Law and grace in Les Miserables

Watching the Wolverine and Gladiator sing felt so odd. Yet in Les Miserables, the two macho actors Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, made brave attempts to sing in this  film version of the musical.  But what have I to complain of.? I paid only $4 for the movie – a wee bonus for being older. My son twice told me to go catch it, and I did not regret doing so. Music and song has a way to reach the heart and it did move mine. As I reflected on the themes I realized there was an iridiscent interplay of law and grace throughout the musical. Surely there must be a blog post there waiting to be written. However, I chanced upon a wonderfully written, insightful piece in a Facebook post of Soh Chin San and was just blown away by it. I asked his permission to upload it on and he kindly consented. So here it is: “The Beautiful Exposition of Law and Grace in Les Miserables” . Read and be blessed.

To be honest, Les Miserables (the movie) was really dreadful for me during some parts. I was not really into the historical aspects of the French revolution, and I could not appreciate the singing talents of the young revolutionists. So I was just either watching the movie with my palm on my face, or sleeping through those parts. Berinda was so amused.

The next day after I watched it, it just hit me that the spiritual aspects of the movie is so so beautiful. You may have seen some of your Christian friends post this on their facebook after watching the movie “Law and Grace in Les Miserables, Beautiful!”, and wondered what this was all about.

Law and Grace in the Bible

In the Bible, God has two major covenants – one is the Mosaic Covenant established with Moses, and the other is the New Covenant established with Jesus. Before Jesus came, the Jewish people lived under the Law – the 10 commandments. If they perform, they are blessed. If they fail, they are condemned. Yearly, they offer sacrifices to atone for their failures of the 10 commandments. No one could keep them, not the best of them.

Jesus came, and He showed the true heart of God, the heart of Grace, and established the New Covenant of Grace. The New Covenant of Grace is not based on man’s performance on the 10 commandments, but is based on God’s goodness and what His Son, Jesus has accomplished for us on the cross. And because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are no longer under the old covenant of the Law (the 10 commandments), we are now under the new covenant of Grace and His finished work.

The Bible says “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” In Romans 6:14

In another place “But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” – Romans 7:6

Christians are called to live by grace, lean on grace and be transformed by grace. Christians are called to live in the newness of the Spirit, not in the oldness of the letter (the law).

As the Word says, the law is holy, just and good. But it is not meant to save or transform. It is meant only for the purpose of bringing man to the end of himself, ready to receive Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.

In 2 Corinthians 3:7, Paul talks about the glory of the New Covenant. Notice that he calls the law the ministry of death.

“But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.”

That is why we call the Gospel the Good News. It is that good. Jesus has come to establish the New Covenant. Man no longer needs to perform to be loved or forgiven by God. Everything is given through the perfect sacrifice of His Son. That we receive the forgiveness of sins, the gift of righteousness, the abundance of grace, eternal life, peace, joy, love, every manner of fruits based on His finished work. Hallelujah! Christ is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption.

Victor Hugo knows Law and Grace

As the movie ended, there is just a deep sense that Victor Hugo understands law and grace. He brings it out extremely well in the characters Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Javert (Russell Crowe).

Back when the message of grace and the New Covenant was preached, many Christians attacked it and called it “heresy” and that Christians who live by grace and not be law practise “lawlessness”. But even back in 1862, Victor Hugo knew very well what are the effects of living under grace and living under the law. We shall use the stories of Jean Valjean (characterizing a man transformed by grace – God’s goodness and unmerited favor) and Javert (characterizing a man who lives by the law, upholds the law).

JavertLet’s look at Javert first – a man who lives by the law

1. A man who lives by the law never rests

Javert spent his whole life upholding the law, and hunting down Valjean. He will never rest until justice is upheld. He has no other life and purpose other than upholding the law and bringing Valjean to justice. Every waking day and night, he cannot enjoy life as it is, but simply spends his time thinking about capturing Valjean.

2. A man who lives by the law condemns everyone

Javert cannot see any fault in himself. He is the righteous man. And everyone else is a criminal or a flawed moral character. His vocation is to condemn. He does not lift a finger to help the person transform. He can only say “You are wrong, you need to be punished”, but cannot say “let me help you.”

3. A man who lives by the law is unbending

Javert cannot compromise on the law. The law is one composite whole. If he compromises on one, the whole system falls apart. He needs to uphold the law in its entirety.

