why modernizations matter

I have a lot of fun with modernizations of classic novels or plays; whether it’s experiencing them or dreaming them up, I’m drawn to them exceedingly. There is nothing more entertaining than watching your favorite characters burst onto the scene of modernity – it’s like they’re entering into our world. When my brother, cousin and I watched Clueless, I don’t think anyone enjoyed seeing the updates to Austen’s Emma as much as I did (and I definitely don’t think the two of them liked me screeching out scenes from the original book). When you pitch a novel into the modern world, you lose all the trappings that distance you from its issues; it’s easy to look at costumes and old language and say, “This happened, but it was in the past, so it doesn’t really apply to my life.”

Let me talk about one of the best birthday presents I have ever received: This year, for my 21st, my family got me tickets to the Dallas Theater Center’s modern performance of Les Mis. I do not say this lightly: not only was it the best production of Les Mis that I have ever seen, but it may have been the best performance I’ve attended, period. The musical hasn’t really changed in its staging since its inception, and that tends to remove the audience; this threw us right into the issues Hugo had been trying to bring to light in the 19th century. The preface to Les Mis says it best:

“so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”

With this production, I was slapped in the face with the realization that these miserable things really do still plague our society. The cast was diverse, desperate and honest, conveying emotion that I didn’t realize the play had left. The prisoners wore orange and the plight of the ex-con is palpable and raw; lovely ladies was a shocking jolt. The poor pushed shopping carts and held “ex-veteran” signs, Valjean had prison tattoos, the students sipped lattes and traded their hipster scarves in for bulletproof vests and Che Guevara caps; the Thenardiers ran a seedy dive bar. The police brutality was so painful and palpable; in the final barricade scene, the faceless police officers surrounded the audience, moving in through the crowd and killing the rebels; it was so personal and awful and topical. I questioned the revolutionaries a lot more this time – in today’s world, what would drive someone to lead themselves and their friends into the mouth of death? – but Gavroche’s murder made me realize what they were fighting for.

More than anything, it did exactly what Les Mis was intended to do: it inflamed my sense of justice and my desire to try to right the societally imposed wrongs that I see in the world. In N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (confession, I haven’t finished) and several conversations with my father have helped me realize that trying to make the world better isn’t optional – as Christians, especially, we are called to feed, clothe, shelter, and comfort our fellow man. It’s not a resume-building volunteerism that should propel us, but a desire to see God’s kingdom realized on earth:

“Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise not to a meek acquiescence to injustice in the world but to a robust determination to oppose it.”

Moderizations are incredibly fun and entertaining, but the point should always, always be to encourage a deeper understanding of the original text by applying it to our own world. The point of so much literature is to touch on modern issues; although they might seem old-fashioned now, at the time they were written, their authors intended them as a commentary on modern society’s shortcomings.

In another vein, I saw the trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Annie last week and was blown away; I didn’t expect to be as excited as I am, but when I saw that they had made Annie a foster child, I was so struck and so glad that they updated the story. In this version, Annie is black, and although some (racist) people were upset, I could not be more glad. In the original version, Annie’s red hair marks her as belonging to a group that was marginalized (more strongly in the 19th century) – the Irish. Today, Annie’s race also places her in a racial group that is still often shown prejudice and unfair treatment; African-Americans have to fight stereotype every day.

Representation is so important; as vital as it is for everyone that all different types of people are portrayed as real characters in media, it affects children most.  When young girls and boys can see themselves in television, books, and movies, it inspires them and gives them characters to identify with. It makes them believe that they can be the heroes of their own stories: Latina girls watching Brooklyn Nine Nine can aspire to be cops, and Asian-American boys watching Up can hope to be as brave as Russell.  With the modernized Annie, thousands of African-American girls and thousands of children in foster care can see themselves on screen and say, my story is important; hopefully, the rest of us can say the same.

