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Fr. Robert Barron on “Les Misérables”

Les Miserables

According to Fr. Robert Barron, Les Misérables is "replete with themes and can't be understood apart from the Christian worldview." Here he explores the story's decidedly Catholic symbolism.
 

 

What did think about the Les Misérables film?

 
 
(Image credit: Paste Magazine)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

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  • stanz2reason

    So a story that explicitly notes a christian worldview, written by someone who, for at least part of his life ascribed to that worldview, set in a time and place where that worldview was dominant, with characters who base nearly all of their actions and decisions on that worldview can not be understood apart from that worldview...

    OK got it.

    It's a stretch to describe "the Hobbit" as 'deeply catholic' or that it's a 'fundamental retelling of the Gospel story'.

    • J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of "The Hobbit", would seem to disagree: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

      • Dcn Harbey Santiago

        Not only that, he was one of the translators of the Jerusalem Bible and instrumental to C.S. Louis conversion from Atheism to Christianity.

        "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
        Deacon Harbey Santiago

        • physicistdave

          Yeah, but as a whole lot of fundamentalists around the Web will angrily tell you, Jack Lewis never really left his paganism behind.

          Which may be why he is the favorite Christian apologist of so many atheists.

          • Dcn Harbey Santiago

            Hmmm, I have read most of Lewis works, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, Screw-tape Letters, etc and what he presents is solid Christian Teaching.In fact one of the best explanations of the nature of angels you would find in non-theological sources is in his "Space Trilogy", and whole ethos of The Chronicles of Narnia is Christian. I know he dabbled in his youth in the occult before becoming and atheist but that was when he was 15 years old..

            "Viva Cristo Rey!!"

            Deacon Harbey Santiago

          • physicistdave

            DHS wrote to me:
            > whole ethos of The Chronicles of Narnia is Christian…

            Your debate is not with me but with your fellow Christians such as this guy:

            http://harrypotterpower.com/lewis.html (sample quote: “Satan recognized that C.S. Lewis, with his talent for writing and a background in the imaginative love for occultism, would be an excellent tool if he could bring him back into nominal acceptance of Christianity”).

            or this:
            http://paradoxparables.justparadox.com/2010/10/11/do-you-have-an-inkling-of-what-the-inklings-jrr-tolken-cs-lewis-actually-believed-intended-how-are-they-connected-to-beowulf-and-harry-potter/

            or this:
            http://www.homemakerscorner.com/cslewis.htm (sample quote:”Clive Staples Lewis has been perhaps the single most useful tool of Satan since his appearance in the Christian community sometime around World War II.”)

            or this:
            http://www.sharingbiblicaltruth.co.za/e107_plugins/content/content.php?content.640

            or for a more scholarly approach, this:
            http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=103

            This stuff is all over the Web by various evangelicals if
            you look around a bit.

            Far be it from me to try to adjudicate an intramural Christian dispute, but you are free to have at it with your fellow Christians all you want.

            Dave

          • Dcn Harbey Santiago

            Not debating, just pointing out. I've been in this game long enough to know that one who spends so much time writing stuff like that in a web site, is just looking for someone to argue and not to reason together.

            "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
            Deacon Harbey Santiago

          • physicistdave

            Harbey wrote to me:
            >I've been in this game long enough to know that one who spends so much time writing stuff like that in a web site, is just looking for someone to argue…

            Oh, Harbey, I really do not think most of those guys want to argue with you at all!

            If you bothered to read what they wrote, you know that some of them consider you personally to be a tool of Satan and a secret neo-pagan.

            Which is about the nicest thing I can think of to say about Catholics, personally.

            However, if you do bother to read through the list, some of them do make some intelligent points: Lewis does not, for example, quote Scripture very heavily and does seem at many places willing to directly contradict Scripture and traditional teaching.

            Which, of course, I love him for.

            But, I can see why real Christians don’t.

            In any case, my point was simply that lots and lots of evangelical Christians are quite certain that Lewis is not a Christian and that they have some credible reasons for saying so.

            And, I am willing to extend the same compliment to Lewis myself.

            Dave

          • Dcn Harbey Santiago

            >>If you bothered to read what they wrote, you know that some of them consider you personally to be a tool of Satan and a secret neo-pagan.