4. A man who lives by the law can never accept grace

Valjean, after years of being hunted like a dog, chose to forgive Javert and let him go. But Javert cannot accept grace. He cannot accept love and forgiveness. He does not understand it. He spends his whole life holding people to the law and throwing them into prison. And for someone to just let go and give him grace, is something that he has never experienced and will never accept.

5. A man who lives by the law ends with death and destruction

Paul was not exaggerating when he says “the ministry of death”. Javert could not reconcile the mercy shown to him and the need to uphold the law. In his dilemma of moral wrestling, he kills himself.

ValjeanAnd now, let’s look at Valjean. A man transformed by grace.

1. Grace gives and saves and loves unconditionally.

We see Valjean going around, doing good to all the people he met. He uses his strength to save a man pinned underneath a cart. He adopts Cosette as his own daughter and loves her unconditionally. He risks his own life to save Marius because he loves Cosette. Throughout the whole time, he did not need the law to remind him to do good. The love of God burns in his heart to do good, to give, to love, to save with the sacrificial love. Amen!

2. Grace upholds Justice.

This is a beautiful part. At one point in time, Javert arrested a man and accused him of being Valjean. Valjean could have let the man die and live his life of prosperity and happiness. He would never be hunted by Javert again. But when one lives by grace, He upholds the law without even knowing it. People who live and are transformed by grace do not live lawless lives. On the reverse, they fulfill the law, and more. Valjean is an act of courage and justice, appeared in the court to clear the man’s name.

3. Grace is never vengeful, and full of forgiveness.

On one occasion, Valjean has the perfect opportunity to finish off Javert. The man who caused him so much misery, looked down on him, condemned him, and is even the cause of Fantine’s death! But Valjean, having known grace, tasted grace, decided to give Javert grace and mercy. He does not need to take revenge or take justice into his own hands. He is a man after all, shown the same grace and mercy. He never condemns others, but grace begets grace.

4. Grace lets go and lets God.

During the wedding preparations of Marius and Cosette (this part was not shown well by the movie, but it is in the novel), Valjean admitted to being a convict in the past. He upholds truth. And Marius was horrified by this truth, assumes the worst of Valjean, and asks Valjean to leave. Valjean respects Marius’ judgment and decided to leave Marius and Cosette, his beloved daughter. He loses the will to live.

And this is the beautiful part. Behind the scenes, God is orchestrating for Valjean’s name to be vindicated thoroughly. During the wedding, Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) was trying to convince Marius that Valjean was a murderer, using the piece of cloth. The fabric made Marius realise that Valjean was the one who rescued his life and realised that Valjean is a man of courage, goodness and love. Marius brings Cosette to reconcile with Valjean.

When you are under Grace, God vindicates your name! You do not have to defend yourself!

5. Grace may go through trials, but will have a beautiful ending

Valjean has gone through so much in life. But yet, he has never lost sight of grace. He never stopped loving, giving and sacrificing. At times when he upheld truth and justice, he was misunderstood or landed unto trouble. But God always delivered him, never left him, never forsook him. And best of all, God gave him a glorious, beautiful ending in his life. This is consistent with all the patriarchs of the Abrahamic Covenant. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph. They went through several challenges in life. But they lived before the 10 commandments was given, based on God’s goodness. And while they faced severe trials in life, God always delivered them, gave them a beautiful ending, an eternal weight of glory. Hallelujah! 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 says

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.

Other background that brings out the beauty of Les Miserables

Did you know that Valjean is based on a real person? An ex convict who became known for his philantrophy.

Did you know also know, that when Victor Hugo published Les Miserables, every great critic in Paris has a deep negative report on the book?

These were some of the comments:

“One cannot read without an unconquerable disgust all the details Monsieur Hugo gives regarding the successful planning of riots.”

“artificial and disappointing”

“neither truth nor greatness.”

“an “infantile” effort and brought an end to Hugo’s career like “the fall of a God”.”

Wow. Imagine how crushed he must have been, to receive such scathing words from professional critiques. But in the same way that God gives Valjean a beautiful ending and an eternal weight of glory, God has vindicated Victor Hugo by making Les Miserables one of the most celebrated musicals for the last 150 years. And I believe God honors him because of the beautiful story of law and grace.

And today, it coincides with the Gospel Revolution happening around the world.

Hallelujah! Praise Jesus for His grace!

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I met a talking snake

Talking_Snake_I met a talking snake as I trekked the Bukit Timah Hill.

With shaking head and cold eyes, the snake hissed:  Aren’t you surprised?

