Prostitution, Chaos, and Christian Art
The newest theatrical release of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Miserables” was released on Christmas, but many Christians are refusing to see the movie. The reason simple — the movie briefly portrays the licentious activities of Fantine, a prostitute. Before her fall into prostitution, Fantine and her child Cosette are abandoned by Cossette’s father. Her reputation makes it increasingly impossible for her to keep a job, and her desperation in caring for her daughter forces her to the streets. First selling her hair, her teeth, and finally her body, she sends nearly everything to support her daughter.
A Prostitute’s Sex Scene
Focus on the Family’s “Plugged In” offered this description of the scene:
“Then the camera takes a bit longer watching Fantine—dressed in a hiked-up, bare-shouldered petticoat—as she and her first sexual customer consummate their transaction with realistic sexual movements. Her pain and despair over what she feels she’s forced to do is so palpable here that it’s nearly as smothering as the grimness of her surroundings and the crudeness of the act itself.”
Hugo’s prostitute is overwhelmingly repugnant. We are given an image of a bald, toothless woman stricken with tuberculosis covered in filth. There is nothing sensual about this sexual experience; she’s not even shown in the nude. In the Broadway versions of “Les Miserables,” a more likable Fantine is stripped on stage and then ushered off.
Which is more appropriate?
In our discussion of Les Miserables, we have to think in categories native to comparative literature and the aesthetic arts. This is, after all, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, a story of undisputed acclaim. How we understand his use of sex is going to be much more profound than the typical pop-culture flick. We are looking deeper than entertainment value to evaluate the weightiness of forms as they construct truth. In all of this, we must view Les Mis as art. The Hollywood production will either reflect characteristics of good art or bad art. The same is true of the Broadway music and the book itself.
By What Standard? A Reformed View Of Art
The modern world… has no notion except that of simplifying something by destroying nearly everything. – G. K. Chesterton
In creation, God expresses his nature as he re-creates his image in man. The creator produces little creators who construct new things in their own image. As Francis Schaeffer has said, “Creativity is a part of the distinction between man and non-man. All people are to some degree creative. Creativity is intrinsic to our mannishness.” In a broad sense, everything that is created by man is art. Architecture, music, and even cooking are art forms.
In the Bible we are given a beautiful written narrative of creative history filled with both poetry and symbolism. Thus our truest reality is found not merely in terse matter-of-fact statements, but in flowing ballads as well. God uses the diversity in form to reflect the beauty of the composer. Art, in its various mediums, is judged by the ability of these flat layers, forms, to emerge as mountains in the landscape of reason, emotion, and truth.
The value of art is determined by it’s comparative ability to develop truth in the things we do, smell, taste, see, hear, and speak; these develop perspectives on how the image of God has impacted this world. In art, man claims dominion over the ordained meanings of particulars and develops their complexity into layers of contrasting universal realities. When a man paints of picture of a woman he uses particulars like lines, colors, and shapes to create the work. When the shapes and colors come together to look like the woman, he has suspended those particular against each other to create a real image. Holding these forms in the equal ultimacy of unity and diversity creates beauty. Yet when the unity is overly stressed we lose the beauty of a unique face and all becomes uniformity. (Imagine if every painting held the face of the Mona Lisa.) When we stress the diversity, we end up with the fragmentation of Picasso.
Thus, art only has meaning within the Christian worldview. The Christian knows true things about men, women, and nature because God has revealed true things. When Christianity is removed, the meaning of art is lost. A good example of this is to compare Rembrandt’s “Holy Family” against Fouquet’s “Virgin and Child.” One is dominated by order, the other by chaos. Following in the example of the Reformation, Rembrandt neither idealized nor demeaned the subjects in his work.
