reading aloud

I’m sorry I’ve been so absent, all: I just found this post that I’d forgotten to put up, so here you are.

When I was younger, I hated reading aloud.  I loved to read, of course – I’ve always known that stories carry magic – but I remember sitting in my second grade class as we circled around with Charlotte’s Web and I just knew that my tongue would trip over the words in a way my mind never did and my mouth would get dry and my voice do something I didn’t want it to do.  When I read to myself, I was swept up in the world of the book in a way that mimicked restfulness, and I’d look up from my book with the feeling that I’d just woken from a nap.  Reading aloud, though, scared me.  As I got better, I’m sure I became more cocky about it.

But recently, I’ve realized that there is a specific and dense magic that comes from speaking the written word, a magic that transcends what I’d expected from printed ink on a woven page of pulpy tree.

I think that children understand this magic deeply.  I always love to read aloud when I babysit (once I read a self-abridged version of A Wrinkle in Time), but this summer, something really captivating happened.  I was filling in for a family’s nanny for half a week, and the second day on the job was Homework Day.  Everyone was upset about it, obviously, moaning and half-heartedly scribbling on their math sheets.  The youngest’s only remaining homework assignment was to be read to.

I grabbed an abridged children’s copy of Treasure Island and began to read to him in a hushed voice, glancing up at him every once in a while.  When I started, he was squirming, sliding out of his chair, and rolling his eyes up at the ceiling.  Halfway through, he was looking at me.  When I stopped after the first chapter and started to put it away, he grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye, and said, “Don’t stop!”  By this point, the other two weren’t doing their homework either but had started listening to the story.  One of them had crept around to look at the illustrations.  After lunch, we relocated to the couch, huddling together to read about poor Jim Hawkins.  I did some growly pirate voices and we all giggled over Ben Gunn’s cheese obsession.

We sat for more than two hours and read that whole book, cover to cover.  They never once got bored or wanted to stop.  The story had pulled them tight in a sort of magic, and even when my voice began to dry up they wrapped themselves around each word.  Treasure Island has no deep moral or spiritual truth (upon first glance, at least); it’s an adventure story, but it knows how to speak.  It understands the power of story, and so did the children.  This got them focused like nothing I had ever tried before – no sports break, homework incentive, or movie grabbed them like Treasure Island did.  It was absolutely unbelievable.

I think I finally understand the bardic tradition of the Celtic tribes, why the poets advised the kings and were revered as they were.  I understand how powerful it would have been to have everyone gathered in a castle hall for their Michaelmas celebration, shuffling quietly as they listened to the bard unfold the tale of the brave, perfection-seeking Gawain and a Knight, green from the hair of his beard to his very skin.

As Tolkien best put it, it is a “Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.”

Also this summer, my grandmother, while visiting us, fell and broke her hip.  It was terrible and scary, but she did such a wonderful job recovering.  We would often come visit her to talk and chat, catching her up on everything and discussing different things.  One night, her trigeminal neuralgia was acting up badly, and she was in a lot of pain.  We headed over, and she couldn’t talk.  In half an hour, the nurse could come and give her a dose of pain medication.  I figured I would distract her.  I held her hand tightly, pulled up my story on my dad’s iPad, and began to read.

I got very quiet as I did so, for I was self-conscious of reading words that I myself had written.  I shook it off.  My grandma relaxed perceptibly and smiled at me.  The time passed.  It was crazy, the feeling that filled the dark room, a comforting sort of heaviness that blanketed us.  Before we left, though, we all prayed for her.  I was fervent and earnest, and I could feel that the words coming from my mouth were not my words, and I felt the Holy Spirit there.  It was love I was speaking, just love.  The power of prayer was tangible and suspended, and the next day, Grandma was better than we’d seen her in weeks.

I keep running into the reading aloud.  Oxford’s Keble has a chapel built into it, and it’s absolutely beautiful, with storytelling stained glass and a massive organ and echoey, cavernous ceilings.  In one of my first weeks here, at the urging of the Bursar, I crept into the empty chapel’s side-room.  There was a Bible and a list of the readings for the day, and I read them aloud in a whisper, turning from Jonah to Luke and having the privilege of letting God’s Word permeate the place through my voice.

