Friday, March 04, 2005

Stories of Grace

2005 is the twentieth anniversary of the musical Les Misérables, based on the epic book by Victor Hugo. What is it that continues to appeal? The music is fantastic, but if you want staging and lighting there are many other performances that would up stage Les Misérables’ simplicity. It is the story, which starkly contrasts the costly, unlimited grace of the central character Valjean, with the harsh, uncaring, measured justice of Javert that continues to enthral.

Valjean’s story starts when he steals some candlesticks from a kindly bishop, but is caught. When the police arrive the bishop says that they were a gift and then gives Jean Valjean the rest of his silver. A reformed and almost unbelievably godly man Jean Valjean is placed in the maelstrom of suffering and poverty of 19th Century Paris. He then helps a prostitute, rescues a man trapped under a cart and saves the life of his future son in law at risk of his own life. Finally, he forgives and spares the life of his decades long-persecutor, the officious and just policeman, Javert.

The story is inspiring, but ultimately remote. The grace so costly, the poverty so harsh that it seems difficult to relate to our own times and place.

In his book ‘the Idiot’ Fydor Dostoevsky, like Victor Hugo, parachutes pure grace into a harsh landscape, this time full of ‘empty headed people’ obsessed with money, looks and power. The reader watches as different elements of St. Petersburg high society misunderstand, are broken by or refute the accepting, forgiving, innocent, unmanipulative actions of the ‘simply good’ Prince Mishkin.

In the Idiot, the moments of grace seem more within our grasp than in Les Misérables. The characters deficiencies are writ large, but Prince Miskin’s actions are smaller, accumulating gradually rather than immense actions of a superhero.

In ‘the Terminal’ Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a man speaking no English becomes trapped within a busy, brash US airport. Passengers push past, always in a hurry and the staff are unhelpful and rude. In this arena Navorski helps passengers with their bags, stops them from slipping on wet floors and slowly breathes humanity into the staff.

In many ways ‘the Terminal’ is just another formulaic feel good film, but it also translates some of the stories of grace that we find in Dostoevsky and Hugo into a modern setting. (This is probably the only time you’ll hear a Spielberg movie compared to Dostoevsky, so enjoy it while you can.) The airport typifies our individualist, time poor, consumerist culture just as Dostoevsky compounds the wretchedness of St. Petersburg society and Hugo rubs in the poverty of nineteenth century Paris. Like Myshkin, Navorski steps in completely powerless and ignored, but with time and a natural inclination to serve. His actions are everyday and almost unnoticed – this is grace writ small.

Where are the small acts of grace in our society today? Grace is both hard to define and hard to find. In his book ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace?’ Philip Yancey starts by saying that he wants to ‘convey grace rather than explain it’. We need stories of grace if we are to understand, experience, enjoy and pursue it. We need the mountain peaks of Jean Valjean which can inspire and clarify our vision. But we also need stories in the foothills where we live our daily lives. If you’ve got any stories of grace, the smaller the better, please post them up or email them – I’d love to hear them.


  1. Hi Jon,

    I know I'm missing the point by amount a million miles, but "formulaic
    feel good" doesn't even begin to express the awful gut-wrenching sentimentality
    of The Terminal. Not to mention its offensive, stereotyped and patronising
    portrail of non-English speakers, the way he is apparently so clumsy and stupid
    just because he doesn't speak English. Oh, and the dreadful accent and the
    completely unconvincing love story. Actually, the whole thing is utterly
    unconvincing, despite being based on a true story - that's how bad it is.
    Wouldn't want you to inadvertently encourage anyone to watch it :-).

    Having got that out of my system, you make some interesting points. Do you
    think grace is anything different from being an extreme form of the sort of
    altruism and love that we experience in small ways every day?


  2. Hi Chris,
    Yes, I know that the Terminal is formulaic and stereotyping, but you know that I look for the best in things.

    I haven't been ignoring your question - I was just trying to figure out what I thought. I think grace is a better word to use. For me grace has specific connotations of cost and boundary breaking that 'love' loses because it has so many definitions.

    'Love' also implies some form of relationship with someone out of which actions come. Thinking in terms of 'grace' opens up the possibilty of actions between strangers that may only last a few seconds or minutes. It would seem odd to say that the examples from the Terminal were actions of love, at least love as understood by society today.

    So although this is a semantic answer, for me grace seems to touch on something deeper than the broad sweep of love or altruism can.

  3. Something which always sticks in my mind, as an example of grace, is something that happened last August. I'd just returned from 7 months in Asia and went back to work in the same office I'd worked in before I went away. I went to the local post office, and the woman there smiled, said hello and got out a cheap, yellow cardboard folder and gave it to me. I'd left it in there last time I was in the Post office (7 months before) and she'd kept it for me all that time, waiting till she saw me again. I was really touched.
    (who has finally found your blog!)