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Posts Tagged ‘Musicals’

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The curtain opens on Paris in 1832, at which time the June Rebellion is underway.  “The People,” or representatives of the poor and downtrodden masses, are rising up against the French monarchy.

Any history buffs out there?  If so, does anything strike you as ironic about this?

Between the French Revolution of the earlier century and this time period, there had been a number of other such uprisings, all of which resulted in new monarchies and/or dictatorships that, at best, disappointed the hopes of the French people.

GavrocheWe are apprised of this in “Les Misérables” through the wisdom of a child — Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) by name.

Fighting on the side of the rebellion and reflecting on the People’s “victory” in France’s last great uprising (namely, the July Rebellion), he observes, “we tried to change the world too fast.”

Indeed, when we try to change things ourselves, on our own clock, when in our zeal we either presume to separate ourselves from our reliance on a Higher Power or assume that His will is 100% in conformity with our current temporal ends, then what we think is an accomplishment toward great change is just another case of egoistic self-assertion after the pattern of the Fall.

And what comes out of this?  Defensiveness.  Wall-building.  Denigration of the other.

June Revolution

What Gavroche doesn’t seem to realize is that the current rebellion poses the exact same problem.  The righteous indignation of the peasants against corrupt power structures is, in a sense, “ruined” by the mode of their rebellion.

Javert

In the rebellion by which they intend to “build a better world when tomorrow comes” and the oppressive monarchical side — embodied by the character Javert (Russell Crowe) — we have two self-defensive “egos” colliding.

It’s like a phenomenon we can observe any day in nature: When we strike two rocks against each other, flames are sparked.

Perhaps this is why, contrary to the expectation of the rebels, the people of Paris do not show up to help them on the day of battle.  Perhaps this is because they understand that it will not change anything, and in fact will probably just replace the old set of problems with a whole new set.

Yes, rebellion is sometimes necessary.  And yes, we should always do what we can to ensure that our societies respect the inviolable dignity of every human person.

But hope can be compromised when we try to do too much too quickly, when we invest too much hope in the idea of building the ideal society here and now…of relying on our own strength and zeal to reverse the sad condition of the world in which we live (as some of the revolutions of twentieth-century Europe have shown).

But enough of that.  What kind of actions do make a real difference, at least in “Les Misérables?”  We’ll get to that next time.

Images obtained through a Google image search

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les-mis-eponin-marius

Again, having seen “Les Misérables” is not mandatory.  We are here dealing with a theme, not plot points.

Ok, we’ve had a break.  Now let’s get back into it.

We’d be remiss if we concluded that the Grace/Law issue is the only great theme that shines through “Les Misérables.”  In fact, I think even that falls under a wider umbrella — namely, hope.

We can say that hope is upheld by the change that Grace allows and legalism prohibits.  But on another level, hope is the “food” of the human race.

I can borrow no better words than those of motivational speaker Matthew Kelly, who has commented on the difference made by people “who believed that the future could be bigger than the past.”*

“Les Misérables” bears witness to hope, but it is also a cautionary tale.  We have to remember that hope transcends us, and must be patiently awaited until it is ready to meet us on its own terms.

Humility is mandatory.  Look at it this way: If we think of the progression of time and history as a straight line, we can infer that it is set against a larger background (eternity), and headed toward a final end (heaven).

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As a progression, it has a length, but no width.  No two points in time can exist side by side.

Now, imagine trying to give it width.  Mentally attempt to grab the middle of a line by its “edges” and stretch it out like so…

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You have some more width — or something vaguely like it — but what does this “stretching” do to the rest of the line?  It pulls it back in both directions.

I think utopianism and triumphalistic ambitions toward hope do the same thing to us as human beings.

When we invest our hopes in this world, we forget where we came from and where we’re going.  The great progression of history becomes no longer a line, but a mess…like a blob of jelly spread out over the face of eternity.

Again, humility is mandatory in order for hope to be truly hope.  As with Grace, we must acknowledge our dependence on something higher than ourselves.

More than that, we have to acknowledge the fact that our destiny, our fulfillment, our hope lies in something that is beyond our powers — and beyond this world.

And now the curtain opens…we’re ready for Act II!

* Here is a link to one of at least two videos in which Kelly says this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcM7S7Y7r0A

Top photo obtained through a Google image search; others courtesy of Yours Truly.

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Les-miserables-movie-poster1Note: You do not need to have seen “Les Misérables” in order to appreciate this post.  It is simply a reflection on one of the film’s themes and contains no spoilers.

So we close the curtain on Jean Valjean and Fantine.  Now that we have a bit of a break, we can get down to a bare bones question: Which is harder, Law or Grace?

(As long as we remember that Grace and the Law are not opposed, as well as the difference between the Law’s proper place and its abuse, I think the following points are valid)

Grace is less scrupulous than the Law.  The ancient Jews had a daunting number of commandments in the Torah, and each had to be observed with exactness.  And lest you think to yourself, “Hey, you’re gonna miss something here and there — it’s understandable,” understand that the whole Law is, in fact, one “piece.”

That’s not to say that all failures to observe the Law necessarily carry equal weight — but when the Law becomes the end-all-and-be-all of our spiritual lives, it can get overwhelming.

Grace takes account of human weakness and can even work with human failures.

But in another sense, Grace is much harder.  While perhaps emphasis on Law can be content with mere outward observance, Grace demands an overhaul of the heart.  In response to Grace, we are now responsible not only for performing the right action, but also for developing the right motives.

