The fragility of life. The servanthood of love. The (im)morality of war. The fundamentals of mercy and justice. The power of grace and forgiveness. The oneness of creation. The personal (and spiritual) toll of climate change. The nature of God and faith. These are some of the spiritual themes explored in the mostly august field of nine contenders for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture — Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
This week, in the run-up to Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, we're taking a look at each of the Best Picture nominees, the stories they tell, and the spiritual questions (and answers) they offer. Today we turn our attention to Django Unchained, Les Miserables, and Life of Pi.
As our nation celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther, King Jr., I can’t help but wonder what injustices Dr. King would fight against today.
Would he rail against the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration, which disproportionately targets African-American men? Perhaps he would continue to speak out against the “most segregated hour of Christian America” — 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. After watching Les Miserables, I’d like to believe that Dr. King would focus on abolishing modern-day slavery.
Known as ‘Humankind’s Most Savage Cruelty,’ human trafficking is a global phenomenon driven by the profitability of sexual exploitation. From China to Washington, D.C., millions of men, women, and children are forced into sexual slavery each year.
Likewise, in Les Mis, we meet Fantine who unjustly loses her factory job and then, out of desperation, turns to prostitution to support her child. While she chooses to sell her body, the realities of poverty do not leave her with other options to earn a living. Not much of a choice, I’d say.
If the latest Billboard album chart is anything to go by, the answer to Victor Hugo’s question “Do you hear the people sing”? is a resounding “Yes!” as the soundtrack to the latest film adaption of his novel has hit number one. More ambiguous however, is the answer to the question: do we understand what they are singing?
Many know of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Fewer know of Dr. King’s letter from a Selma jail where he wrote, “If we are to achieve a real equality, the U.S. will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.” This week will see President Obama sworn into office by laying his hand upon the Bible of America’s greatest preacher and prophet, M.L. King. If the appropriateness of King’s radical legacy being invoked by Obama goes beyond being skin deep, might we also ask the question: do we hear and understand the song Martin King sung?
As many blogs will brim with praise for Martin Luther King, Jr., with little mention of his politics, so too are they awash with praise for the latest Les Misérables film without mention of its vision for society. They praise Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s ability to blubber while beautifully belting out ballads. They have shown the Christian virtue of mercy to Russel Crowe’s singing (at least more mercy than the infamous critique of his musical ability by Australian punk band Frenzal Rhomb). All this before moving on to talk of Les Misérables’ less-than-subtle Christian themes.
As CNN reported, since the micro-targeted marketing success of movies like The Passion of the Christ, film studios have been courting Christians to exchange their pews for popcorn and Gospel songs for cinema going. Again, this time with Les Misérables, the faithful have responded to the box office like it was an altar call offered with Dr. King’s eloquence.
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.
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.