My wife and I went to see Les Misérables today, the musical adapted from Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel. It was a new staging, created for the show’s 25th anniversary. The new staging was quite a bit different, in a good way, than the other four times we’ve seen it (I know; I also own five soundtracks). And even if it hadn’t been, as has been said about other things, a bad day at Les Mis is better than a good day anywhere else.
The characters were starker and less “pretty.” Valjean actually looked like a convict who’d been in prison for 20 years. He acted angrier, too. The struggle, and ultimate change, in him after the bishop’s “I’ve bought your soul for God” was palpable, and much closer to what is seen in the book. Overall, there was more acting in the singing, which I thought helped tell the story much better.
Perhaps because of that, I paid attention to a couple of lines in the prologue that normally disappear without a thought. In an exchange between prisoners, one says, “Sweet Jesus, hear my prayer!”, and the other replies, “Sweet Jesus doesn’t care!”. The question implicit in that exchange, “Does Jesus care?”, hung over the rest of the play like the smoke from a fireworks finale.
Does Jesus care?
The prisoner in the prologue exchange concludes He does not, because He did not save him out of his circumstances. This is the conclusion of the selfish: if my circumstances aren’t better, He must not care.
Valjean concludes the same thing, but his is the conclusion of the angry: it is God who has done this to me, and therefore He not only doesn’t care, He enjoys my suffering.
Thénardier concludes that not only does He not care, but that He is dead. (One of the two things I dislike about the play is that it turns the Thénardiers into a comedy act, instead of the evil they are in the book.) This is the conclusion of the amoral: since I can’t see that He cares, I’m going to do whatever I want.
Javert concludes He does care, but only about the righteous, of whom there are very few. (This staging has Javert kneeling in prayer twice; the other of the two things I’ve disliked about past stagings is that they make Javert into a bad person, as opposed to the book’s devout but misguided legalist.) This is the conclusion of the arrogant: He cares, but only about the good (me), not the bad/unrighteous/sinner (most everyone else).
I am a member of a team going to Cambodia in a couple of months. Last weekend I listened to each member of that team tell their faith story, and I was struck that every one of them had had a crisis of belief in their lives that involved this question. In almost every case, the crises were severe, and so it was a long and lengthy struggle to answer the question. Nevertheless, each ultimately found the answer where we all can — at the cross, the question was answered definitively with a resounding YES!
In Les Mis, Fantine is an innocent whose circumstances stack up against her to such an extent that Job would have cried “uncle!” But, as Hugo makes plain, the failure in Fantine’s case is not God’s. Even Valjean, now renamed and reborn, turns his back (albeit unknowingly) when she is thrown out of her job at his factory, thus beginning her decline into being prostituted.
Valjean makes good on his apathy by adopting Fantine’s daughter, and as he is dying, it is Fantine’s spirit who welcomes him with, “And you will be with God!”
Thus, in Les Mis, as in life, the real question is not does Jesus care?
The real question is, do we?