Les Miserables is a complex, transformative story of Jean Valjean and the people that intersect with him during his life. The film opens with Valjean in prison after stealing a loaf of bread for his poor sister’s children. After 19 years of hard labor he is released but must carry papers with him at all times indicating his prison record. The papers brand Valjean as a criminal and make it difficult for him to find work or dignity. He becomes increasingly bitter, hopeless and hungry. One night a bishop finds Valjean shivering in the cold and takes him to his parsonage, where he feeds him and gives him a place to sleep. In the night, Valjean steals some silver from the bishop and leaves. He is caught and the police take him to confront the bishop. The bishop denies that Valjean stole anything. In fact, the bishop gives him even more silver before sending him on his way. This incident incites Valjean to turn his life around. He tears up his prison papers, and creates a new life for himself, eventually becoming a wealthy businessman and mayor of a town.
An employee in one of Valjean’s factories is a young woman named Fantine. She works to provide for her child since the father abandoned them. Fantine is fired after refusing the advances of her supervisor and ultimately resorts to prostitution to care for her daughter. After an officer accuses Fantine of attacking him, Valjean intercedes and promises to care for Fantine’s child, Cosette.
Javert, an inspector who knew Valjean when he was in prison, discovers that he has assumed a fake identity and is determined to hunt Valjean and return him to prison. Valjean finds a job as a gardener in a convent and raises Cosette there.
An uprising against the government brings Javert to Paris where he is caught by young revolutionaries. Valjean finds him; but instead of killing him, Valjean frees Javert.
Meanwhile, Cosette falls in love with Marius, one of the revolutionaries. After being shot and nearly killed, Valjean rescues Marius by hiding him in the sewers. Marius and Cosette get married. Valjean becomes sick and eventually dies, but not before first revealing his past to Cosette and Marius.
The story of Les Miserables is interwoven with obvious spiritual themes. Following are some of the significant themes that resonated with me:
1. Redemption. Valjean is redeemed several times, most notably by the bishop and Fauchelevent, who was rescued from death by Valjean earlier in the story. Cosette is saved from the cruel Thénardier family by Valjean. After growing up poor and in hiding, she is again redeemed through her marriage to Marius, who comes from a wealthy family.
2. Sacrifice. Valjean sacrifices himself in many ways in the story. For example, he gives up his freedom, position and wealth by revealing his identity to Javert. Valjean risks his health and life to save Marius from death. He also sacrificially gives away Cosette to Marius in marriage, despite his paternal feelings for Cosette.
3. Mercy. This is arguably the overarching theme in Les Miserables. Valjean shows mercy to Fantine and her daughter, Cosette, by paying to adopt her as his child. It is through mercy that Cosette and Marius forgive Valjean for his troubled past. However, not everyone in Les Miserables fathoms the idea of love and mercy. In a supreme act of mercy, Valjean frees Javert when he could have just as easily killed him. Javert is perplexed and, as an act of rebellion, commits suicide. The story concludes with people singing, “To love another person is to see the face of God”, which is Les Miserables in a nutshell.
The story of Les Miserables transcends time. Its messages are as relevant and compelling today as they were in the 19th century.
We have all struggled with failure and hopelessness. We have faced persecution and injustice. But all is not lost. When we are weak and helpless like Valjean, God shows us a way out. Through God’s mercy and love, he redeems us and gives us a new hope.
The Hunger Games is a dystopian view of the future reminiscent of 1984 and The Lottery. The author and screenwriter, Suzanne Collins, takes cues from the story of King Theseus in Greek mythology.
In the Greek myth, King Minos of Crete had defeated the Athenians in war. As a result, Minos ordered Athena to send seven boys and seven girls as tributes to Crete every Great Year. The tributes were forced to enter an enormous Labyrinth where they faced a powerful monster named Minotaur. No one survived the encounter. On one occasion, Theseus covertly volunteered to take the place of one of the boys. Upon arrival in Crete, Adriadne, daughter of King Minos, fell in love with Theseus and ultimately helped him defeat the Minotaur.
