The other day, my wife and I had the privilege of watching the film Les Miserables for the first time since seeing it in theaters. When we first saw it, we got stuck watching it from the fourth row of the whole theater. I was so close I could see up Hugh Jackman's nose, but after holding my neck in a weird position for three hours it wasn't the greatest experience of my life.
This time around, I got to watch the film while enjoying the comfort of my couch, and I have to say that it's an amazing movie. I know it's not for everyone (Spoiler alert: 99.9% of the dialogue is sung), but it's such a powerful tale about loss and redemption. The movie is intimately shot with extreme close ups and many times not with the intention to make the actor look attractive. It's meant to be a raw and visceral experience of injustice, death, poverty, but also hope. And the music, Oh my, so good. I knew the story, had seen the movie before, and it still almost left me in tears.
During the movie's finale, I couldn't help thinking to myself that this might be the best piece of Christian art I've ever seen. To be clear, I personally define "Christian art" as being any sort of art that communicates messages typically exclusive to Christianity. I understand that many people nowadays flip out at the term "Christian art," denying it's existence and saying clever things like, "I didn't know a movie could say the sinners prayer and be baptized." Hardy, har, har.
For me, the distinction is helpful because many things can communicate messages that are not exclusive to Christianity. What is exclusive to Christianity is grace and redemption. It's the Gospel, albeit in an incomplete form. The work of art doesn't have to be created by a Christian (Gasp!). It doesn't even have to have a conversion scene in it (although Les Mis does). If that work of art can make me walk away and glory in the Gospel more than before, than yes, I claim the right to dub that art "Christian."
Anyways. I didn't come to rant about that. I came to rant about how I think more Christian art needs to take a few tips out of the Les Mis playbook in order to better honor the Gospel we hold so dear.
**Some spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen the movie yet, shame on you.**
SHOW THE ABSOLUTE HOPELESSNESS OF LIFE
Life is hard. It's full of darkness, evil, sin, loss, and injustice. Les Miserables does not shy away from the brokenness life can bring. The title can be translated to "The Miserable Ones," and these people are truly miserable. For example, Fantine (Anne Hathaway's performance was worthy of her Oscar) is a poor young mother, abandoned by her lover, and unjustly fired from her job at a factory. To support her daughter, Cosette, Fantine sells her hair and some of her teeth. Eventually Fantine sells her body as a prostitute. Because of her poverty and probably prostitution, she then gets sick and dies. That's her story.
Is there a place in Christian art for someone so raw, desperate, and empty? It's scary to think about, but I almost feel like if Fantine would not be welcome in our art, that she also would not be welcome in our churches.
But the tragedy continues. Almost all of the characters, main and supporting, die in the course of the movie. Most die without realizing their dreams, without achieving success. Most injustices are not corrected. Most wrongs are not righted. And then everyone dies.
This is life and we cannot ignore it. This is what people experience everyday. It's dirty, vulgar, unsettling, and far from proper. Everyone knows that life is broken. Something is terribly wrong and it needs to be fixed. They can feel it in their bones. But how often does our art reflect this reality? Can people relate with what Christians are showing onscreen or putting in our books. This is one of the main critiques of Thomas Kinkade paintings. It whitewashes the reality of life and eliminates the darkness.
The darkness is there. Everyone knows it. We should not be afraid to acknowledge it's existence or even depict it. The Bible isn't.
This is the same book that holds stories of apocalyptic destruction, infanticide, and rape. The third human being who ever lived killed the fourth, his own brother. A priest, supposedly a man of God, cut his personal prostitute up and sent her body parts to different corners of the country. Job lost his wealth and his family. The people of God were conquered and ravaged by pagans. The Son of God was betrayed by one of his closest friends, tortured, and then nailed to a cross. The Bible is a brutal book.
Depiction of evil does not constitute approval of it. You're using darkness for a purpose.
It's not darkness for darkness' sake. Nihilism is not the answer. Ultimately, the darkness serves a greater purpose—to display how great the light is. Without great evil we run the risk of watering down whatever salvation is at work. Would Jesus' death be as powerful if He didn't die on a cross but peacefully in His sleep?
The purity of the light can only be felt when it's contrasted with the darkness. The strength and nobility of the hero can only be understood when he's contrasted with a ruthless, evil villain. People have to know what death tastes like before they can appreciate life.
SHOW A REDEMPTION THAT RESONATES
Life is dark, but the beautiful thing is that there's hope. Hope for restoration. Hope for forgiveness. Hope for redemption.
In Les Mis, this reality is best shown through the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). Valjean is first shown as a hardened prisoner, literally a slave of the law, for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release from bondage on parol, Valjean tries to cope with the stigma of his past. Desperate, he tries to steal the silver from a church where he was shown hospitality. But he's caught by soldiers and brought before the priest. Valjean knows he's finished. But instead of accusing Valjean, the priest tells the soldiers that he gave Valjean the silver and then proceeds to give him priceless candlesticks. Valjean is speechless and dumbfounded. He did something deplorable, gets caught, and yet walks away from it a wealthy man. What follows is a crisis of faith and the best onscreen portrayal of a conversion I've ever seen (I'm actually not sure it's possible to create a better one). He has a new life, finds a new name, and chooses to live for God and to help others for the rest of his life. Valjean doesn't live a perfect life, but it's one that's forever marked by that day of redemption.
Valjean's story shows that in the middle of all this hopelessness, there is hope, even if it's just a glimpse of the sun over the horizon. People deep down want to know there is hope, they long for redemption. But they don't want a fake salvation—one that can't confront the darkness. They want something strong enough to deliver them from the Valley of the Shadow of death. They want a power that can resurrect. They want to know that self-sacrificing love is worth it. They want to know that virtue can stand in the face of opposition. They want to know redemption is possible.
This is why the Gospel is so powerful. It doesn't cower away from death, sin, and evil. It confronts those enemies head on and defeats them all. The Gospel then invites for us to partake in that victory. There is no greater message we can portray with our art.
I'm not saying this will be easy. Good art takes time effort, and failure. But it's worth the effort. Art, particularly stories, has a way of impacting people that straight lectures on systematic theology cannot. It infuses truth into their hearts when they don't even realize it. It's able to infiltrate past all the skeptic and nihilistic guards and bring a little light. This is why C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. This is why I think Christians should keep making art.
I'm definitely not the guy for the job. But after seeing Les Miserables, I know it's possible and that gives me hope.