May 21, 2013

Stories ... and THE Story

I was recently bowled over by the 2012 film / musical Les Misérables.* I read Victor Hugo’s novel as a teenager, and have now seen three cinematic versions of it … but I have yet to grow tired of hearing this story told and re-told – especially in the musical version, recently reprised for the silver screen.

"Cosette" by Emile Bayard. #
Public Domain.
But what is it that so captivates me about this latest version of Les Misérables? The lyrics and music by Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer are phenomenal. The singing and acting by the likes of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe are also brilliant. The screenwriting and cinematography are outstanding. But beneath all of this contemporary artistic excellency is Hugo’s enduring tale of justice, and lack thereof; of love covering a multitude of sins; of God’s mercy; of rebirth; of misery; and of hope. The way Hugo weaves these timeless themes into an unforgettable story is what, at the end of the day, arouses the passion, the yearning, and the wistfulness in those of us who love the story. It is Jean Valjean, in other words – not just Hugh Jackman or Liam Neeson – who brings us to tears. Hugo’s story, in other words, is what stirs the soul … and is the reason why such great musicians, actors, and writers continue to work so hard at interpreting it beautifully … and why we love to watch them do it!

Great stories have an incredible power to stir the human spirit. Our generation has experienced this phenomenon in famous novels-turned-movies written by the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. These men and others have had the unique gift, not only of creating characters and scenes that fascinate our imaginations, but of interlacing those people and places into series of events that speak to the deepest longings, the greatest fears, and the highest joys of the human heart. Their stories not only fascinate and entertain, but they very often positively move us, do they not?

But why? Why do human hearts have such longings in the first place? Why do we fall in love with certain kinds of stories? Why, even though we know the characters to be fictional, do we sometimes find our hearts pumping, or our eyes watering, at the words of Jean Valjean, or Aslan, or Samwise Gamjee? Some of it, of course, is the skill of their literary creators. But most of it is because their stories seem to touch something very palpable inside our souls – maybe something we can’t always quite put our fingers on. The alternately plaintive and victorious melodies of the great stories seem to be themes from a song that we already know in our own hearts, but just can’t always quite fully remember or express.

In short, as Tolkien pointed out,^ the grand stories (plural, and lowercase ‘l’) seem often to be shadows (albeit imperfect ones) of an even grander, non-fictional Story that we all long to be part of – the Story that seems to occasionally play in the background of every heart that has not drowned out the eternity that God has set in it (Ecclesiastes 3.11).

God is writing His own drama for the ages, is He not? It, too, carries the human heart through miseries blanched with hope; through the injustices and crooked paths of a fallen world; through deep longings for a new start – a story which ultimately promises that justice will be done, and all will be new, and that life will have just begun when we go, in the words of Boublil and Kretzmer, “beyond the barricade.” And so many of the great stories – whether their authors realize it or not – are echoes of this one ultimate Story.

So let’s use them to our advantage – not in place of reading the Story, of course … but as vehicles of God’s common grace, pointing us back to the Story and its Author. Let’s learn to recognize, in the glistening of our eyes at the end of a great book or movie, that perhaps what we are really yearning for is eternity … where Christ will do, for real and forever, what Valjean, and Aslan, and the like can only help us taste for a few fleeting moments.

*In benefitting from and writing about Les Misérables, I am well aware that parts of Hugo’s story (and the cinematographic depictions of it) can be raw and even seamy. I am not writing to commend every detail in the book or movies, but to learn a lesson from what is, overall, an incredibly compelling story.

#From the original edition of Hugo's Les Misérables.  A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Cie., 1862.

^Lewis seems to have learned from Tolkien the way human stories so often echo the divine Story.  See Tolkien scholar Joseph Pearce's article on this subject at: It is largely from Tolkien's observations on this matter (especially as discussed by John Piper) that I have been able to recognize my own affinity for stories, and to understand that affinity in the terms described in this article. For Piper’s discussion of Lewis, Tolkien, and stories (or "myths", as Tolkien calls them), see:  

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