Colm Wilkinson 2That is why the Bishop’s forgiveness of and charity towards Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” is such a great illustration of “turning the other cheek,” which Christ prescribes in Luke’s Gospel.

“Turning the other cheek” does not mean being a doormat, nor does it mean excusing, minimizing, or ignoring the wrongs committed by another.  Rather, it is a method of nonviolent confrontation — it causes no harm, but it lets the other see the wrongness of his/her ways.

After the episode with the Bishop, Vajean cannot comfortably return to his former course of action (which we may suppose to be a life of vengeance against the society that has disenfranchised him).  He has been confronted with something bigger than himself, something that compels him to go out of himself.

That something is Grace, pure and simple.

Top photo from Wikipedia; photo of the Bishop obtained through a Google image search

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Having commented on various films from the past year, I could not rest easy if I didn’t cover Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical “Les Misérables.”

As you can probably tell from the title of this post, my commentary will be divied up into segments that resemble the playbill of a theatrical performance.  For today, we will delay our dive right into the movie for a prelude in which we immerse ourselves in one of the story’s major themes — or differently put, into some of its defining “music.”

The theme in question is the relationship between law and grace — particularly from a Biblical perspective.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther, the founding father of the Protestant Reformation, famously held that the Law and Grace were opposed.

Observance of the Law, in Luther’s mind, was somehow inherently slavish.  Grace and faith alone were the substance of the Christian life.  The purpose of the Law was simply to convince human beings of their own helplessness, of their total inability to save themselves.

And in this state of abject self-abasement, we are ready to receive the free grace of God.

A Catholic would agree and disagree.

On the one hand, we would agree wholeheartedly that the Law of itself cannot save.  It is like an X-ray in Israel’s (and human) history, showing to man the deep sickness of his sin.  It goes without saying that the X-ray and the cure are not the same thing.

But to say that this is the only purpose the Law could possibly serve is a bit short-sighted.  Yes, there are a great many aspects of the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament that were abolished with the coming of Christ, Who is the perfect fulfillment of the Law.  But the Divine Law, the Natural Law — which is, in fact, inscribed onto every human heart, even if it is obscured by sin — does not lose its value with the coming of Grace.  In fact, I think we could probably say that in a sense, the Law is a grace.

What Christianity is all about is not primarily rules and regulations, but a relationship:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22: 37-40)

However, the Law, rather than being a stricture, is the structuring logic of the relationship.  All stable families, for example, have ground rules, boundaries, and expectations, all of which are usually codified in a way that resembles “the Law.”

Romantic relationships are governed by a similar logic.  Typically, each partner expects the other to remain faithful to the other, to the exclusion of any other romantic relationships.  Both partners are at the same time expected to respect one another as unique persons, and to be willing to make compromises for the good of the other.

Baseball

Let’s turn to another scenario. Imagine a group of kids playing baseball.  Imagine putting them in the midst of about 40 acres of land and giving them a bat, a ball, and some gloves.  Then imagine telling them: “Okay, now just do whatever you want.”

I don’t know much about baseball, but I don’t think I need to in order to say that this just ain’t gonna work.

The fact is, kids who intend to play a game of baseball are going to want rules.  They want someone to lay out the physical boundaries of the playing field.  They want to know what makes for an “in” and what makes for an “out.”

They want, to sum up these points and everything else that could be said, to know how to win the game and how to lose it.  Otherwise, all the excitement goes out of the game.

I have written all of this not merely to give a full scale defense of the Law, but more specifically to show that the Law is the recipe for humankind at its best.  Many cultures throughout the centuries have expressed belief in a universal law that governs all things (some of the ancient Chinese, for example, spoke of the Tao).  To the extent that you were in conformity with this law, you were happy and virtuous … or, as contemporary writer and motivational speaker Matthew Kelly would say, “the best-version-of-yourself.”

Precisely because the Law is such a good thing in and of itself, its abuse is a tremendous evil. To the extent that it is used to put people down, to cripple them, to “freeze them up” with burdens they cannot bear, the Law has been hijacked and robbed of its true purpose.

We can prevent this by realizing that the Law — along with all laws, in the last analysis — is a means to an end, and that this end is nothing other than God, Who is love itself (1 John 4:8).  That is why, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, all human laws must be tempered with some sort of compassion, with what we might call a human element.

Otherwise, law defeats its own purpose.

That said, we can take a proper look at Grace.  Because of Original Sin, our hearts are not right; therefore, we cannot obey the Law as we ought, because our hearts are out of sync with the Law’s very purpose (that is why we sometimes use laws, which are derived from the Law, to oppress rather than to build up).  And if that’s the case, it only makes sense that we cannot turn to the Law for salvation.

Jesus Christ

In Christ Jesus, God, Who is infinitely, unconditionally loving and merciful, reaches down to us in friendship and offers redemption.  More than that, He offers us a share in His own Divine Life.  Undeserved, unearned, and totally gratuitous, it comes to us straight from eternity — the gift of Divine Grace.

With Grace comes a superabundance of aid by which we can, however imperfectly and however gradually, live by the Law given us by our loving Creator.  As long as we are doing the best we can and continually to striving for perfection, the Grace of God will be with us the whole way.  And if we fall, He is always ready to pick us back up.

On that concluding “note,” the Overture ends, and the curtain opens…

Photos from Wikipedia

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