I wrote a play for Oxford’s Cuppers competition, and that was a completely different rush, the joy of watching people speak your words in their voice and telling them how to act around them.  There would be moments when they pulled something out that was exactly right, better, inventing, embodying an imagined thing.  That’s magic, too, isn’t it?

And now we come to the vehicle of my remembrance of this post.  My Paradise Lost essay from last week was all about speech: I wrote about God creating beautiful things through speech and Satan perverting them, about a blind Milton speaking his words aloud and fashioning himself into the old recitative epic poet, and I spoke my words aloud to my tutor.

Words are important, living, and active.  God spoke the universe into existence through the force of his speech, creating the universe through a word and through the Word.  The Word has saved our people by becoming like us, by dying for us, by refusing to stay dead.  Do not discount what you speak; God’s words have power, and so do yours.

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Read this: my story (“The Mason Jar”) if you like;  Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories  (you have to)

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teen fiction vs. real love

[being human: the absence]

As I was planning out my next post (which should be around sometime soon), I realized that there was an article I’d written a few months ago but had forgotten to put up here.  It goes very well with the theme of the next one – what it means to be human – so I thought I’d present them in loose connection.  When supernatural stories extol the glories of non-human creatures, we can become muddled in what it actually means to be human.

Earlier, I saw a Facebook ad for yet another teen-novel-turned-movie.  I wonder if it’s any good, I thought.  What followed was a dinner’s worth of entertainment as my friends and I read its cheesy quotes out loud.  I considered it harmless entertainment, the equivalent of a dime novel or an amusing television show.

However, as I continued to peruse the teen romance section, my laughter began to subside as I realized it wasn’t as harmless as a poorly-worded sentence or characters clearly designed for self-insertion.  When it comes to how we look at love, these books are warping our perceptions in a disturbing and even dangerous way.

If you walk through a typical “paranormal/dark romance”, there’s a formula that applies for nearly every book.  The protagonist is a “normal” girl, klutzy and a little socially awkward.  All of a sudden, a dark, broody, devastatingly handsome boy swoops into her life (who may or may not stalk her or watch her sleep at this point).  He seems to hate her, but secretly, he’s just fighting his profound attraction to her and has to keep it a secret for (x) reason.  There’s a deep, sudden, sometimes literally electric connection, and they are plunged into a passionate romance that seems oddly serious for two teenagers.  Enter a possible love triangle or vague villain, and we’ve got our story.

Am I generalizing? Sure.  There are some gems in the teen section that deal with real-life issues, beautifully written histories, and a more balanced view of love.  However, they are few and far between.  As a real, live teenage girl myself*, this is an issue that worries me, especially when I notice that the Classics section in my local Barnes and Noble has been moved to accommodate the newest Paranormal Romances.

What are these books teaching?  It isn’t “just a story” because literature carries a heavier burden than that.  It pumps more fuel into the cultural engine of perception and expectation and shapes the way that we think about our world, for better or for worse.

The relationships described in these novels might seem exciting, but they definitely aren’t healthy.  In reality, you will be disliked without that aloofness masking any great affection.  The idea of stalking or very forcefully approaching the girl is written off as romantic in the books due to the fact that the two are “fated” to be together.  In reality, though, that’s called “breaking and entering” or possibly “assault”.  It’s assured us that behind the broody, mysterious stranger lies a deep secret.  If you’ve ever read Wuthering Heights you know that this isn’t a new invention, and although this kind of person might seem interesting in novels, they’d probably be a dangerous partner in reality.  These novels continue to perpetuate a culture in which violence against women is written off as romantic; it’s possible that young readers, internalizing these themes, will mistake abuse – whether physical or emotional – for “secret” affection.

