The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Les Mis and the Saintly Entrepreneurs

Life is not a highlights reel. And nor are the great novels.

Inevitably, of course, screen and stage versions of big books like Victor Hugo’s much-adapted Les Misérables tend to focus on events that drive the narrative forward, moments of deep ethical challenge, intense emotion, and high personal jeopardy. But Hugo’s ambition for his tale of the gospel-fuelled transformation of Jean Valjean from disdained felon to selfless citizen went far beyond showing the triumph of godliness under extreme pressure. Rather, Hugo, whose faith position is disputed, is interested in portraying the possibility of radical consistent godliness worked out in everyday life.

Indeed, the novel does not begin on the corpse-strewn fields of Waterloo, as in the recent BBC adaptation, nor in the prison hulks of the 2012 film based on the musical. It begins with a fifty-page portrait of the entrepreneur Bishop of Digne, a praying priest with a joyously creative ability to divert resources to the poor. He gives away 85% of his income; he gives up his palace so the town can have a larger hospital; he discovers he is due a transport allowance, gives the money away, and carries on riding his donkey.

Hugo gives us tale on tale of his creativity, his commitment to all his people, and his generosity, so that when he forgives Valjean the theft of his silver cutlery it is no surprise to the reader that he offers him the candlesticks. The act is not one extraordinarily good deed in an otherwise undistinguished life, rather it is one extraordinarily good deed in a life daily characterised by extraordinary goodness. Hugo doesn’t only suggest that we are all capable of great acts but that we might all be capable of living greatly.

And so Valjean, in his calling to business, becomes as exemplary in godly generosity as the bishop who ‘bought his soul’ with the candlesticks. His factory is open to anyone who would work, his entrepreneurial acumen is directed towards the burgeoning shalom of the previously impoverished town, and his wisdom to the resolution of conflicts. Indeed, Hugo directly compares bishop and businessman: the latter only slightly less revered than the former.

Tests, temptations, and failures come to us all. Hugo reminds us that the gospel not only promises eternal life but life in Christ that can transform our everyday living into something compellingly beautiful – whatever our calling.

Mark Greene

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Mark Greene


  1. Erudite and insightful as always. thank you

    By Simon Shutt  -  22 Mar 2019
  2. Thank you.

    By Jill  -  22 Mar 2019
  3. Thank you Mark for finally reminding people of the BOOK – far too few people know the pages you resume, and I can only recommend the reading of them for everyone: it is a most compelling portrait of holiness in practice indeed. Thank you!

    By Martin Slabbekoorn  -  22 Mar 2019
  4. Thank you, Mark, for underlining so deftly the conjunction of saintliness and business. It’s good also to see that your ‘modern languages’ background is being put to good use! Keep that pen moving……

    By Clive Smith  -  22 Mar 2019
  5. Love this.

    By David  -  22 Mar 2019
  6. the bishop sounds like an example of generosity that today’s super-rich could very usefully consider

    By Bruce Gulland  -  22 Mar 2019
  7. My favourite story & yes the bishop of digne’s generosity beautifully summarised. I continue to hope that licc will get round to providing acceptable facilities for wheelchair users at its headquarters – that would be a wonderful & most acceptable generous act.

    By Jill  -  22 Mar 2019
  8. Thank you Mark, for highlighting much more than the adaptations, especially for those who have not read the original novel! Always appreciate your insights.

    By John Spadafora  -  22 Mar 2019
  9. I was a schoolgrl during WW2 , everything was very scarce. A set book for english literature was “nine modern plays” . The bishops candlesticks was one of them. I now realise it was lifted from Victor hugo.
    The message wasthe same.

    By maryquenby  -  23 Mar 2019
  10. Thanks Mark. Appreciate your insights and reflections as always. God bless. Hugh

    By Hugh Wallace  -  25 Mar 2019

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