The setting of The Hunger Games is in futuristic America, called Panem. Panem is divided into twelve districts inhabited by the poor. The wealthy citizens live in the capitol city. As punishment for previous rebellion attempts against the capitol, President Snow established the Hunger Games, an annual event that pits two “tributes” from each district in a battle to the death. The 24 tributes, ranging from 12 to 18 years of age, are chosen at random to compete in the games until only one is left.
The story is told from the perspective of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in one of the poor districts. Since the death of her father, she has provided for her sister and mother by hunting in the nearby woods. On the day of “reaping”, in which the tributes are chosen, Katniss’ younger sister Prim is chosen to participate in the games. As Theseus does in the Greek myth, Katniss volunteers to take the place of the chosen tribute. Katniss, along with Peeta, the boy tribute, travel to the capitol to represent their district in the games. At the capitol, all the tributes are trained in survival skills and warfare. They also vie for the approval of “sponsors”, wealthy citizens of the capitol who provide gifts to aid in survival during the games.
(spoiler alert) In a televised interview before the games, Peeta confesses his secret love for Katniss. During the games, Katniss helps Peeta stay alive—just as Adriadne helped Theseus. Through a series of plot twists both Peeta and Katniss survive and are declared joint winners.
A Modern Day Parable
In some ways The Hunger Games is a parable of present-day America. Like the capitol city of Panem we are wealthy—so much so that we sometimes have difficulty identifying with the poor and disenfranchised. Some of us have become ethnocentric in our view of the world, meaning that our perceptions are colored by our own good fortunes and we tend to label the misfortunes of others as character defects. The attitudes and behaviors of the citizens of the capitol city in The Hunger Games prompt us to examine our own values and ethics.
This problem is nothing new. When the Israelites became proud and began mistreating each other God did not mince words. He said through the prophet Micah,
“and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
These spiritual allegories of justice, love, and humility are intricately woven into the story of The Hunger Games.
1. Justice. At a particular poignant moment in the film, Peeta said, “I keep wishing I could think of a way to show the Capitol they don’t own me; that I’m more than just a piece in their games.” Peeta was yearning to be treated justly. His feelings of oppression are a commentary on our own growing pride as a society. We should not place ourselves above others and we must never be complacent in our response to the mistreatment of others. Showing justice is treating others in the same way that Jesus would treat them.
2. Love. At several points in the film, Katniss faces a crossroads: she can travel the path of violence or she can nurture others in love. Either road will alter her life. She chooses to embrace love in a number of ways. She demonstrates her love for her sister by volunteering in her stead; she nurses Peeta back to health; and she becomes a mother figure to Rue by taking care of her. Sometimes, choosing love is a riskier option for Katniss. For instance, when she decides to join forces with Peeta (which was against the rules), the president becomes angry and demands a sacrifice. Katniss simply ignores the rules and chooses to act out of selfless love. This is the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated to us by dying on the cross for us. Romans 5:8 says, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” Unconditional love is what we need to express to others through our actions.
3. Humility. President Snow understood what motivates people. When it was obvious that Katniss and Peeta were inspiring hope among the population of Panem, Snow told Seneca, the Gamemaker, that their job was to give the districts a certain level of hope—but not too much or it would engender a rebellion against the capitol. What Snow misunderstood was the power of humility. It takes a large degree of humility and selflessness to put hope in something or someone. Having hope in God requires us to forego our own ambitions and desires. It is an emotion focused on walking humbly with God; not on a winding trail of self-absorption.
The inhabitants of Panem are desperately seeking meaning and hope in their lives. In a world devoid of the divine their real hunger is for something real—someone they can put their hope in and trust without reservation; someone at whose feet they can lay their burdens down and rest in his loving arms.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
Predictable but spiritually thought-provoking and fun. ★★★★☆
We Bought a Zoo is a fun family film with profound messages. Based on a true story, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a recent widower who is struggling to hold his family together after the death of his wife. His son Dylan (Colin Ford) is expressing his grief by acting out at school and ends up getting expelled. In an effort to establish a fresh start for himself and his two children, Benjamin quits his job and looks for a house in the country. He gets more than he bargained for: the house he likes turns out to be on zoo property, and if he buys the house he also is agreeing to take charge of the dilapidated zoo. As the title of the film suggests, Benjamin decides to take the plunge.