Additionally, teen romance novels focus on a relationship centered so heavily on physical attraction that the personalities or character qualities of the characters are diminished or even destroyed.  These authors, as Faulkner would say, write “not of the heart but of the glands”.  Here, love is built on nothing but the lovers’ baseless passion for one another, and in reality, a relationship spun like cotton candy out of sickly-sweet infatuation quickly dissolves when faced with any sort of storm.  Metaphors aside, half the marriages in our country end in divorce.  When books like these are telling us that in order for love to be real, it must be electric and filled with drama, is it any wonder we end up confused in reality’s romantic endeavors?

As the two begin to say things like “you are my life”, they become so mutually obsessed with one another that their relationship is the only plot point that matters.  And while romance is an important part of life, there’s more to our own stories than a relationship with our significant other – our relationships with God, our jobs, our callings, and our adventures.  The kind of love depicted here might seem selfless because it’s other-obsessed, but upon closer inspection, the character is operating out of his or her own desperate craving for relationship.  As humans, we tend to idolize things, and this does not exclude worshiping other people.  When we derive all our meaning from another equally fallible human being and expect them to be as perfect as the characters we envision, they won’t be able to fulfill that need.  They will disappoint us, fail us, and let us down.  We are human.

I think this is why such a huge percentage of the love interests in teen fiction are inhuman creatures, whether that describes vampires, werewolves, angels, or demons (which presents a whole different brand of theological stickiness).  Because they aren’t programmed to fail like we humans are, they can be perfect, finally fulfilling the void that we’ve felt in our lives.  Young adult fiction is overflowing with supra-human partners because, as humans, we desire a personal relationship with a perfect, protective Divinity who can finally grant us the fulfillment and purpose that we seek.

If we want to know what true love really looks like, we should not look to paranormal romance; instead, we should look to this Divinity who came down and sacrificed himself for us.  When we become filled with God and worship Jesus instead of our significant other, we’re freed to participate in a relationship without the pressure of perfection.  For followers of Christ, we can look at a relationship as a partnership of two people striving toward the same goal – to glorify God – and reacting gently, sacrificially, and intentionally with one another.

Although it requires physical attraction (Boaz first found Ruth attractive before he fell for her, and take a look at Song of Songs) romantic love doesn’t center on that, but looks at the heart – the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).  It isn’t other-obsessed but other-serving.  It doesn’t need to be forceful or dramatic because there is freedom and grace.  Take a new look at the oft-parroted 1 Corinthians 13.  Love may not always be dreadfully exciting, like when your spouse leaves hair in the shower drain or forgets to flush the toilet.  But truly caring for someone means seeing them for who they are, flaws and all, and loving them in spite of it.  That is, after all, what our God does for us.

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Read this:  Jane Austen. The subtlety of her love stories is dazzlingly refreshing (and perhaps an acquired taste).  Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey are my favorites.  Ask me about it!
John Donne.  Is Austen too chaste for you? Donne (the cad!) strikes a glorious balance between body and soul with his witty, sacred, and profound poetry.  http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm (Take a special look at “The Extasie”, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, and “Holy Sonnet XIV”.

*I was 19 when I originally wrote this! I’ve just turned 20 a few weeks ago.

a list of nineteen points

At the end of last week, one of my favorite Walden employees asked me what was weighing on my mind.  “I’m trying to get to know you!” he said.  I realized that I hadn’t perhaps been as open as I was with people I already knew.

Here is a list about me based on some recent events:

