desire to exclude or deny the unpleasantness of life’s circumstances in favor of “shiny happy messages”. It’s more about what we allow to enter our eyes and ears along with the positive elements of the story, lyrics, etc.

Perhaps others can consume greater amounts of negative material without the corresponding repercussions. I spent more than a few years enjoying “sophisticated” entertainment that affirms values inconsistent with my convictions because I appreciated the story or music, and have realized that some such compromises can subtly corrupt my heart and thought life. My affection for the things for which I am passionate occasionally clouds my objectivity, and I find myself absorbing things and rising up in defense of movies and songs that, with perspective, were less than deserving of my defense. Determining when the baby isn’t worth the bathwater is tough. Whether spiritual maturity makes us less impacted by such things or more jarringly sensitive to them is a tough one, too.

This most recent version of Les Mis isn’t one to throw out, but I don’t think it necessary to be overly critical of Plugged In’s review or format. It’s accurate and their conclusion seems dead on, based on the summary at the end of the review:

“There are story threads of revenge and rescue, revolution and romance in this epic opus. But at its immersive and orchestrally soaring heart, Les Misérables makes it clear that we wretched humans can only truly find freedom by forgiving and loving one another. And we can only do that by openly accepting God's redemption. God's. Not just one merciful man's. And that's a beautiful song indeed.”

Gina, please forgive me for taking a slightly contrary (and long-winded) position in my first post here. I hope my comments are accepted in the spirit in which they have been given and illuminate the topic from a slightly different perspective.

Quite so, Mo. You can sometimes find quite good edification in productions with sinful aspects. And we do often go to to little work looking for that.
Actually I would go that farther. Explicitness would belong less in such a movie then in others. The object is to make the audience feel pity. If the audience is to busy with lust they will likely have no room for pity.
@ gromit45

I must've missed the language. I was too enthralled by the STORY being told.

And what better way to show that sin is ugly and evil, than by portraying it as so?
Plugged In is useful for knowing the exact content of films/shows/etc., which comes in handy if you have kids. But as review site they drive me nuts.

"A movie isn't just about its content."

Exactly right.

"Thinking that way is what has pushed such a wedge between faith and the arts in the first place."

Absolutely right.

"We have to pay attention to all aspects of a work:..."

That's the problem. This type of viewing takes *thought* - deep, concentrated, biblical-worldview-oriented thought. And most Christians refuse to exert themselves that way.

It's much easier to count the number of swear words, gunshots or sexual scenes (even if it's something as silly as a woman in a bikini!) and then pronounce the movie a bad one. Better yet if you have a site that does it for you.

I had not even heard there was a flap over 'Les Miserables', especially among Christians. Good grief! One of the most blatantly Christian, emotional, redemptive and possibly life-changing movies I can think of since LOTR and it's Christians who are complaining about it?! I shouldn't be surprised by now.

No wonder we have already lost - not "are losing" but have ALREADY LOST - the culture.
Les Mis content
The story could be just as powerful and portray the horrors of the characters' lives without being explicit (no matter how brief). There was a time when a movies would fade to black after you knew without a doubt what sadness was about to happen.

Yes the Bible is not all shiny and happy. I can read about Amnon raping Tamar but it's another thing seeing it acted out and portrayed before my eyes (and especially in light of surveys showing a high % of men struggling with sexual integrity).

Les Mis is *still* a great story of grace and forgiveness. The film version would be just as good without the brief sex and without the language.

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