The Mee’s life at the zoo is where the central story takes off. An attraction develops between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zoo’s caretaker, and Dylan begins a friendship with Lily (Elle Fanning), who also works at the zoo. However, both Benjamin and Dylan are still grieving over their loss and stop themselves short of deepening these relationships. Another story in the film is preparing the zoo to eventually re-open. This is taxing on the family and zoo staff alike and becomes a financial headache for Benjamin.
The film’s emotional content deepens when Spar, a seventeen year old Bengal tiger, gets sick. The zoo staff strongly urges Benjamin to put Spar down. (spoiler alert) At first Benjamin refuses. He is still struggling with feelings of ineptitude and guilt over his wife’s death, and views Spar’s sickness as an opportunity to redeem himself. In fact, his feelings are so pronounced that he cannot even bring himself to look at old photographs of his late wife. At the film’s climax, Benjamin has a fight with Dylan which conjures previously ignored feelings in both of them. Benjamin forgives himself and agrees to put Scar down.
The decision has a healing effect on the entire family. Benjamin finds himself able to view photographs of his wife again, and allows himself to begin a relationship with Kelly. Dylan comes out of his self-imposed shell and opens himself to Lily. Of course, as in real life, the zoo opens successfully.
There are several lessons to be learned from this film:
1. Taking risks pays off. From the decision to purchase the zoo to putting Scar down, Benjamin’s decisions eventually enable him to work through his wife’s death.
2. Forgiveness allows us to move forward. Benjamin works through his grief by forgiving himself. Likewise, after Dylan forgives his father, he is able to enjoy life again.
3. Family is priority. Benjamin buys the zoo in an effort to give his children a good life. The family also learns how to work together for a common cause.
4. Sometimes healing hurts. The film does not gloss over the family’s pain. It paints a real-life portrait of grief and shows how a family can regain its emotional health.
There is some language in the film, but the antics of the animals will keep the children amused and the story communicates important life lessons.
Courageous, the newest Christian production by Sherwood Pictures (Fireproof, Facing the Giants), is a film that focuses on fatherhood, family, integrity and commitment.
The film centers on five men whose lives intersect through a series of difficult trials. Adam, a cop, is portrayed as a man who is only half-present with his children. However, when a loved one tragically dies in a car accident, he begins to reevaluate his role as a father and the spiritual leader in his family.
The four other men have their own problems. Nathan, co-worker of Adam, has a fifteen year old daughter who wants to date a seventeen year old boy who is also involved in a gang. Shane, another co-worker, is divorced and barely scraping by because of his enormous alimony and child-support payments. David, a rookie cop who fathered a child when he was in college and abandoned both the mother and baby, struggles with a guilty conscience. And Javier, friend of Adam who has difficulty maintaining a job, is forced to choose between his integrity and providing for his family.
Adam challenges himself and his four friends to sign a resolution that they will be better than simply “good enough”. He asks them to take a courageous stance by choosing to “serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). The rest of the film shows how each man resolves to handle his unique situation.
Here are three of many lessons to be learned from Courageous:
1. Fatherhood is not to be taken lightly. We have our children for a very short time. Fathers have an incredible responsibility to spiritually lead their children and care for them. In the film, Adam learned this the hard way. But hopefully, fathers will not have to suffer such a loss to assume their God-given tasks.
2. Integrity pays off. Faced with moral dilemmas, the integrity of several men in the film is put to the test, and they are rewarded when they do what is right. Sometimes life does not always play by these rules, but the compensation is a clean conscience and a healthy example to our families.