  1. I’m always willing to talk to people about what they believe and what I believe; it’s excessively important and I try to be open about it.  I appreciated my friends in Boston who were so genuinely interested in discussion.
  2. I was torn up over killing a bug because it was beautiful, and because I did it for convenience’s sake.
  3. I could not have conceived of a more perfect internship than Walden, where I read and wrote and sensed magic in its very walls.  I found people there who understood.  I didn’t want to leave.
  4. Journaling always makes me feel better.  I wonder if it matters what I’m writing, or if the simple motion of a pen across paper would evoke the same feeling.  The act of creation is restful.
  5. I love the show Gravity Falls; I miss my brother.  The two are inseparably linked.
  6. Last week, I had a twenty-four hour mental gymnastics match about women in the church.  I still don’t have the answers, but I trust that God loves me.
  7. I have to teach myself to let ideas go without writing them down (see: this list).  I’m paranoid I’ll forget something deeply important.
  8. I have watched so much Teen Wolf lately that I try to justify it through literary analysis.
  9. When you move to a new place for a short time, you should logically keep to yourself in an attempt to not get attached before you have to leave again.  I try to make as many friends as possible.
  10. I have a knack for correctly cooking terrible things; I wish it were socially acceptable to eat out alone.
  11. I am attuned to my body’s quirks but cannot understand its refusal to properly function.  It’s immensely frustrating for me.
  12. Although I have felt the deepest affection for God, my understanding friends, my family, good stories, dead authors, and pet dogs, I don’t know that I’ve ever been in love.
  13. I like to find the possibility of magic in antique stores, strangers that look like centaurs, and the feeling of the wind.
  14. I love when people are expert in areas that I am not so they can teach me.
  15. I am sometimes careless when I drive alone; I am more cautious with other people’s lives.
  16. In Davis Square, I saw a newsstand made to look like a monster and sweaters kindly knitted for two statues, and these tiny things pushed my love of Boston even higher.
  17. I want to be seen as intelligent and insightful; I wonder how much of what I say is genuine and how much is monitored for the way that I perform myself.  From something as gentle as telling jokes in a way that will make my best friend laugh to feigning knowledge of a subject, I’m guilty of this.  Even this list reflects that.
  18. When people draw me into stories or theses with language that tickles my mind I experience the feeling that my heart is trying to push words through my mouth that I cannot speak.
  19. There are nineteen points because I don’t want to turn twenty.

I think I’ve changed over my time in Boston, and I wanted to perhaps find out who I’ve turned into.  I hope it’s better; however, glancing over this, I definitely need to spend more time with God.  Don’t I always.

Comment with small things that speak to who you are! I’d love to get to know you more.

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tragedy

When I first set out to write this, I was thinking in purely literary terms of the four genres of expression – comic, tragic, lyric, and epic.  My friend texted me last week after I read the Waste Land, “What do you think the purpose of tragedy is?”

In light of this week’s nearly apocalyptic events, however, I think it apt to discuss, at least a little bit, the purpose of tragedy in literature and in our own lives.

I hadn’t really known the answer to that question before.  I’d read Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, Death of a Salesman, and related to them in a deep, basic way – I could feel the twisting of my gut as the inevitable suffering played out.  And there’s a lot to be said of it – it reminds us of the inevitability of our own mortality, provides us with a cathartic pity and fear so we can better live our own lives.  It shows us that there are forces at work far outside our own power.

All these are important – wildly so.  But there is one more, very simple thing that I realized while reading through Eliot’s Waste Land for the thousandth time: tragedy shows us the brokenness in the world and in relationships, and, by our deep, instinctive reactions to the events, shows us that things were never meant to be like this.

We live in a gloriously constructed world, filled with great beauty and a great potential for love, experience, and happiness.  At the same time, however, I think that we can forget its inherent brokenness – even as Christians, we tend to think that we are basically good, that this world can make us happy, and that we don’t really need anything else but ourselves.

Until, in a week of darkness, a city is bombed and riddled with bullets, a plant explodes and levels everything in its path, a sinkhole opens in the middle of a city, deadly letters are sent to world leaders, an earthquakes shakes miles of nations, and an already hurting country is bombed, its civilians murdered.  Oof.

Seeing this is so, so hard.  I’m not going to go into detail about the problem of pain here, about what God’s doing, or how He could possibly let these things happen.  I don’t know.  Thankfully, I’m not Him.  That can be so hard, and so frustrating, and so painful to see families broken and people grieving and souls hurting so desperately.  But I do know that He’s got a plan in all of this.

I do know that this world was once a beautiful thing, where relationships with God and people could be whole and lovely.  And I know that we sinned, and we used that free will to break that relationship with God – and consequently, everything else fragmented as well.