No, why should I be? I am a pastor and the Bible has stories of a talking snake and a talking donkey.  It has a rod that turned into a snake, and a virgin that gave birth to a child. Why would I be surprised?

Snake:  But a talking snake is totally contrary to normal human experience. It is just totally unscientific and irrational. Doesn’t that bother you?

Pastor: Frankly it does unsettle me at times that there is a talking snake in the Bible. I mean, I’ve seen snakes in Penang, and in the Singapore zoo, and on TV but never a talking snake. However, this dissonance has never derailed my faith in Christ.

Snake: You should explore that dissonance and it should cause you to weigh the facts and throw the Bible with all its superstitions, scientific inaccuracies, and myths out of your life. Snakes don’t talk and trees don’t impart knowledge.

Pastor: Animals have been shown to be able to communicate among themselves. Some humans demonstrate an uncanny ability to communicate with animals, albeit at an elemental level.  Why then can’t you conceive that in a pre-Fall world, there could have been an amazing harmony and an incredibly higher level of communications among God’s creatures than is seen now. Though inconceivable now because of the Fall, couldn’t it have been different then?

Snake: Ridiculous! Utter nonsense. Sheer speculation.

Pastor: Well, it’s just a thought.  Perhaps you should be more open to seemingly impossible possibilities. After all, creation keeps us on tiptoe with strange and magical surprises in nature and in the invisible realm. That snake probably never talked again after tempting Eve. I have seen cases of evil spirits temporarily talking through its victims in a different voice and personality. You must be mocking me now!

Snake: Are you one of those Pentecostal snake-handlers or tongue-speaking charismatics who believe in all things supernatural?

Pastor: No I am not. However, I am a Pentecostal with a deep respect for snakes ….. and snake-handlers, and I do speak in tongues, certainly more than you. Yes the world of the supernatural and spiritual phenomena does not scare me. I view all these things that I do not fully understand with my finite mind, with a sense of hush and awe (and some wariness), as Moses did with the burning bush and Joseph with his dreams of angels.

Snake: You believe in all the miracles of the Bible.

Pastor: Of course, I do. Not just because I am a Pentecostal and brought up as one soaked in a tradition of belief in the supernatural gifts and in miracles, but also because the Bible speaks of these miracles and angels in a matter of fact way.  Call me naive if you will but I have heard so many modern day miracle stories myself and despite my natural tendency to doubt, I have become a believer.

Snake: Have you considered that the whole story of Adam and Eve, the talking snake and the tree that delivers knowledge is all a myth meant to teach religious truths about God? It’s just a literary device to teach readers that God is the creator, and he made humans to be like him and to be the top of the chain, and something wrong happened to cause the world to be as messed us as it is today.

Pastor: Well do you believe in the truths that the literary device seek to proclaim? Do you believe in God’s goodness and affirm that creation was good but evil came into the world and messed it all up? Do you believe that Jesus came to die and rise again to clear up the mess? If you do, you are closer to heaven than you may dare to think!  Have you heard of the 4 spiritual laws?

Snake: Don’t patronize me with your fixed formula of converting me. It won’t work. You should take a closer look at your faith – it has no substance, no factual base, insufficient evidence.

Pastor: Pardon me.  I don’t mean to be patronizing. My faith is based on the person of Jesus Christ. He lived in the Roman-occupied first century Israel. He was a carpenter-construction worker and a man whose birth, life, ministry was marked by the amazing, truth, miracles, love and remarkable perfection. He died and rose again from the dead and ascended to heaven. All these things were seen and witnessed by men close to him. My faith is based on the testimony of these witnesses. In addition, I have experienced his forgiveness and peace myself. I have a wonderful inner assurance that all this is real and true and somehow all the scientific and rational dissonance that bothers and troubles many others does not affect me at all. It just does not ruffle my faith at all. By the way, have you heard of Jesus?

The snake, weary from trying to convince me of the unreliability of the Bible, slithered away, hissing in frustration at this poor blinded Pentecostal pastor. The talking snake had to admit though, that it envied the fact that I seemed so persuaded and assured in my faith, and looked so happy for one so steeped in irrational beliefs and superstition.

The talking snake was almost persuaded to be a Christian.

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Faith and reason: what is the relationship?

