Unexpected Grace in Les Miz

Movie poster for "Les Misérables" from Universal Studios, Christmas, 2012

Movie poster for "Les Misérables" from Universal Studios, Christmas, 2012

For many centuries Christmas Day worshippers have been hearing these words as their New Testament reading: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). Grace, everyone used to know, is foundational to the Christian Gospel.

But this Christmas I’m noticing the surprising version of grace in Les Miserables, already seen by 60 million people as a musical and now as a film. Victor Hugo’s novel may be seen as a story of grace transforming in the life of the common man Jean Valjean and grace rejected in the life of the rigid functionary Javert.

As the story begins, Jean Valjean is being released from 19 winters of imprisonment for having stolen some bread to save his sister’s son from starving. But in the eyes of Javert, Valjean will always be a thief, which is his nature, because he has not learned the meaning of the law. Crushed under this ideological overlay, Valjean sees himself as a slave of the law — in a way remarkably similar to that of St. Paul, who makes grace and law antithetical. The chorus confirms it: “Look down, you will always be a slave.”

In his first job after prison, Valjean is deliberately underpaid. When he objects, the boss says: “Why should you get the same as honest men like me?” (Jesus once told a parable about laborers in a vineyard to open people’s eyes to grace.) Valjean concludes that society has closed every door to him. When he is refused lodging, the innkeeper says: “We’re law-abiding people here. Thanks be to God.” The conservative identification with the law is commonly made in alliance with God, while Victor Hugo seems to understand that the Christian vision identifies grace, not law, with God.

Climbing Into Their Skin

© Mark Herreid / Shutterstock

Photo: Silhouette of teen shooting a basketball, © Mark Herreid /

In The Last Shot, Frey has written a compassionate book. It is truly a compass that guides us into the sneakers and the hearts of children growing up in the housing projects of Coney Island, New York — inner-city kids defying the law of nature by growing in a tough place like flowers growing through concrete.

It is truly passionate about basketball and life, basketball as it is loved by children, coaches, and communities ... life as it is felt through the hearts of people who know human beings are human beings and not commodities.

On Scripture: The Hell of Parenting — A Study of 1 Samuel

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Orphan Beaudin Lovinsky, 4-years-old, is placed into the Children's Foundation of Haiti orphanage. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Few narratives in the Hebrew Bible are more foreign to us than this week’s lection. We do not give away our children. In a society determined by socio-economic forces utterly beyond the control of individual citizens (e.g., globalization), we do our best to prepare ourselves for the inevitability of change. But what happens when we lose our footing?

Contemporary life changes too fast for habits and routines to have any chance to settle into a pattern. Western individuals must navigate their way through the fears and anxieties that are endemic to such an existence. Such is the pace of change, that effective life-strategies today may be obsolete tomorrow. We will do everything in our power to hold back the floods that threaten to wash away that which we hold dear — especially our children.

What was it like for parents in the Bible? Hannah, Samuel’s mother, was beset by another set of insecurities than those faced by contemporary Westerners. In the socio-economic situation of twelfth-century B.C.E., an Israelite woman’s worth was held in direct proportion to her fertility. Hannah was barren and thus her spirit was troubled to the point that she refused to eat, weeping instead on account of her “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Sam. 1:16 NRSV). In desperation, she made a vow before the LORD of hosts that if God would grant her a son, she would dedicate him to the LORD. The LORD heard Hannah’s prayer and blessed her with Samuel, whom she turned over to Eli the priest, according to her promise.

First Look — 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

Dave M. Benett/WireImage/ Getty Images

Cast attend the Royal Film Performance of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' on Dec. 12.Dave M. Benett/WireImage

This will be a night to remember! 

On Monday, I had the opportunity of attending an advance screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with a good childhood friend of mine. I sat in my favorite movie-watching seat (a few rows back and dead center), munching on free popcorn and drinks provided by a fellow moviegoer who wanted nothing more than to ensure that his entire row in the theater was happy and well-fed (not too unlike a Hobbit, really).

Just before the lights dimmed, I remember thinking how perfect the whole moment was. However, as exciting and as wonderful as those final moments of anticipation were, I also couldn’t help but wonder if I might be setting my expectations too high for the film that was about to come.

It turns out I needn’t have worried.

Be Kind, Rewind: 10 Best Spiritual TV Series to Gift This Christmas

Tom Hollander plays the Rev. Adam Smallbone in BBC's brilliant series "Rev."

This Christmas, for the spirituality-and-pop-culture enthusiasts on your gifting list, consider the following: Be kind and rewind.

Give them the gift that keeps on giving ... long after the series has been cancelled.

Rev. The Vicar of Dibley. Saving Grace. Davey and Goliath. Pushing Daisies. Six Feet Under. The Book of Daniel. Lie to me. Lost. And Northern Exposure.

In the Stacks

Among my must reads are the Sunday New York Times Book Review and other book reviews I come across in various media outlets. There are too many books being published that I would love to read, but just don’t have the time. So, I rely on reading book reviews as one way of keeping in touch with what’s being written. Here are my picks from this week’s books.

The Power of Christmas

Photo: Following the Star, © Juampi Rodriguez /

Photo: Following the Star, © Juampi Rodriguez /

“Faith is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so we might become more like him,” wrote the well-known preacher and activist William Sloan Coffin. He goes on to add, “We know what this means; watching Jesus heal the sick, empower the poor, and scorn the powerful, we see transparently the power of God at work.”*

Christmas really is about seeing the power of God at work, but far too often pastors and churches fail to tell this story. Oh sure, we preach about Mary and Joseph, Jesus being born in a Bethlehem manger, and the Magi following a star to find him and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. My fear is that the story has grown familiar and routine. We have forgotten its power and no longer see its challenge. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi seek out Jesus after hearing of his birth. In order to find him they ask King Herod where they can find the new king. This, of course, is news to Herod who is surprised to learn that his title has been claimed by a baby. Herod consults his advisors and then reacts with the expected calmness of a leader anticipating a conflict, which is to say his response is not calm at all. 

This story is an announcement that Jesus has arrived to challenge the powerful. The Messiah was not born meek and mild.   

Folk Artist Noah Gundersen Talks with Sojourners

Up-and coming-/singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen stopped by the Sojourners office to talk with our Brandon Hook about music, his new album Family, God, and creativity.

The Seattle-based folk artist was recently featured on Spotify’s Emerge app, which pits rising artists against each other based on play frequency, and is currently on a U.S. tour.

Special thanks to Noah for stopping by and being so open with us!