This is the world that the Waste Land shows us so precisely, a fragmented, perverse, and lost world.  Critics have labeled it as a generational issue with “the modern world”, but there’s a reason we’re still reading the poem.  In our era of flickering images and sound bites and texts and tweets, we’re more fragmented than we’ve ever been before.  Relationships were already cracked, but this constant “connectivity” has widened those cracks until they nearly splinter apart.  We’re more isolated than we’ve been.

But here’s the great beauty of this revelation, this painful truth about our world: it’s where the gospel starts.  We think to ourselves so often that we aren’t that bad and that we don’t really need God.  This realization of the state of our world – more than that, the state of us – leads to either despair or resurrection.

We live in the Waste Land, and we can see that.  But the Waste Land also lives in us, which should scare you.  Eliot’s whole poem hovers on the edge of a knife, between death and resurrection.  The bones of the Phoenician sailor are at the bottom of the ocean, the land is dry and cracked and broken.  But, something begins to stir these dead bones, and the thunder cracks across the sky, waiting.  We hover on a rebirth into eternity.

When we begin to see our own brokenness, we see that we need to be rescued, and that we can’t do it on our own.  As mortals, we will fail, and die, and the tragedy will end with a poisoned sword or a watery suicide.  But God saw this broken world and came down into it as one of us, and he died – and when he rose from the dead to new life, the healing began.

If we accept our brokenness, we can now accept the salvation that’s so freely offered to us.  Eliot did, and was able to find new life in Christ five years after the hopelessness of this poem.  We come to hopelessness so that we can understand hope when it is offered us.  If we live in Christ, we live forever, and we live in hope of healed people and a healed world.

The dead bones of the drowned Phoenician sailor don’t die, “but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange”.  So then do we.  The rains fall upon the thirsty, dry ground, and we learn how to love each other again.  It has to start here, on an individual level, where the Waste Land of your soul is inhabited by a loving, personal God who revives you and brings you back to life.

As hard as we try to instill goodness into people, this world will still be broken while Satan roams it.  Does this mean we should stop fighting against the brokenness, accept the evil in the world, and give up? By no means! The devil has no power where God is concerned.  He can only bend what is already good and try to break what God has already created.  We can fight against him.   And sometimes it’s awful.  But we have the hope of an empty tomb with us, and that is more powerful than any desolate, hollow Waste Land.

My prayers for safety, justice, and deep healing are with Boston, West Texas, China, Iraq, Iran, and the rest of our world.  May God bless and renew you.

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Read thisThe Waste Land, T.S. Eliot ; Mark 13:8 ; my other friend’s post

on revolutionaries

I’ve been a little bit obsessed with revolutionaries since seeing Les Mis, and although it’s waning now, I still wanted to examine why I felt so strongly for those who give their lives for what they believe in.

The revolutionary is otherworldly.  Men rarely follow mere mortals into death, but they will fight for stronger and more lasting things – ideas and the Divine.

I know that the trope of the revolutionary isn’t realistic, that revolutions today are bloody and futile and rash when there are other ways to revolt.  They’re desperate. But still I think that there is something attractive in the strength of ideals, because we are drawn to those who know for what they fight.

They have to be fighting for the right things, of course, because when you’re a revolutionary, you lose yourself almost entirely.  You become a man consumed, and at such a price, you’ve got to be sure that what you’re fighting for is worth the toll that it will eventually take on you, even demanding your life.

Something had unsettled me about Enjolras’ appearance in the Les Misérables movie, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I realized the last time I saw the movie that Aaron Tveit’s (marvelously acted) Enjolras was both the youngest and the oldest looking that I’d seen.  His extreme youth reminded me that the Revolution of 1832 was indeed a student’s revolution where the boys who died for their beliefs were hardly older than I am now.  It also contrasted so heavily with the ancientness of his spirit that it shocked me.  Enjolras is a tired old man in a young man’s body, and sometimes, as the revolution consumes him, his weariness begins to show through the cracks, and I began to fear that revolution would rip him apart and burst through those seams.