            >>Which is about the nicest thing I can think of to say about Catholics, personally.

            Thanks for reminding me about Matthew 5:11-12. You made my week!! :-)

            "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
            Deacon Harbey Santiago

          • Andre Boillot

            Dave,

            "Which is about the nicest thing I can think of to say about Catholics, personally."

            This cant possibly help discourse.

          • Longshanks

            Beautifully done.

            "Oh, you don't believe me, here is not one source, but 5."

            Thanks for not being bad at this.

      • stanz2reason

        Not the story we're talking about. His religious views, his conscious & unconscious revisions to his other work, or his work as a translator all speak nothing to how 'The Hobbit' qualifies as a 'fundamental retelling of the gospel story'.

        I'm eager to here how it might.

        You want movies that are fundamental retelling of the gospel stories? Watch Superman I & the Matrix triology. Those are fundamental retellings of the gospels.

      • Luke Meyer

        While Tolkien's works were undeniably and profoundly Catholic, much of this was lost in the Hollywood productions, particularly so in "The Hobbit."

        • Michael Murray

          Much was lost in the Hollywood production period I think. I loved the cast, props and scenery for LotR but the plot and themes were all over the place.

      • Longshanks

        Cordially, I would like to state that before using phrases like "of course" and "fundamentally ... Catholic" one might want to read the author in question.

        I could be over reacting, but as you're defending the claim that The Hobbit is an allegory of the gospels, implying something similar of LotR, and you're attempting to point to a shifting revisionist stance on the part of the author, let me make something clear to you that should be clear to anyone who didn't read a first edition.

        In his foreword to the 2nd edition, perhaps accurately describable as a conscious revision, Tolkien has this to say:

        The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.
        ...
        As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches; but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit.
        ...
        But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

        I have loved Tolkien's works since I first read them many moons ago, and watching you or anyone else try to cast him in your mold, when he explicitly and eloquently rejected the similar treatment by his contemporaries, is, to me, disgusting. It's even worse than listening to Barron try to name-drop Hitchens into his rhetorical camp. It's the same species of "purposed domination" exhibited by the Mormons in posthumously 'baptizing' people.

        Tolkiens passion and employment pulled him deep into the worlds of myth and legend of myriad cultures. He was an avowed expert in the linguistic and cultural roots of these stories, most of which are pagan, ancient, and pre-Christian.

        He explicitly and compellingly defended the idea of sub-creation as an intrinsically good act in a way that mere allegory was not.

        It's a shame you decided to lie about, or were wholly ignorant of, something so fundamental to Tolkien's labor of love, and so readily disprovable upon reading.

        http://www.serendipityrancher.com/tt-fellowshipf.htm
        http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Sub-creation
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eru_Il%C3%BAvatar#Tolkien_on_Eru

        *Edit for style and grammar*

  • Ben

    Interesting that you're keen to emphasise the Catholic symbolism running through Les Mis, even though Victor Hugo became increasingly anti-Catholic throughout his life.

    Did the popularity of a work of art with a French revolutionary theme set off some kind of alarm klaxon in the Vatican? (OK, I know Les Mis is set in the June Rebellion of 1832, not the proper French Revolution.)

    Maybe the collapse of Catholicism throughout Western Europe is activating some 18th century social engineering plan to try to fend of another wave of deChristianisation?

    • Dcn Harbey Santiago

      Ben,

      You might want to read my note to Kacy.

      "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
      Deacon Harbey Santiago

      • Ben

        I don't think the greater presence of Catholic props in the movie means that the movie is itself more "Catholic" than the stage production. It probably just reflects that the film had a higher budget, plus a film audience can see details that wouldn't register on stage, so they needed to pay more attention to period detail.

        There's a lot of detailed Nazi paraphernalia in Schindler's list, but does that make it a "Nazi" movie? I wouldn't say so. Depiction doesn't mean advocacy.

        • Delphi Psmith

          Depiction doesn't mean advocacy.

          Spot on.

  • Victor Hugo didn't have an ambiguous relationship with the Catholic Church. He had an antagonistic relationship with the Catholic Church, and the antogonism went both ways. He described himself as a freethinker, and the Church put Les Mis on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for its anti-clericalism and scandolous depictions of prostitutes, and the book was harshly attacked by the Catholic press during its day.