3. Take a proactive approach. In the film, Nathan tells his daughter that he will protect her and take care of her until she gets married, and seals the promise with a ring. Instead of placing the responsibility on the girl (as the “promise ring” does), this act puts the burden of spiritual guidance squarely upon the shoulders of the father. Fathers need to assume the spiritual welfare of their families and ward off any potential threats to them.
Soul Surfer is the inspiring true story of Bethany Hamilton, who overcame all odds and became a pro surfer after losing an arm in a shark attack.
Raised by surfer parents, Bethany, superbly acted in the film by AnnaSophia Robb, is a rising star who wins her first surf competition at the young age of nine. While surfing at age thirteen, Bethany is attacked by a shark and loses her left arm. As a result, Bethany loses 60 percent of her blood and undergoes emergency surgery.
Directed by Sean McNamara, the film depicts Bethany’s family as devoted Christians who live on the island of Kauai. After the attack, Bethany’s faith is tested. She asks her youth minister, Sarah (Carrie Underwood), “How can this be God’s plan for me?”, and Sarah responds, “I don’t know why terrible things happen to us, but I have to believe something good is going to come out of this.”
At the last minute, Bethany joins her youth group on a mission trip to Thailand to help victims of a tsunami. There, she helps a small boy overcome his fear of the ocean. The act of helping someone else let go of his inhibitions metaphorically helps Bethany lose her own fears and move forward with her own life.
Elegantly photographed by John R. Leonetti, Soul Surfer is a film illustrated with magnificent imagery. Ocean waves can be calming and beautiful, but they can also represent circumstances that envelop us in pain and doubts. In the storms of life we can either reject God or we can rely on his power to rescue us from drowning.
In a recent interview, Bethany said, “I would never take my arm back in a second”, and she quoted Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” This Scripture was also prominently placed in the film.
Bethany’s faith not only saved her, but it made her a better person. This is a lesson and example for all of us.
Tron: Legacy is a film that is visually stunning and appealing. But beneath the digital landscape is a story that has much to teach about transformation, sacrifice and love.
The story begins in 1989, when Kevin Flynn, CEO of Encom, suddenly disappears. Then the film flashes forward twenty years. Kevin Flynn’s son Sam has inherited the company and is its largest shareholder, but has no desire to run the company. Alan Bradley, consultant at Encom, informs Sam that he has received a page from Kevin’s old office. Sam investigates, and quickly finds himself in the Grid, or the computer program developed by his father. There, he is greeted by someone who looks like the 1989 version of his father, but he is really Clu, a program created by Kevin. Sam eventually meets his real father, who has been stuck inside the Grid. Sam also meets Quorra, his father’s assistant and “mentee”. The three of them decide to join forces and return to the real world. The rest of the film is their attempt to defeat Clu and escape from the Grid.
It could be argued that Tron: Legacy is a Christian allegory between good and evil. Kevin is known in the Grid as “the creator” (God), Clu turns on his creator and wants to dominate the universe (Satan), and Sam, as Kevin’s son (Jesus), comes to defeat evil and bring hope to the Grid. But the film is also a well-crafted education plot that describes the transformation of Sam.
Sam is eight years old when his father is trapped inside the Grid. He blames his father for abandoning him and grows into a bitter, directionless, and reckless young man. Sam’s experiences in the Grid change him. He realizes that his father did not intentionally leave him, but was unable to return home. Quorra, as a program with the ability to learn and adapt to her environment, shows Sam that he also has the ability to change. As Sam watches his father take action against Clu, he learns the significance of personal sacrifice. Further, after many years of basing his actions on faulty perceptions, Sam’s relationship with his father catapults him into taking a new direction with his life.
[spoiler alert] Although Kevin dies in the end, Sam takes part of his father with him (through his experiences and his father’s memory disc). When he reenters the real world, he is transformed into a more mature person who altruistically decides to lead Encom.
We can apply the message of Tron: Legacy to our lives. Instead of living a life of regret and bitterness, we can change when we personally come to know our Father. He teaches us how to forgive ourselves and others, and what it means to live sacrificially for others.
127 Hours is a true-life account of Aron Ralston, convincingly played by James Franco, a hiker who ended up amputating his own arm after it was trapped under a boulder.
