Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables: a tarnished gem

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Here’s my latest op-ed at LifeSiteNews.com, reprinted with permission:

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Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead?

As Anne Hathaway cries out the classic “I Dreamed a Dream” in Tom Hooper’s new take on Les Miserables, the audience can feel Fantine’s devastation. The dark grittiness of her chamber, the deep breaths of her violator’s climax, the ringing of the coins, her anguished lament – no feeling person can help but share in the poor woman’s horror.

The scene, in its depravity, is a testament to the sacred character of the sexual act, one grace-filled moment in a film that serves as a grand witness to the sacred, the truth of human dignity, the joy brought by Christian conversion, and religion’s power as a force for good in society. In fact, the film acts as an apologia for a vigorous Christianity, rooted in faith rather than sentimentalism, for it is plain that Valjean’s many good deeds are founded in a deep life of prayer.

Yet this two-and-a-half-hour gem is tarnished by a four-minute comedic romp in the first quarter of the film. A mere twenty minutes after the filmmakers have cultivated a visceral appreciation for the evil of prostitution through Fantine’s devastation, we’re taken to the Thenardiers’ brothel for what could only be described as a celebration of the very same evil.

hathawayThe scene depicts a kind and gentle Santa, decked out in miter and robe, lured into the brothel as he hands out gifts to children. He quickly begins necking with a prostitute and moments later we’re shocked with a two-second shot of the two jubilantly fornicating in the room upstairs: “Oh Santa!” the woman pants. As the song ends, we see Santa stumble out and pulled pants-less across the screen by his reindeer.

Of course, the Thenardiers’ brothel is repulsive in its own way, so the scene as a whole doesn’t necessarily come off as celebrating prostitution. But it becomes a celebration as we are meant to derive humor from Santa’s lark.

Fantine’s scene is beautiful in its wretchedness, bright in its darkness, sacred in its depravity. But this two-second, wholly gratuitous sex scene is dirty in its frivolity and sickening in its jubilation. Through the visual and auditory cues, we are told to laugh as Santa – the season’s picture of goodness, generosity and even a certain jolly innocence – is morally corrupted. Because we’re meant to find all of this funny, the scene wars against the story’s profoundly Christian ethos.

On a symbolic level, the scene even seems to subvert the film’s overall message of spiritual conversion. The Bishop of Digne, who buys back Valjean’s soul with the gift of candlesticks, is the very symbol of conversion – so much so that in the end the film depicts him welcoming Valjean’s soul into heaven. A bishop restores Valjean’s appreciation of his own dignity, allowing Valjean to in turn bestow the same appreciation on Fantine, Cosette, and others. Yet in the scene with Santa, we have a miter-wearing image of St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra, taking the exactly opposite path.

Despite the symbolism, the scene is so radically dissonant from the film’s overall Christian ethos that it seems it could not be a conscious effort at subversion. The filmmakers went out of their way to amplify the story’s Christian significance – think of Valjean’s gift of a Rosary to Javert, the beautiful shots of crucifixes bathed in light, or the profound depiction of Valjean’s entry into heaven in the final scene. In interviews, Hugh Jackman and Tom Hooper related that they had gone back to Victor Hugo’s novel to capture its spiritual depth.

So is there a certain schizophrenia here in the filmmakers and the audience-at-large? How else to explain that we could be so moved by the conversion story, that we could mourn with Fantine, and yet laugh at Santa’s spiritual corruption?

Rather, I think we have to describe it as a failure of wisdom, a failure to grasp the deeper realities at work in the story. Les Miserables can only be understood with a thoroughly Christian worldwiew, and the Santa scene is evidence that the filmmakers, despite their good intentions and technical mastery, missed it. They simply did not grasp the full import of the story’s ethos – that true conversion always entails a commitment to sexual purity. I would suggest that, caught up in our cultural attachment to sexual frivolity and Hollywood’s obsession with sexual humour, the filmmakers and general audience simply don’t have the eyes to see that this silly sex scene is so radically out of place.

Still, none of us are surprised that it’s there. Whether or not such a scene ruins the film for us, I think we all ought to at least marvel that Hollywood was able to produce so profoundly Christian a film. Though the gem is tarnished, the Gospel still shines through.

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A beautiful Christmas poem in honor of slain Newtown children

A FRIEND of mine posted this beautiful poem on Facebook. I thought I’d share it. It’s being credited to someone named Cameo Smith from Mt. Wolf, Pennsylvania.

