Arts & Culture

The Cultural Mandate and Les Miserables

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Growing up in an evangelical household, I noticed tension between secular culture and Christianity. There was secular music, and there was Christian music. There was Harry Potter, and then there was The Left Behind series. There were Hollywood films, and there were Christian films.

Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr might call this division of cultures a “Christ against culture” viewpoint, which presents Christ and culture as a radical, all-or-nothing choice. But the millennial generation rejects this view.

In his book Younger Evangelicals, Robert E. Webber says younger evangelicals are advocating for a resurgence in the arts. Niebuhr would call this “Christ transforming culture,” which recognizes the possibility of present renewal.

Hugh Whelchel echoes this theme in his book, How Then Should We Work? Whelchel writes,

We are more than merely permitted to engage in every part of the created order. We are told that the created world is ours, given to us as a trust from God himself. We are to engage it, announcing and exercising the presence and rule of Christ over every part of it. This includes the arts and the sciences, social justice and economics, church and U2 concerts, The Passion of the Christ and Les Miserables.

The 2012 release of Les Miserables is a reminder that Christians like Victor Hugo have powerfully embraced the arts in a way without segmenting themselves into a lone Christian genre.

Les Miserables and the Cultural Mandate

There is a second layer to Hugo’s powerful story. Taking a closer look at the character Jean Valjean, we can see how Valjean obeys the Cultural Mandate. Not only does he allow Christ’s love to transform his heart, but also the culture of his town through his vocation.

Valjean’s hard work and vision as mayor literally changes the city of Montreuil-sur-mer from a rundown town into a thriving manufacturing center.

Valjean’s whole life becomes a testament to the redemptive power of love and compassion. His glowing Christian character in his personal life and in his work inspire everyone who comes into contact with him. In a country that was less than free at that time, Valjean is a true example of what it means as a Christian to be salt and light in the world.

But perhaps the most “Christian” scene in the movie is when Valjean, after his release from prison and before he is transformed, is caught stealing from the priest. The priest not only forgives him, but also gives him silver candlesticks. I found this symbol particularly powerful because God’s forgiveness and grace is displayed in a physical object —something valuable, yet seemingly mundane.

As I watched, I began to think about the way Christians often segment our spiritual lives from the world, but the candlesticks in Les Miserables reminded me that God’s love can and should pour into every aspect of our physical lives: the invisible and the visible.

As Christians, we will fail to allow Christ to transform culture through us until we understand the intrinsic value of every vocation, from the filmmaker, to the city mayor, to the candlestick maker.

Editor’s Note: On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on Jan. 11, 2013.

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