In The PreludeWordsworth speaks of this same condition in his friend, Michel Beaupuis, the pre-Jacobin revolutionary in the French revolution of the late 18th century:

“His temper was quite mastered by the times,
And they had blighted him, had eaten away
The beauty of his person, doing wrong
Alike to body and to mind”

Wordsworth notices that the revolution has stolen his friend’s youth.  And yet,

“a kind of radiant joy
Diffused around him, while he was intent
On works of love or freedom”

This is why we love them.  We admire the ones that turn their words into actions, whose lives are so transparent that there is no discrepancy between their beliefs and their deeds – a life without hypocrisy that seeps from the heart to the external.  When someone can live their beliefs out, as Wordsworth would say, “truth is more than truth”.  As a side note, we want to love someone like that, too.  Love isn’t really love when it exalts the other into an obsession; instead, we want a partner in a shared love, someone that we can love as we are both consumed by a greater passion.

The revolutionary, in his purest form, rejects himself in order to serve others and even to die for them.  In order to create a better world for his people, he gives his own life to make theirs worth living.

I know that this is a common theme with me, but I don’t think there is harm in repeating it: we are all men consumed.  The question is, by what? And is it worth the toll that it’s going to take on us?

If we’re truly living out our faith, we should be as radiant as the revolutionary, and the love of Christ should be ripping out of our hearts in order to touch those around us, breaking us apart in the process.  We look to the most revolutionary act of history for our hope – Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8)  He gave his life to redeem ours and to change the fabric of our world from that moment on.

And that’s something worth both living and dying for.

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Read this: all aforementioned works.

Hear this: In a bout of revolutionary fervor, I unashamedly give you this: SING

les misérables and the force of grace

I’ve seen the Les Misérables movie twice three times now.  I know all the words to the musical (I was a stellar chorus member in high school) and I was not disappointed with the movie.  This story is so powerful.  I’ll probably have something to say about revolutionaries quite soon (ugh!), but what most impressed me was the way that the movie didn’t shy away from the central message.  In Les Mis, I’ve hardly seen a more beautiful depiction of the gospel, especially in its most baffling component – grace.

The entire story tracks the lives of its central characters, weaving in and out of different people’s stories, and it can get confusing.  But grace and mercy are the threads that tie them all together as the story continues, and Hugo shows that even though we may want to ignore it sometimes, grace refuses to stay passive.  Each time, it becomes a crossroad of the most dramatic and life-changing proportions.

The bishop is the first man who has shown Valjean any grace in a long time.  When the bishop welcomes Valjean into his home, the man is taken aback, stunned, and shouts out that he’s a dangerous convict – an outcast.  Instead of treating him as such, the bishop looks at Valjean as a friend, calling him brother.  This simple kindness causes an uproar in Valjean’s soul as he struggles with whether or not he should steal the bishop’s silver.  There is an entire chapter in the novel that compares the torment of the convict’s soul with a drowning man, saying that “the soul, going down stream in this gulf, may become a corpse.  Who shall resuscitate it?”  Reminiscent of Romans 7:24, Valjean’s hardened heart can only be softened by God’s power.  Valjean is a dangerous man because he has allowed hate to rule him, and when he is presented with love, he cannot accept it.  He steals the silver, effectively choosing imprisonment forever.

But.

The bishop pardons him, claiming that the stolen goods were a gift.  If the welcome into the bishop’s home was inconceivable, Valjean is now presented with the most life changing paradigm shift of his entire existence.  It is grace unbound.  He deserved imprisonment and death, and the bishop handed him love and life.  He was emancipated by this mercy.  He did not get what he deserved.  Grace forces a decision on Valjean, a stark contrast between life and death.  And he chooses life.

After being shown grace, Valjean effectively becomes a carrier, pouring the same love out into the town of which he becomes the mayor.  And then he meets Fantine, who has fallen so far from the beautiful, innocent girl that she was into a dying, miserable woman who has turned to prostitution in order to support her daughter.  She, too, has let hatred worm its way into her heart, and she despises Valjean for letting her be driven away from his factory.

