When I read Les Misérables in high school I wasn’t expecting to like it. I didn’t really like much of anything that I was asked to read in high school (a combination of my sense of rebellion and the fact that we usually had to read girly books) and I figured this was just another sappy period story.
So I tried my best to hate it. I’m not sure why we do things like that when we’re young, but if Ms. Winfrey had handed me an X-Men comic book I would have found a way to hate it because that’s what you do when you’re a head-strong teenager who’s been handed classic literature. But the story overcame my immaturity (quite a barrier) and became one of my favorites.
I noticed that the main character (Jean Valjean, and his mentor, Bishop Myriel) were living out the Christian faith that I was trying to understand. (Yes, even young church-going boys are rebellious about reading books in class, apparently.) I became fascinated by the acts of Valjean because they were so self-sacrificing and loving. Could I make the same hard decisions that he made? Would I give my uniform to save the life of a soldier if it meant likely forfeiting my own life? Bishop Myriel gave his large, comfortable house to the hospital so they could treat more wounded and then moved himself and his staff into a much smaller home – would I do something like that? These characters made me question if I really knew how to live out the faith that I claimed to have.
(At this point, those of you who’ve only seen the musical don’t know what I’m talking about. In that production, the villain, Javert, is also a religious person, which obfuscates the role of Christianity as it was presented in the novel.)
Possibly the most impressive part of the story is when Valjean owns up to his actions. Valjean’s old crime has been blamed on someone else and Valjean steps up and takes the blame even though it means going to prison. By this point in the story he’s already turned away from his life of crime so it seems unfair that he’s going to prison for something that he has atoned for. But Valjean knows it’s wrong to watch someone else suffer for his crimes so he steps forward and takes the punishment. (No matter how much you scream at the book he will do this every time.)
But what’s really remarkable is how rare such a character is. Have you seen a Christian portrayed sympathetically, lately? Do the Christians in movies turn out to be self-sacrificing people? Or are they Bible-quoting lunatics and sanctimonious snobs? This is a rare book, and probably the best one I’ve ever read.
(P.S. – Thanks Ms. Winfrey!)
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)