The professional atheists, mighty in their quest to drive religion from the public square, have been flattened by a filthy French waif.
Such a subversive, that little Cosette.
But little people know that to fight a powerful enemy, you must go underground — to alleys, to sewers, to cineplexes in the suburbs. There, in the cover of darkness, you hammer a revolutionary message home.
It is the ancient, hoary sentiment of redemption and sin. The dangerous idea that light and darkness are more than metaphor. The utterly ridiculous notion that God exists, and that behind the barricade of our increasingly secular culture, there blooms a people of faith. Their new Bible is “Les Miserables.”
It was a sneaky thing that Victor Hugo did, publishing this book 150 years ago. We can’t have Bibles in schools anymore, but still we have “Les Miserables,” which puts forth the essence of the Christian faith as well as John, Mark, Matthew, and Luke — and with a much better soundtrack, it must be noted.
Until a month ago, I was one of the wretched ones who had never experienced the power of the musical “Les Mis.” But then I went to the production put on by the Hopkinton High School drama department, and emerged a “Les Mis” junkie, ravenous for my next fix. I went three times. And each time, I wondered, Who’s the slacker who let God in the building? How did he slip past the security camera?
The deeply spiritual nature of “Les Miserables” may come as a shock to moviegoers who know only traces of the plot: the man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread who adopts the orphaned Cosette, his pursuit by the inspector obsessed with the law, the messily entwined lives and loves in a time of revolution in early 19th-century France.
In this dense, lovely plot, God has no speaking part, not even a cameo.
But from the early image of the newly freed Jean Valjean standing next to a cross on a mountaintop, to the closing scene of an angelic Fantine leading Jean toward the reanimated barricade, “Les Mis” is a passion play full of New Testament imagery. Valjean is a contemporary “good thief,” reminiscent of the one who hung besides Jesus at Calvary. Stunned to conversion by the selfless kindness of a bishop, Valjean takes a stolen stash of silver and turns it into a fortune that benefits many, not unlike a miraculous multiplication of fishes and loaves. Despite the misery and suffering that permeates the story, “Les Mis” radiates hope, the kind of hope we all need to propel us from the dark, somber end of this year. It is the impermeable hope of people who believe there’s more beyond the barricade, that somewhere there’s a Garden of the Lord.
The renowned preacher Billy Sunday was born in 1862, the year that Les Miserables was published. Ask a young person who Billy Sunday is, and he probably won’t know. Nor do the young know of the Rev. Billy Graham.
The greatest preacher of this generation may turn out to be a French novelist whose 1,400-plus-page sermon remains as popular as the day of its release, when the first printing of 7,000 copies sold out within 24 hours. Such was the power of “Les Mis.” Such is its power still. It’s a love story, yes, not of a man and a woman, but of a man and his God.
The director of the film, Tom Hooper, said he could not have made it if Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean Valjean, didn’t exist. But Valjeans are many — on Broadway, in the West End, on the Hopkinton High School stage. It’s God who is not replaceable, at least not in the pages of “Les Mis.”
Driven from classrooms and rotundas, he’s found a toehold on the stage. He dreams a dream: of a culture that is receptive to religion without inducements of pretty girls and stirring lyrics. Barring that, long live the wretched.