“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Les Miserables is a great cinematic adaptation of the classic novel by Victor Hugo.  And contrary to some, I think it was a good idea to allow true and very good actors (Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman) to also sing, even though such is not their greatest talent.  It lent a greater authenticity and rawness to their roles and allowed their acting to fill out and give greater meaning to the words.

This may be one of the greatest displays, on screen, of the power of mercy and forgiveness that I have seen in some time.  Very moving—very powerful.  One small act of mercy, like a stone dropped in a pond, ripples out and touches the lives of so many others for the better.

The book and the movie are also, of course, a great meditation upon grace and law.  Poor Inspector Javert can only understand the law, but not mercy.  Mercy confounds him.  It subverts his world.  When grace and mercy are shown him, by the very one he has tried to crush with the law, he cannot open his heart to it.  He can only see the requirements of the law, of an eye-for-an-eye.  Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert represent two ways of responding to mercy.  If we can humble ourselves, then a new life is possible.  But if we harden our hearts in pride, we become offended by the very offer of mercy and grace.  We feel slighted somehow.  We are insulted.  However, just like with Javert, to close ourselves to mercy and grace is to destroy ourselves.  

The movie and the book are also great reminders of the power of the Christian narrative, which of course inspires and permeates the entire story.  The story makes no sense whatsoever, if we removed or changed the Christian elements and sources.

The power of narrative.  This is why we have nothing to fear from the counter-narrative of naturalism.  It could never, and never has, produced anything that could move us like a story such as Les Miserables.  And it never will.  It hasn’t the resources.  It hasn’t any of the compelling power.  It rather tells a story that is completely opposite.  A story where mercy and grace are turned into contractual exchanges–where no true gift is possible.  A story where law is everything and the only thing that can be “true.”  After all, there is only evidence for “law” or “laws of nature.”  You can’t see mercy or grace on radar.  Justice, grace, and mercy have to be believed and imagined.  And they can only be imagined because somewhere, somehow, in the memory of us all there lies an echo of an event, where mercy and grace were shown and displayed.  But like with Jean Valjean and Javert, mercy (or the cross) will either offend or heal us, depending upon our response.

Les Miserablesstrikes us so powerfully because it is true or we know it should be true—even when the world doesn’t appear to have much mercy or grace.  We know the world “ought” to be a certain way even when it seems it just “is.”   Even when the world seems to be only law, we desire and admire the response of Jean Valjean and not Javert’s.  That is why one narrative is true and the other false.
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8 Responses to “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

  1. Hi Darrell

    There are clearly many ways in which narratives can be constructed, such that they speak to us. For my money, one of the most touching relationships in literature is the friendship between Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot – as Godless and existentialist meditation as one might hope to find.

    Meaning, in literature, may well be an emotional, rather than a reasoned response. It could be we discover meaning not because we apply some intellectual superstructure that reflects that meaning back at us, but rather, simply because it touches us. It resonates with some par tof our nature, if you like.

    I understand some argue that under naturalism, if we dig deeper, we find the apparent meaning signifies nothing. But even if this were true (and it's a difficult case to construct)is it not possible that the initial meaning still remains, that in the emotional response to love, loyalty, mercy, whatever, we may still find beauty?

    Bernard

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  2. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    I agree it's a great story. I have not seen the movie but I have seen the musical and I know the music well – and I have read the book (in the original French).

    Where we would disagree, obviously, is in the contradiction or opposition you seem to see between naturalism and the values displayed in the story. On the contrary, the story works very well under a naturalistic framework. I can tell you, it really does. As I have said, I have read it all.

    All these things you value (mercy, love, meaning, beauty, and so on) are perfectly accounted for under naturalism. Of course, they are not given – they are to some degree human inventions, but this does not make them any less real.

    I have a lot of trouble with this idea that, for something to be real, it must be somehow embedded in the fabric of reality. Certainly a tree is real – although there are no trees lurking in particle physics. Certainly hunger is real – although no electron has ever been hungry. Why not the same for a feeling of beauty or love?

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  3. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    There are many interpretations of “Waiting for Godot” and not all of them are as “Godless” as one might think. Regardless, there is a reason that existentialism would only describe a tiny minority of usually academics or artists at any given time in recent history. It certainly isn't what it was back in the 60’s and 70's. Meaning, in literature, is both emotional and reasoned because it compels us to try and understand our deep emotional response to a narrative. It is why there are Milton experts and Tolstoy experts. It is why books line shelves trying to understand the power of these narratives. And these narratives may resonate universally and over long periods of time because they hit upon truths that are transcendent. They may touch on something bigger than any one of us individually. There are no comparable works of literature, inspired and completely under-girded by philosophical naturalism—stories that resonate universally, positively, and over a long period of time. My point is that the ability of a narrative to resonate universally, over long periods of time, with all levels of society, with both the educated and un-educated, in a positive way lends something to our being able to say it is “true” over and against other narratives that are unable to do likewise. And we shouldn't be shocked if we find the narrative that is unable to do likewise, also tells a story that is in opposition to the other more powerful and compelling narrative.