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Twas’ 11 days before Christmas, around 9:38
when 20 beautiful children stormed through heaven’s gate.
Their smiles were contagious, their laughter filled the air.
They could hardly believe all the beauty they saw there.
They were filled with such joy, they didn’t know what to say.

They remembered nothing of what had happened earlier that day.
“Where are we?” asked a little girl, as quiet as a mouse.
“This is heaven.” declared a small boy. “We’re spending Christmas at God’s house.”
When what to their wondering eyes did appear,
but Jesus, their savior, the children gathered near.
He looked at them and smiled, and they smiled just the same.
Then He opened His arms and He called them by name.
And in that moment was joy, that only heaven can bring
those children all flew into the arms of their King
and as they lingered in the warmth of His embrace,
one small girl turned and looked at Jesus’ face.
And as if He could read all the questions she had
He gently whispered to her, “I’ll take care of mom and dad.”
Then He looked down on earth, the world far below
He saw all of the hurt, the sorrow, and woe
then He closed His eyes and He outstretched His hand,
“Let My power and presence re-enter this land!”
“May this country be delivered from the hands of fools.
I’m taking back my nation. I’m taking back my schools!”
Then He and the children stood up without a sound.
“Come now my children, let me show you around.”
Excitement filled the space, some skipped and some ran.
All displaying enthusiasm that only a small child can.
And i heard Him proclaim as He walked out of sight,
“In the midst of this darkness, I AM STILL THE LIGHT.”

Why our family waits to plug in the Christmas lights

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As we’re in the throes of the pre-Christmas season, my little house in rural Nova Scotia is surrounded by brightly-lit homes, many of which are really quite impressive. We were surprised when we moved out this way how many houses put up lights on our street. It brings some extra joy to the season, I think. Last night actually we took the long way home to soak it all in.

That being said, I explained before how Jenna and I really feel it’s important to observe Advent, and hold off on Christmas until Christmas.

People have different ways of observing Advent, and I know that the Vatican has already lit up its tree. But I’ve always felt that Christmas lights were an important symbol of the season, so we’ve held off right until the very end.

I explained our approach to this at LifeSite a few years back. I thought it would be a good time to put it out there again.

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Why we wait to plug in the Christmas lights

Many of us enjoy taking drives around our communities at this time of year to take in the often magnificent displays of Christmas lights.  This is our first Christmas in our first house, so we were pretty excited to put lights up.  About three weeks ago we bought our first set, and to my 20-month-old’s great excitement, I got on the ladder and started stringing them from the gutters.  I tied some boughs to the porch and wrapped lights around them.  Then we hung the wreath on the front door.

But after briefly testing them, I pulled the cord.

We, like everyone else, put up lights to get ourselves into the Christmas spirit.  But we just weren’t ready to get in the Christmas spirit.

Downtown Denver Christmas Lights 3Christmas lights are a symbol of Christ, the Light of the World.  Christ, as pro-lifers are keenly aware, became Man nine months before Christmas at the Annunciation.  He lay hidden, nurtured in His mother’s womb, known only to His parents and those around them.  At Christmas the glory of this infant King was revealed to all from His lowly stable in Bethlehem.

The angels rejoiced and the sky was lit up across the known world by the Star of Bethlehem, proclaiming to all – Jew and Gentile – the arrival of the Saviour.  It was this spectacular light that beckoned the three wise men to come pay homage to the new King.  They knelt before Him and worshipped on behalf of all us Gentiles.

The lights of Christmas remind us that Christ has conquered the darkness and that we are now living in a time ruled by hope.

Yet even in this time of light and hope, there are seasons of darkness, times when God allows us to feel like evil has won out and He has abandoned us.  Labourers for the cause of life know this feeling.  We are confronted every day by the worst forms of death and destruction imaginable.  It can be easy to give up hope.

But we embrace this darkness as a gift from God, which He uses to strengthen our faith in Him.  When we encounter this darkness, we are forced to believe all the more strongly that it is us who have been blinded, and that Christ’s light continues to shine in all its brightness.

It’s important to my family that we fully celebrate Advent, dedicating this time to prepare for Christ’s coming.  We prepared the lights, but embraced a time of darkness.  Just as Christ was hidden and burst forth in all His glory at Christmas, so our lights remain dark until Christmas.  We believe that this waiting will make the lights shine all the brighter.

Likewise, the darkness of our age merely radiates Christ’s glory all the more as His followers are called to ever greater holiness.  Though Christ’s birth brought with it the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, His radiance only shone more brightly as they were raised to the height of martyrdom.

Republished with permission from LifeSiteNews.com.