Inspector Javert, the man ruled entirely by Law and not at all by gospel, is about to imprison Fantine when Valjean comes in to pardon her and take her to the hospital.  He becomes the agent of grace to the dying woman, offering her a choice.  And this action astonishes both Fantine and Javert:

“Javert felt that he was on the verge of going mad.  He experienced at that moment, blow upon blow and almost simultaneously, the most violent emotions which he had ever undergone in all his life… When he beheld that mayor, that magistrate, calmly wipe his face and say, “Set this woman at liberty,” he underwent a sort of intoxication of amazement”

Javert is shaken; however, he does not waver.  He resolidifies into the man of law that he was before, putting his shock aside.  Fantine, however, lets herself be repossessed by grace.

“Had she, then, been mistaken? Must she change her whole soul? She did not know; she trembled.  She listened in bewilderment, she looked on in affright, and at every word uttered by M. Madeleine (Valjean) she felt the frightful shades of hatred crumble and melt within her, and something warm and ineffable, indescribable, which was both joy, confidence, and love, dawn in her heart.”

Although Fantine dies, she has chosen life as well.  She had pleaded to die instead of her daughter, and this exchange of grace and life carries through.  Valjean shows grace to her daughter, Cosette, literally buying her out of bondage to the Thenardiers and raising her into newness of life.  Cosette innocently accepts the gift.

Grace changes the lives of all of these characters in a radical way, but it is a gift that must be received in order to be effective.  It forces a choice between death and life, but not everyone can choose to live in a radically changed world.

Least of all Javert.

I’ve heard people criticize the policeman for being overdramatic, but can you imagine what he goes through when Valjean sets him at liberty?  Javert feels as though he is going mad when he simply witnesses Valjean giving Fantine her freedom – how on earth could he rationally comprehend his state when Valjean, a convict and a sinner, shows grace to Javert himself, giving him back his very life?  The seams of Javert’s world begin to rip apart, and everything that he once knew is turned inside out.  Every paradigm that he had relied on in his life has burst apart, crumbling.  Javert’s world is ordered and clean, black and white, and in it, everyone receives what he deserves.  For him, there are no “minor sins”.  He leaves no room for grace in his adherence to the law, but yet, it finds him.

Javert’s world has been irrevocably destroyed.  Before, he could try to ignore grace, but now that it has been given directly and obviously to him, he cannot pretend that nothing has changed.  He must “stare into the void / Of a world that cannot hold” and choose between the desolation of what he knows and a new, very different, life.  He must choose, more literally than any other character, between life and death.

Because he cannot deal with the world as grace has colored it, he kills himself, choosing to leave it behind forever.

Javert and Valjean are not so different, really.  They both wanted to serve God.  While Valjean was consumed by hatred, Javert let legalism take over his soul.  They both were shown grace in part, and then in its full glory.  But Valjean had the strength to follow God’s path, and Javert, while telling himself that he was following the Lord, followed his own humanity into death.  When Valjean leaps into the river to escape Javert, it is a baptism.  When Javert does the same to escape Valjean, it is death by water.

I think that we forget how powerful a thing grace is.  It’s either life-altering or life-destroying.  It is a force to be reckoned with, and yet, we take it for granted every day.  We deserved to die, and Jesus showed us his pardon, setting us at liberty and raising us from death to life.  “You are free,” He tells us, like Valjean, “and there are no conditions”.  Well, that’s not entirely true – He has traded places with us, giving up His life.

How will we respond? We cannot ignore it.  We must either accept this gift in love and let it transform our lives and our very selves, or we must throw it aside and choose to die instead.  We cannot live as we had before.  We must return the favor by giving Him our lives.

This is the heart of Les Misérables, and I love seeing the ripple effect of grace as it reaches each person.  Valjean is showed grace and then shows it to others.  This is a perfect picture of how Christians should live their lives every day.  We have been shown grace by someone even more wonderful than the bishop of Digne, and we can’t keep it to ourselves.  We continue to pass it on, mimicking God’s grace in the lives of others so that they too can show grace to the people they encounter.  It’s beautiful.  And if we truly understand how powerful a movement grace should be, it cannot be kept a pretty secret.

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