Recent posts have given rise to polemics from people of different persuasions. Sometimes the comments became personal and sometimes they were patronizing. The debate should get a decent airing. Faith and reason has been a battleground for centuries. It has manifested itself again in the comments on recent posts. There have been many attempts to resolve the tension between faith and reason. Different positions have been taken. The Reformers have theirs and so have the Roman Catholics. The discussion of this issue draws from theology and philosophy for insights and perspectives. Further readings in this issue may spur more discussion and enlighten readers about this issue. Wikipedia has a simplified introduction to the kind of possible positions at hand and has this to say:

Beliefs held “by faith” may be seen existing in a number of relationships to rationality:

Faith as underlying rationality: In this view, all human knowledge and reason is seen as dependent on faith: faith in our senses, faith in our reason, faith in our memories, and faith in the accounts of events we receive from others. Accordingly, faith is seen as essential to and inseparable from rationality. According to Rene Descartes, rationality is built first upon the realization of the absolute truth “I think therefore I am”, which requires no faith. All other rationalizations are built outward from this realization, and are subject to falsification at any time with the arrival of new evidence.
Faith as addressing issues beyond the scope of rationality: In this view, faith is seen as covering issues that science and rationality are inherently incapable of addressing, but that are nevertheless entirely real. Accordingly, faith is seen as complementing rationality, by providing answers to questions that would otherwise be unanswerable.
Faith as contradicting rationality: In this view, faith is seen as those views that one holds despite evidence and reason to the contrary. Accordingly, faith is seen as pernicious with respect to rationality, as it interferes with our ability to think, and inversely rationality is seen as the enemy of faith by interfering with our beliefs.
Faith and reason as essential together: This is the papal view that faith without reason leads to superstition, while reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism.

Do read the full article on Faith and Rationality in Wikipedia. For something meatier and more philosophical go read this article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy titled:  Faith and Reason.

What do you think is the relationship between faith and reason?

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Have a Mary Christmas

MaryWithout Christ there is no Christmas. This is cliched but nevertheless true. However, these few days it was Mary I was meditating on. Without Mary, Christmas is an orphan. We owe the birth of our Saviour to a young teen girl who trusted God and said “Yes, let it be done to me as you want.” We owe a debt of gratitude to Mary for her simple child-like faith. Wisdom does not reside with the old and experienced. It resides with simple faith. A girl fresh from puberty played a vital role and her womb was the landing ground of the Saviour of the whole world.  Most cultures look upon women as inferior, and they are not treated as equals and deserving of mutual respect. They are taken advantage of and patronized or ignored. Their talents, influence and gifts are not always fully appreciated nor valued. Worse they are also violated and oppressed and are objects of sarcasm, suspicion and cynicism. They are not taken seriously – unless they happen to be your mother. However, what man despises, God exalts. He did that 2000 years ago when He chose Mary – a teen girl to reveal the “arm of the Lord”, “a light to the peoples”. So do not forget Mary. Thank God for Mary and all the goodness she represents as a woman, as a believing Eve–faith, sacrifice, risk, tenderness, gratitude, gentleness, compassion, talent, strength, and resilience. It was David Yonggi Cho of Full Gospel Church, Yoido, who echoed William Booth of the Salvation Army, who declared, “My best men are women”. So today,  thank God for all women and show your sincere appreciation when you wish your mother, your wife, girlfriend and daughter and sister a Mary Christmas.

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Good news for thousands at New Creation Church(NCC)

Whenever I have no idea of what is good to eat at any hawker center, I follow the Singaporean rule of thumb: look for the queues. Where there is a queue, the food is probably good. It has to be good if people are willing to wait patiently for it. Though it is possible the cook is slow or the system of delivery is bad, the likelihood is that the food is tasty.

So when New Creation Church became the only church where you had to queue to get a seat, the surmise is that the “food” is good. Of course we can be skeptical or cynical and say: its bad organizing or its a image projection or whatever. However, at the crux of it, you’ll have to admit: the queuing thing which went on for close to a decade without waning says something. The “food” has lots of satisfied customers. People, including pastors, may say otherwise. However the thousands of satisfied customers rub their stomachs and say, Jia pa pa (Eat full full).

(image from Stanley Facebook)

Now it seems the thousands of New Creation attenders have good news: they don’t have to queue anymore. They can book their seats online using their ez-link card number. Now this is a wonderful creative solution, one that meets a real need (even though people are actually willing to queue and wait). The pic above is what a booking slip looks like. So this is the true gospel for NCC members: no more queuing. I am happy for them. However if they are late, their passes will expire and the empty seats will be released for others and this is fair and encourages punctuality and responsibility. Technology and moving to the new facility at Star Vista has made this possible. Their first service will be on the 23rd of December 2012.

Instead of queuing just click.

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