Hugo was right – by nature, people are broken and striving, and time will not change that. People have been the same since the beginning, and we continue to struggle between good and evil. This can seem daunting and hopeless, if we let it, but we have to keep working toward change for God’s kingdom. There will always be a story to tell or to retell; hopefully, we will continue to speak out for those who struggle to be heard.

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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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the poet

The Diviner

Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tight by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck
Of water, nervous, but professionally

Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked with precise convulsions.
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green hazel its secret stations.

The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.

~Seamus Heaney

Excuse me while I try to form my feelings and hazy ideas into something that makes sense.

So the week before Spring Break (two weeks ago, I suppose), we were talking about Seamus Heaney in my Irish class.  I adore Heaney, and his poetry is beautiful and meaningful and very much a living thing.  Among all of the things that he has to say about life and Ireland and all the rest, something that struck me the most was his talk of the role of the poet.

Now by poet, I don’t mean strictly someone who writes poetry.  That sounds funny.  Let me explain.  I mean “the poet” in a broader, more ancient sense, one that encompasses more than rhyming or what you may normally associate with poetry.  I mean the poet as a sort of epic hero, who brings truth to his people, sometimes painfully.  This is the traditional Irish view of the poet, or senchaí: someone with great power that speaks the truth, even to the king, and that some fear.  He has the power of sight, and can use his words in satires against his enemies.

Or like the Oracles of Ancient Greece: someone who is chosen to be a mouthpiece of the divine, someone who is spoken through. Which brings me to the most important parallel to the poet, the true calling of such a person: the prophet, someone who carries the truth from God to the people.  Although this brings to mind the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke with God (how amazing!), you can still be a prophet today.  Anyone that God uses to speak through is a prophet, and God most certainly still speaks to people.

And around this time in my class, as we’re talking about poetry being made up of partly scop, or craft (being a good writer), and partly vates, or prophesy or vision, speaking the truth, I start freaking out.  Really freaking out, and zoning out of some of the discussion or being way too much into other parts of it.  I can feel myself getting excited all over again as I type this.  I’m looking at my paper right now, and I have little notes scrawled all over it, like:

my heartbeat shakes my whole body in trembling rhythm with the hand of God,

Or this overly-excited realization of the poet’s job:

poet as a go-between!
a translator of truth!
a diviner!
a mouthpiece!
a prophet! an oracle!
a tool in the hands
of He who holds all Truth
a liminal, ferried between
two worlds,
granted another sight by the
Everlasting

poet as messenger
of the eternal, birthright
of an oracle
why am I almost twitching?

a mortal body and an
eternal soul,
like all the amphibians of humankind.

and I am suddenly restless,
yearning, churning, swelling
with a feeling I don’t know
and a desire for something past
this mortal coil.
My heart is beating with desperate purpose.

So, I was freaking out.  And still am.  Because I couldn’t, and honestly can’t, imagine a greater purpose than being spoken through.  The lump in my throat tells me that I desperately want that, to have a purpose, to have this purpose, but I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.

We read another poem that day called “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” (click), where a bird makes a nest in St. Kevin’s hand and he is responsible for their lives and can’t move until they leave.  I talked to my professor about the role of the poet and such things after class on my way to study for my calc exam (that was easy to focus on after all of this).

I wrote down all that I could remember of what he said.  He looked at me and told me that the calling of the poet is not an easy one to accept.  He asked me to remember St. Kevin.  What did he do?  He went out to the wilderness and hid away from everyone else.  But God found him anyway.

You were made with a purpose, and you’re here for a reason.  I watched the movie Hugo a few days ago (which I heartily recommend), and was nearly moved to tears by certain parts of it.  There’s one part in there where Hugo and Isabelle are talking about purpose.  Hugo looks at people like machines and wonders if they too become “broken” when they lose their purpose.  It’s beautiful.  And then he says this:

“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.”

You are not an extra part.  I really identify with Isabelle.  I wonder what my purpose is, too.  But I know that I have one, because God has given me one.  We were each made for something.  And I trust that He will help me find that something.

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See this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcdEXHIuTxw  Seriously, watch this movie.