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  4. Darrell says:

    JP,

    You have an opinion that all the values displayed in the story work well under naturalism. I would say two things to that. One, such is a much debated issue and, in fact, the very issue in contention on my blog and those like Eric’s. You are sort of begging the question here. The matter is hardly settled. Second, you may believe the naturalism narrative can account for all these things, however, the fact remains that it has never produced stories like Les Miserables. It is one thing for someone to say they can run a 25-mile marathon. It is another thing to actually do it.

    “I have a lot of trouble with this idea that, for something to be real, it must be somehow embedded in the fabric of reality.”

    Well, you forget that such is exactly what philosophical naturalism tells has to be the case for something to be real or true. I too have trouble with that idea.

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  5. Hi Darrell

    I'm not sure I understand what you are getting at here. Yes, some narratives have great and lasting appeal. That appeal tells that the stories have managed to reach some deep place in us, that they connect with some essential element of our humanity. Of course. But what is the inference you then wish to draw?

    Apparently that this lasting appeal is due to its referencing of some aspect of the transcendent. Well, that is one possibility. Another is that it appeals to something elemental in our physcially grounded make-up, in our evolved tendencies to think, feel, behave and celebrate in certain ways.

    Why leap to one conclusion, in favour of the other? This is what puzzles me. It is certainly true that an unbeliever such as myself can find great meaning and beauty in works of art. And it is equally true that unbelievers can produce work of remarkable and lasting beauty (and Godot is surely an excellent example here). So I think I understand your assertion, but not your line of reasoning.

    Bernard

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  6. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Thanks for your answer.

    Yes, I do think that, as far as we can tell, naturalism (of some kind or another) accounts very well for things like galaxies, trees, hunger and a sense of beauty. To be sure, we are far from understanding everything – dark matter/energy or consciousness, for instance, remain deep puzzles. But, by and large, things that we know well seem to fall neatly into some kind of naturalistic framework.

    Which is not to say, of course, that naturalism is true. This is an altogether different question. As is the question of under which worldview is produced the best literature – certainly an interesting question in itself but, certainly, quite irrelevant the truthfulness of a particular worldview.

    In fact, I'm not quite sure what it is you actually claim. You appear to feel that something important is missing from naturalism, that it is deeply unsatisfying in some way. But, surely, you are not claiming that your feelings about it (or mine) have any bearing on its truthfulness.

    Or, perhaps, you're referring to unsolved issues, like consciousness. But you are certainly not claiming that unsolved problems constitute a defeater for a worldview.

    Again, here I am not arguing that naturalism is true. However, my guess is that you want to claim that it is probably or certainly false. If I guess right, what is your main argument for this position? I would think that, to show naturalism to be probably false, you need at least to produce evidence of a well know phenomenon that clearly does not fit within the framework.

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  7. Darrell says:

    Hello JP,

    “Yes, I do think that, as far as we can tell, naturalism (of some kind or another) accounts very well for things like galaxies, trees, hunger and a sense of beauty.”

    Philosophical Naturalism/materialism tries to account for everything, but again, that is the very point of contention—the very issue debated. Can it? I don’t think so. I’m not sure what you mean by naturalism, but I’m talking about philosophical naturalism or materialism. No one here simply means “galaxies and trees” in the sense of just “nature” when speaking of naturalism. And whether or not naturalism can account for a sense of beauty, again, that is a much contested issue in philosophy and even science.

    “…my guess is that you want to claim that it is probably or certainly false. If I guess right, what is your main argument for this position?”

    I admit I had to laugh at that. I thought it was clear from my blog and any of my comments on Eric’s blog that I clearly and most definitely believe philosophical naturalism/materialism to be false. I am a Christian. Am I that unclear in my writing? I just finished a rather long conversation with this post http://byzantinedream.blogspot.com/2012/12/nagel-voice-of-reason.html regarding Thomas Nagel’s book, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” You may want to read that post and the comment section. Nagel is not only one of the most respected philosophers in the West, he is an atheist. And I agree with him. You may think about getting his book as well.

    My main arguments for my position are laid out on my blog. Also, I have been writing about this stuff for years and I have left many comments on Eric’s blog over the years. I’m not going to try and condense in a comment section what I have been writing about for some time now, so I would suggest you read through some of my past posts or search on Eric’s blog for those topics having to do with these areas, as I’m sure I have left many comments. And, if you want, stay tuned—as I’m sure I will continue to post and write in these areas.

    Thank you for your comments.

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  8. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Sorry to rehash old stuff. I thought it would have been interesting to focus on one point you find particularly problematic and see where it goes. I find that it is often difficult to understand precisely what others mean – and I confess I still don't fully understand your positions.

    Some other time perhaps.

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