Pro-life media saves lives!

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I’ve been blessed for several years now to work full-time for an amazing pro-life apostolate that focuses on cutting through the misinformation and lies on abortion and other cultural issues from the mainstream media.

For those who haven’t heard of it, LifeSiteNews is an international news agency focusing on life and family issues. We rely exclusive on donations from our quarterly fundraising campaigns.

We hear time and again from readers about the impact we have in supporting their on-the-ground pro-life work. At a gala we held in Washington, D.C. last spring former Planned Parenthood manager Abby Johnson relayed how she has used LifeSiteNews stories to help save lives in her apostolate of sidewalk counselling outside of abortion facilities.

Even still, it can be hard for us to make the case in a simple way for how our work actually helps save lives.

With that as a preamble, I must say that our web team has simply nailed it in this awesome new video, below, which really showcases the power of pro-life media. It was released this morning as LifeSiteNews begins its Christmas fundraising campaign.

Please consider donating! You can do it here.

A cop finds the Cross on the streets of New York

Larry DePrimo couldn’t have predicted the attention he’d get over what might seem a rather simple act of kindness. On Nov. 14th, the 25-year-old NYPD cop found a panhandler going barefooted on a frigid New York night and decided to buy him a new pair of $100 boots. The moment was captured on camera by an Arizona cop visiting the Big Apple, and the photo quickly went viral on Facebook with nearly a million “likes” and “shares”.

It’s just the kind of heartwarming story people love to hear this time of year, isn’t it?

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But was it too good to be true? It appears many of those inspired by the story were quickly jaded when news reports in the last day revealed the panhandler was not in fact homeless, and has a history of arrests for lewdness, assault, and possessing a controlled substance. He was also spotted after the fact still walking barefoot.

“That’s exactly why I don’t give money to beggars,” I can hear people saying. Doesn’t it just fit that typical image of the panhandler running off with his pocket change to buy booze and drugs?

I know I’ve struggled with jadedness myself about giving to panhandlers after a couple instances when I knew someone had taken advantage of my generosity.

But I was struck recently by a story about Bishop Fulton Sheen. It was related by his niece Joan Sheen Cunningham in a September interview with Catholic World Report:

Since he was known for his generosity, people would often come up to ask him for money, telling him how they were down on their luck. He’d hand them $20. I’d ask him, “How do you know that they’re not putting you on; that they really need help?”

He’d answer, “I can’t take the chance.”

Obviously we don’t want to be giving money to someone who we know will misuse it. That’s irresponsible. But shouldn’t we give people the benefit of the doubt?

The Catholic Church has a long tradition of giving to beggars. I think of St. Francis of Assisi selling off his father’s expensive fabrics to give the money to the poor, or St. Martin of Tours cutting his cloak in two to clothe a beggar. The lives of the saints are filled with these kinds of tales.

I also think about the spiritual counsel of mystics like the Servant of God Catherine Doherty, who founded Madonna House, an apostolate dedicated to the poor. Her Little Mandate, which she believed to be inspired, opens by saying: “Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor.”

Of course, any time we give something of ourselves to another person, there’s a vulnerability there. We take the risk that they are going to reject us. I’m sure the saints struggled with the same issue; I can’t see it being a new problem.

During my undergrad at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, I took an excellent course on Bl. John Paul II’s theology of the body taught by the parish priest. One class we were talking about human relationships and how love, both in and outside of marriage, involves a mutual self-gift: I give myself to you and you give yourself to me, in one sense or another depending on the type of relationship.

“But,” asked one of the students, “what happens when one person makes that gift to the other person, reaches out to them, and the other person just totally rejects it?”

“Well, that’s the Cross,” the priest said.

Christ, the God of the universe, gave Himself to us when he deigned to become just a little piece of His creation. He gave Himself, as we read in today’s Gospel reading at Mass, in healing the lame and the blind, and then feeding the four thousand.

And then what did we do? We crucified Him. The mystery of the Cross is that it was in our very rejection of Him that Christ finally poured out His whole life for us.

I don’t know officer Larry DePrimo. I don’t know the barefooted panhandler or why he’s still going around without boots. But if Mr. DePrimo was betrayed, if his gift was rejected to use instead for ill purposes, then I’d say on some level he’s had an encounter with the Cross.

So I’m getting some grocery store gift cards. Next time I meet a beggar, presuming there’s no solid reason to doubt his motives, I will offer what I can, pray for him, and leave it in God’s hands. If he misuses the gift, well, that’s the Cross.

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