    I find it odd that the Catholic Church, which is supposed to hold timeless truths is now completely backpeddling on Les Mis. I know the condemnation of Les Mis was not official dogma, but shouldn't condemnations and endorcements necessarily flow from official dogma? Why does the Church now consider Les Mis as its own when 150ish years ago and into the first half of the 20th century it was said to contain theological errors and be harmful to the faith and morals of Catholics?

    • Excellent point! It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to claim Les Misérables as Catholic. It was on the Index until 1959 (along with The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Fordham University has a good web page about the Index. Other writers on the list were Balzac, Defoe, Descartes, Flaubert, Hume, Locke, Mill, Milton, Pascal, Rousseau, Swift, and Voltaire. I am not sure how Catholic college students majored in literature or philosophy before the Index was abolished.

      • Dcn Harbey Santiago

        David,

        You might want to read my answer to Kacy.

        "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
        Deacon Harbey Santiago

      • Delphi Psmith

        I am not sure how Catholic college students majored in literature or philosophy before the Index was abolished.

        Well, certainly French lit would have been difficult :)

    • physicistdave

      Thanks, Kacy: the teaser above almost had me wondering if I, my wife and kids, and all of our not-so-Christian friends had really completely misunderstood the movie.

      Just yesterday, I was chatting with a friend (who is a "Christian Scientist" -- i.e., not a Christian by the standards of the Christians on this site) about the fact that to criticize the phrase "To love another person is to see the face of God" as religious is to miss the point. We were also discussing the fact that it is ambiguous whether Jean Valjean is really being taken to Heaven by Fantine or if this is just a dying vision. Again, it is beside the point: surely the important point is that when his life is over, it can be seen that he has lived a good life, for all its difficulties and vicissitudes.

      Incidentally, I, and most people I have talked with, loved the movie. I did not recognize Anne Hathaway at first, and was blown away by her performance before I recognized her.

      I'm glad my wife insisted on seeing Les Mis: I only wanted to see the Hobbit (which was a disappointment).

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

      • Michael Murray

        I've only seen the musical and listened a lot to the songs. My wife got me into it as well. I read about half the book and got bogged down. It's a pretty bleak view of the world and wore me down after awhile. Listening to the songs it's hard not to see it the musical version as at least theistic.

        But remember this, my brother
        See in this some higher plan
        You must use this precious silver
        To become an honest man
        By the witness of the martyrs
        By the Passion and the Blood
        God has raised you out of darkness
        I have bought your soul for God!

        My soul belongs to God, I know
        I made that bargain long ago
        He gave me hope when hope was gone
        He gave me strength to journey on!

        I'm interested to see how anti RCC Hugo was. Does anyone know if he would have called himself an atheist or was his opposition just to the Church?

        • Michael, check out Deacon Harbey's excellent comment above on this question.

          • Michael Murray

            Yes thanks.

    • Dcn Harbey Santiago

      Hi Kacy

      A number of things. First Hugo grew Catholic and in his later years became anti-Catholic although he never declared himself an Atheist. In one occasion a census taker asked him if he was Catholic and he answered "No, I'm a Freethinker" (In the sense that he was not under the "yoke" of Catholic dogma but a man with his own mind. Very different, than what we call Freethinkers these days.

      "I find it odd that the Catholic Church, which is supposed to hold timeless truths is now completely backpedaling on Les Mis."
      I think you are confusing between a movie, which was based on a play, which was based on a book written 150 years ago. Each of these three works, although about the same time period, peoples an events, are three very different works with different world views.

      A) Le Mis: The Book; It is clear this book contains ambivalent depictions of the Church. Just compare the depiction of Bishop Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel in Book 1 Chapter "An upright Man" with the depiction of the Ursuline nuns and monasticism in general in the whole of Book 7 "A parenthesis". Father these the book mostly cares about the socio-political situation of Paris in the 17 century and religion is just an after thought.

      B) Le Mis: The play; This work has clear Christian themes, in fact it aims at present three different world views.

      1) The view of Grace, represented by Valjan. Father Baron comments in.

