Every Christmas, I venture to Chicago to visit family and celebrate the holidays. And in the Boumgarden family, there is nothing more traditional than the combination of a Christmas night movie and a downtown Chicago musical later in the week. This year on Christmas night, we went to see Les Miserables, a project that beautifully captures and combines what is possible in both a musical and on the silver screen. Seeing the film brought me back to one of my favorite movies of the late 90′s, Billy August’s non-musical adaption of Victor Hugo’s epic novel in non-musical form.
The power of both the 1998 film and 2012 film musical goes beyond all the things it does well on screen (and both do so). Instead the power of the story rests in the underlying narrative of Hugo and the corresponding story of Jean Valjean. Playing Valjean, both Liam Neeson (in 1998) and Hugh Jackman (in 2012) do an excellent job demonstrating the life trajectory of the protagonist… the convict turned agent of grace. Indeed, the story of Jean Valjean is the story of grace extended and embodied. In this way, at its core the film is a decidedly moral and religious epic, despite the fact that it talks very little about the propositions of faith.
Jean Valjean is a convict who spends 19 years in a prison in France for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release, Valjean’s status as a convict makes it nearly impossible to find work. As a result, a moment of desperation again moves him into the role of a convict – this time taking a significant amount of silver from a local priest who earlier in the day took him into his home to clothe and feed him. Rushing out of the house in the middle of the night, Valjean is caught and dragged back to the priest’s house by the officers. But in the first in-breaking of grace in the film, the priest extends alms towards Valjean and says the stolen silver was in fact a gift. As soon as the authorities leave, the priest explains the gift and asks that in return Valjean lives a life that embodies this impulse and acts as a servant of God and others. And this is only the film’s first 30 minutes! It you haven’t seen either the movie (1998) or the musical (on stage, or this year’s film version), I would recommend doing so. It is a powerful story.
One thing you do miss in the 1998 film is the music. Watching it on Christmas night, one song that especially struck me was the finale. Standing together, Fantine, Eponine and Valjean together sing out:
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of god.
All this brings me to our downtown musical tradition. Last night, my family ventured down to the Bank of America Theater in Chicago to see the much-acclaimed The Book of Mormon. Everything that you might have heard about the musical is true… it’s vulgar, crass, sac-religious, and simultaneously incredibly funny. The musical is not for the faint of heart, and many will find the religious criticism of the film to be off putting.
After the musical, my father (a pastor, nonetheless) got into a long conversation about the musical’s religious critique. While not trying to give away too much of the story, the musical revolves around two Mormon missionaries in northern Uganda, and the way that one (Elder Cunningham) discovers the only way to reach the tribe and reduce harmful tribal behaviors (e.g. sleeping with virgins - even babies – to get rid of AIDS) is by modifying the holy Mormon scriptures. As a project, the musical seems to posit a view that if true at all, religion is but a metaphor and only helpful in its pragmatic curbing of irrational behavior. It is a pragmatist reading of religion married with a hint of Marx’s view of religion is an opiate of the masses. In other words, in almost every way possible, The Book of Mormon is a deeply satirical read of Mormonism and religion more generally.
While clearly not the intent of the writers, is there a way to read the religious modification of Elder Cunningham in light of Jean Valjean’s ethos and Victor Hugo’s larger message (“to love another person…”)? Is Cunningham’s faith modification (I would say contextualization, though I doubt the writers of The Book of Mormon have much interest in making this sort of point) a way to love the Ugandans they worked with. Despite its sacrilegious impulse, would Hugo have seen any envisioning the ‘face of god’ in this work?
It is in this way that The Book of Mormon, while still a deeply offensive satirical piece, falls less directly as a critique of religion, and more as a critique of religiousness and all its human manifestations. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to say that even in its most critical moments the musical lies parallel with some of the religious critiques of believers themselves. Listen here to the haunting words of the theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer sent from prison to his student Eberhard Bethage in the spring of 1944. Bonheoffer was in prison for his attempted murder of Adolf Hitler. He writes:
The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God–without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even “speak” as we used to) in a “secular” way about God? …The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village…
To love another person is to see the face of god… god as what is good, true, right and beautiful in the world… the god that rests outside of feeble language and while reached in ritual, simultaneously stands beyond as well. This god, Bonheoffer reminds us, is found in the middle of the village. If this is god, then her face must be seen just as easily found in Jean Valjean’s France as in Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s musical imagination.