Monday, June 24, 2013

Les Miserables: "And the Righteous Hurry Past"

This post contains many, many, many spoilers for Les Miserables.  If you haven't seen the musical, watched the movie, or read the amazing novel by Victor Hugo, go do one of those things immediately, and then read this post.  You'll thank me later.  :) 

I fell in love with Les Miserables when I was fourteen years old and my mom gave me one of the cast albums for Christmas.  At the time I knew absolutely nothing about the show, and my mom only knew that it had won a bunch of awards.  I sat down with my pink CD player and headphones on Christmas day, and I listened to the entire album from start to finish.  It was beautiful.  I was confused about some of the finer points of the story, but I still loved it.  Since then, I've seen the show live twice, and I've watched the 25th Anniversary Concert DVD more times than I can count.

It's gotten much more attention now, though, since the release of the movie.  There are pros and cons to this movie, but overall I enjoyed it.  The thing that really bothers me, though, is the reaction that I've seen from several Christians.  Some love it, some hate it, but the most common response to the movie is:

"I thought it was good, but I wish there weren't so many inappropriate parts in it".

A lot of Christians have advised their friends to get the DVD so they can watch Les Miserables but fast forward past "Lovely Ladies", a song about prostitution.  The ClearPlay DVD player will automatically filter out all of those undesirable parts for you.  Yes, that thing actually exists.  Not only will it skip past "Lovely Ladies", it will also get rid of the profanities, blood, and violence.  Let me remind you that this musical is the story of a revolution.  Violence is sort of an integral part.

You'd miss all but 20 minutes of the film. 

So what is it that makes Les Miserables "inappropriate"?  Let's go back to the "Lovely Ladies" example.   The scene begins as Fantine, hoping to sell a necklace to earn money for her child, tentatively walks down a dark street.  Prostitutes in low-cut dresses sing loudly about all the different men they sleep with.  Customers make innuendos about male and female anatomy.  The audience hears solicitations, arguments, and jokes about STDs.  The song makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I often skip past that song when I'm listening to one of the cast recordings.  But I don't look away when I'm watching the musical.  I'd be missing the point if I did.

See, the vast majority of Christians in developed nations lead easy lives.  Generally speaking, we have beds to sleep in, food to eat, and clothes to wear.  We get dressed up to go to church on Sundays.  We sing our songs.  We stay comfortable.  We have the luxury of protecting ourselves from what we think is inappropriate.  We filter out the sex and profanity.  And up to a certain point, that's fine.  It gets problematic, though, when we whitewash our religion and refuse to acknowledge that such things exist.

I cried harder at the end of "Lovely Ladies" than I did during any other scene of Les Miserables.  Fantine has just lost her job.  She has no way to provide for her child.  She sells a necklace, her hair, and two of her teeth.  Finally, as a last desperate resort, she turns to prostitution just like the rest of the women on that street.  We see her leading a strange man into a shack:

"Come on, Captain,
you can wear your shoes. 
Don't it make a change 
to have a girl who can't refuse? 
Easy money, lying on a bed. 
Just as well, they never see 
the hate that's in your head. 
Don't they know they're making love to one already dead?" 

After the man sleeps with Fantine, he gets up, buttons his pants, tosses some money in her direction, and walks away without a word.  It's as if Fantine isn't even human.  To this man, she isn't.  As far as he's concerned, she doesn't have a name, a personality, or a dream.  She's an object that can be used for sex and then ignored.  And as he walks away, we see the horrible emotional damage, the illness, the feelings of worthlessness, and the degradation that Fantine is left with.  

It's far too easy for us to look away, to ignore, to say "That's inappropriate.  I don't want to see that." And then we miss the message.  Our Christian filters work automatically now.  They very quickly declare "sex in a musical is bad" without stopping to think about why it might need to be there.  We can turn away from Fantine's plight if it offends our sensibilities, but so many people can't turn away because they live that life every single day.  They have no choice.  Fantine didn't choose prostitution.  Cosette didn't choose to be an orphan.  Eponine didn't choose poverty and crime.   But they got stuck with it anyway.  Just like millions and millions of people who live real lives outside of the movie screen.  

We have the choice to look away.  Fantine never had that choice.  What would you do if you found yourself among a group of prostitutes in reality instead of on the movie screen?  Would you offer kindness?  Would you fight to end the degradation?  Or would you turn away, forget their humanity, and decide that this is "inappropriate"?

I'd hope not, because Jesus never did.  The religious leaders of his day turned from what they thought was inappropriate, but Jesus didn't look away from the suffering.  He was right in the middle of it.  He ate meals with tax collectors.  He sat down with a woman who'd slept several men.   

The important thing to remember about Les Miserables is that the sex, profanity, and violence isn't there just to show sex, profanity, and violence.  It's there to remind us that suffering exists, that terrible things happen, and that so many hurting and desperate people are ignored by those who have the luxury to do so.  Consider these lyrics:

And the righteous hurry past.
They don't here the little ones crying,
and the plague is coming on fast, 
ready to kill.  One day nearer to dying. 

So when you watch Les Miserables or any other art that highlights human suffering, are you one of the "righteous" that hurry past in order to avoid being offended? Or will you open your eyes?  Challenge yourself to pursue the second option.  It might just help you to notice the suffering beyond the silver screen. 

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