The film opens with Aron on his way to a hike in the canyons of Utah. All is well until he slips inside a crevasse and a huge boulder lands on his right arm, pinning him against the wall of the canyon. Try as he might, Aron is unable to budge his arm or the rock. Utterly trapped with seemingly no way out, he rations his limited food and water supply and tries every conceivable means of escape. Aron’s emotions run the gamut, leading to the inevitable, graphic amputation of his arm.
But 127 Hours is not simply a story of physical survival. The underlying theme is about one man’s introspective examination of his past, present and future life, reminiscent of a self-guided Dickensian education plot.
The director, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), illustrates Aron’s reflections through flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations. The boulder is depicted, not just as an antagonistic physical threat, but also as a metaphorical opportunity for life change. At the emotional climax of the film Aron says, “This rock has been waiting for me my entire life.” Through his experiences, Aron gains a new understanding and appreciation of his life.
The film conveys spiritual messages for all of us. We have choices to make when the quality of our lives is threatened by pressures out of our control. We can become myopic and blame God or we can view our threats as opportunities to learn from and move forward with richer, more faithful perspectives.
127 Hours also teaches gratitude for God’s involvement in our lives. When Aron frees himself from the rock, he looks up to the sky and says, “Thank you.” This poignant statement demonstrates Aron’s abandonment of his selfish nature and acknowledges his surrender to a higher power. His recognition is a lesson for us—not to rely on ourselves but to depend upon God when we face immovable boulders in our lives.
Hopefully we won’t have to be trapped under a rock to appreciate the opportunities God gives us.
The Book of Eli
Set in a bleak future reminiscent of The Road Warrior saga, The Book of Eli follows one man’s adventurous and mysterious journey across America. The story begins without explaining anything—why the world is desolate, where the man is going, or the purpose of the book he carries with him. Over the course of the film, the viewer is spoon-fed details of the backstory: the earth was struck by a gigantic meteor which killed or crippled most of earth’s humans, triggered hot, arid weather conditions, and shortened water supplies. In the thirty years since the catastrophe, Eli, the protagonist, has been travelling with a book, revealed to be the last known copy of the Bible. His divine mission is to take the book and “go west”.
Along the way, Eli stumbles across a small town looking remarkably like an old western movie set, complete with a crooked leader name Carnegie, and his band of dutiful and stereotypically dim-witted ruffians. Carnegie discovers that Eli has the Book, and—believing it to possess magical qualities that would give him power to control the world—tries to forcibly take it from him. Time after time, Eli fights back with surprising physical prowess, effortlessly defeating groups of men half his age.
When Carnegie eventually manages to steal the Book, Eli continues his trek seemingly unfazed. In the mind of the viewer, this act raises several questions which are ultimately answered through a series of unexpected twists.
The Book of Eli is filled with spiritual metaphors. Eli’s life can be viewed in some ways as analogous to the spiritual battles that Jesus followers face every day.
The film depicts Eli as having undisputable faith in God, regardless of his circumstances. Several times in the story, Eli battles between his physical or mental will and his perceived spiritual mission. He reminds himself to “Stay on the path” to complete his mission, but the temptations he faces challenge him on every level—and sometimes he succumbs to them.
Eli’s faith is also put to the test. Just after he says that God is good all the time, Carnegie replies, “Not all the time”, and then physically injures Eli, effectively rubbing salt in his wound. This turn of events does not deter Eli’s faith; he remains resolutely committed to God.
The Book itself plays a significant role in the film. It is viewed by both Carnegie and Eli as being powerful, albeit for different reasons. Eli quotes from the Bible to comfort a woman, and he often recites Scripture to express his present circumstances. In his mind, the Scriptures boil down to “doing more for others than you do for yourself”. Near the end of the film, Eli reflects on his life and admits to failing at times to keep the message of the Book.
As these examples illustrate, Eli experiences the frustrations, discouragements and difficulties that all Jesus followers face at times, and he is far from perfect; but he is humble enough to acknowledge his weaknesses and bow to the sovereignty of God.