      2) The view of religious legalism, represented by Javert, which Father Baron also mentions

      3)The atheistic view, displayed by the actions of Thernadier, as it is clearly shown at the end of the song "Dog eats Dog"

      "It's a world where the dog eats the dog

      Where they kill for bones in the street

      And God in His Heaven

      He don't interfere

      'Cause he's dead as the stiffs at my feet

      I raise my eyes to see the heavens

      And only the moon looks down

      The harvest moon shines down!"

      (Now I'm not saying I agree with this depiction of atheism, I'm just pointing a fact in the lyrics)

      I should point that Thernadier is NOT an atheist in the book. I'm not sure why the writers of the play decided on this, and this is a big difference between both works.

      Le Mis, the movie: This work is not just Christian but markedly Catholic. I have seen the play many times, in London and the US and the number of Catholic "props" in the movie is quite remarkable. From the obvious, The bishop is wearing a Dalmatic, which is a piece of ceremonial clothing only bishops and deacons use, Valjan praying in a sanctuary in front of a crucifix; to the subliminal, the women in the factory where Fontine is fired from are making rosaries. It is clear the director and producers wanted to give a definite Catholic ethos in this production.

      So you see the Church is not backpedaling, Father Baron is just commenting in something which is obvious to the those "on the know".

      I hope this help.

      "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
      Deacon Harbey Santiago

      • Deacon Santiago,

        So are you saying that the book deserved to be banned but the movie is okay? :P

        Seriously, the book was banned, and then it was "unbanned" in 1959, and then the whole Index was dropped in 1965. I was tempted to call this "backpedaling," but actually I think it should be called progress. The Index was an embarrassment, and abolishing it was a step forward.

        • Dcn Harbey Santiago

          David,

          I'm just saying that they are three very different works with different world views, and that judging what Father Baron is trying to say about the movie, because of book is wrong. He is not talking about the book or the play but the movie. (Although I would concede, at the beginning of the vid it appears he is talking about the book, however by the end it is patently apparent he means the vid)

          "Viva Cristo Rey!!"

          Deacon Harbey Santiago

        • David, the Index is a complex topic to understand. We should keep in mind that due to cultural sensitivities, books may be considered unacceptable in one era while morally acceptable in others.

          Also, we should distinguish between Catholic teaching--specifically on faith and morals--and Catholic disciplinary practice. The former is divinely inspired and protected from error, not the latter. Catholic leaders can, and do, make mistakes all the time--the Index may have been one example.

          • Brandon, what an excellent—though disappointing—answer. I was secretly kind of hoping someone would make a spirited defense of the Index and argue it should never have been abolished. :)

          • Michael Murray

            We should keep in mind that due to cultural sensitivities, books may be considered unacceptable in one era while morally acceptable

            I thought that the Catholic Church preserved universal values that are unchanged down the centuries. That's certainly what they tell us about morality. No succumbing to changing fashion etc.

  • 42Oolon

    I can see great value in the moral teachings of Victor Hugo in Les Mis. Particularly, Justice without Mercy as being objectively wrong. That is why Catholics believe there will always be mercy for sinners. That God would not annihilate, or separate our souls from him, much less torment us eternally in Hell, for the countless ages of eternity, just be cause we fail to be convinced of his existence in the tiny window of Earthly opportunity. Right? If he did, he would be acting like Javerre wouldn't he?

  • Longshanks

    Brandon, you said a few days ago:

    J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of "The Hobbit", would seem to disagree: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

    To which I replied.
    "Cordially..."

    I wonder if you were planning on responding in turn. Certainly you don't owe me a response, and you may still yet be crafting on, doing research or what have you. You may also, it seems to me, have decided that this line of dialogue is not longer useful to pursue, but in any case I would like you to know that I am curious what you think.

    One of my biggest frustrations in these sorts of discussions is arguments from false-premises, both from myself and others. When someone else can point out my errors, it's a painful but edifying process.

    Maybe you'll find an error I've made in my case here, if so I should be glad to know it.

  • Doug Shaver

    I discovered the stage version of Les Mis when PBS broadcast the 10th anniversary concert during a pledge drive. I've been a devoted fan ever since. I can endorse its ethical message while ignoring the supernaturalism. My favorite line is "To love another person is to see the face of God," which is easy enough to translate into naturalistic language.