After Eli’s mission is completed, the film closes with a sense of irony. A young woman who accompanies Eli to his destination decides to go back to Carnegie’s small town—presumably to share the Word of God. Thus, an unlikely person from a no-name town brings Good News to many.
Sounds a lot like a young man I heard about from the village of Nazareth.
If you are able to overlook some obscenities that are thrown around during this film (although not from Eli), and several scenes of violence, you may glean much more than simple entertainment from The Book of Eli. It just might challenge you to “stay on the path” as a follower of Jesus.
Inception is a creative film that is visually stunning and spiritually stimulating. Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a man who infiltrates the minds of powerful individuals to extract their secret ideas. He does this by entering their dreams. In the film, Cobb and his team are hired to do something completely different: introduce an idea into someone’s mind so that it ultimately results in action. This word for this is inception.
To accomplish the task of inception, Cobb leads his team into increasingly deeper dream levels. Eventually, he must risk losing his own sanity and grip on reality by entering a perilous dream state known as “limbo.”
Inception has many spiritual applications. It can be argued that the film is a metaphor for our spiritual lives because it addresses existential questions such as, “What is most important to me?” and “What is real?” Like characters in the film, we may discover the answers to these questions and wake up to reality, or we may wander aimlessly in limbo.
At each dream level, the spiritual metaphors become increasingly profound. There is danger even at the first level. As Cobb teaches Ariadne, his “dream architect” apprentice, how to navigate in the dream world, she finds herself getting menacing looks and even physically threatened from other people in the dream. Cobb explains that any foreign idea is viewed as a threat to the subconscious mind; therefore, it sends trained “dream assassins” to literally attack the visitors in the dream.
This danger in Inception is similar to the spiritual battles that Jesus followers encounter. If we are trying to live for Him, we are perceived as being a threat to Satan’s plans, and he will constantly attempt to thwart us. Another tactic is to place barricades between us and unbelievers so they will not hear the Good News. However, just as Cobb and his team are able to escape the clutches of evil, God is more powerful and always provides us a way out of Satan’s grip.
In a deeper dream level Cobb comes face-to-face with feelings that make his life miserable. He blames himself for his wife’s death, and tries to keep her alive in dreams to alleviate his guilt. Sometimes we do the same thing. We nurse and coddle our guilt until it grows and controls us. Unintentionally, we can become our own worst enemies. Just as Cobb had to forgive himself, we must forgive ourselves to experience the freedom that God has given us though his grace.
At the deepest level of the dream, Cobb almost loses hold on reality. When he and his wife created their own dream and lived as they wanted, he said, “We lost sight of what was real.” Cobb’s wife lost her senses because she selfishly hid her “totem”, which was a compass for what was real in her life.
This can happen so easily in our lives. When we decide to make it about us and live without God we lose sight of what is important, and we miss out on all the blessings God wants to give us.
Just as Cobb looked for signs of truth within his “totem”, if we seek God and look for signs of His presence, we will find the truth.
At one point in the film, before Saito was entrenched deeply within the dream world, he told Cobb, “Don’t you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone!” Ironically, after Saito had grown old living in limbo, Cobb found him and reminded him of his statement. Then he told Saito to take a “leap of faith.” Instead of turning into old, regretful people, Jesus is asking us to put our faith in Him. He will never give up on us; He will pursue us to our deepest depths of despair and wake us from our dream.
When Cobb is awakened and sees his children’s faces for the first time in years, it is like he has entered heaven. This is the ultimate goal for us. Jesus desires an intimate relationship with us, and one day He wants us to be able to look upon his face.
As a film, Inception was entertaining and even fun, if you can follow the twists and turns in the dream sequences. As a spiritual metaphor, Inception teaches us a lot about life. We will face pressures and encounter many trials, but we cannot blindly sleep through them. In the end, what counts is keeping our eyes on our personal totem, Jesus Christ. When we do this, there will be no limit to the dreams we can dream. As Cobb’s friend Eames says, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”