While Fouquet’s work, meanwhile, is one of the best examples of how Western Art can be used to subvert Christian truth.In “Virgin and Child” we see a woman who is not ‘real’ and is not Mary. The face of the subject was actually the King’s mistress, Agnes Sorel, who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Not only was the King’s mistress painted as Mary with all of the holiness removed, but the meaning, too, was being destroyed. The meaning of the particulars was reduced to a debased pornographic portrait of the King’s mistress. Even more telling, Fouquet’s Virgin, painted in unusual colors that point toward the French crown, is not realistic. It points back to its own fragmented meaning. In Fouquet’s Virgin, truth is reduced to the sexual imagery of man-centered idealism. Thus, fragmentation is rebellion to God; this is how we as Christians can declare the intrinsic sinfulness of pornography.
Good art does not have to be realistic, but when an historical figure is purposely distorted, modern fragmentation is clear. Fouquet’s painting is obvious chaos; one immediately gets the feeling that it is “out of this world,” but not in the holy sense. Yet in Rembrandt’s Holy Family, Mary is portrayed as a real woman who had a real child. In Rembrandt’s work we can identify those multiple layers of meaning, whether your identifying the historical statement, the nurturing of motherhood, the Christian view of the family, or even more abstract elements such as the meaning in light, movement within the painting, character placement, color and shadows, along with various similar details we don’t notice at first glance.
It is also important to notice that nudity is used in both of these pieces, yet it is only erotic in one. Particulars like nudity have meaning in God’s world and are defined by context. In Rembrandt’s work, the virgin’s exposed breast is a symbol of both the humanity of Jesus and nurturing nature of the Virgin. This is how we can see sex and prostitution in the context of Les Miserables as both noble and repugnant. Unfortunately this tension is lost in modern Christian filmmaking; for instance, movies like Courageous and Fireproof spoon-feed flat morality scenes that lack the multi-layer depth of true art.
Christians throughout history have demonstrated Biblical beauty in art, reflecting the goodness of God in the diversity of human dignity not by merely affirming positive examples, but by maintaining a tension between the ideal and debased. Today, modern Christendom uses art as propaganda with a single seemingly “gospel” centered message that they wish to communicate as an intellectual statement. This is anti-art in the same way government murals of the Chinese Dictator Mao are anti-art.
Reformed art is not merely romantic.
The Christian view of art does not confuse Victorian sensibilities with moral uprightness — with righteousness. Those who view art in the simplistic context of the “message” will close their eyes at the beauty of Rembrandt’s Virgin and Hugo’s Fantine. Such a view creates a romantic view of morality, another symptom of humanism. Art that can only display positive aspects of man denies the truth that man is cruel and broken. Art affirms the morality of God by demonstrating the vulgarity of man.
Unoffensive Prostitution is Chaos
Hugo wrote the character Fantine to describe how French society had forgotten the downtrodden among them. How fitting for Christians of our day to do the same in their opinions of the depiction of Fantine. They cannot even bear to look at her pain. They wish her away in a blissful ignorance, a self-righteous indignation at her existence. Instead the Christian humanist demands a sanitized reality, an idealism that comforts the mind and ignores the heart. When Hugo confronts our modern sensibilities with a woman who represent our real sin, we respond with a desire for chaos. In our world, we have peace because we hide the reality of prostitution. We rush it off the stage and sweep it under the rug. Order requires work and struggle. Order requires us to become like Fantine, first emotionally realizing our own dirty, adulterous lives and then overcoming that desire to be left alone. To stoop down and be confronted with Fantine’s sin is to be personally disturbed.
There is in Christian Humanistic thought the desire to separate anything of sexual nature from the body. The reader may intellectualize Fantine’s prostitution on the pages of a book, but to see her portrayed in bed with a man is dangerous and even sinful. Self-righteousness is fueled by their intellectual ability to discern the weaknesses of their flesh. This over-sensitivity of the man is the denial of the body. Instead of solving the problem like Hugo does in his artistic contrast, modern man solves this by denying the body and embracing neo-platonic dualities.
Victor Hugo includes the prostitution in a way that makes one feels as though it could be themselves or someone they know, yet in the offensive sexually encounter Hugo urges us to not look away, to not skip this scene. Rather, we are to take it to heart and to be so offended that you do something about the injustice existing in your culture. In the movie, missing the scene would be missing the words:
“Don’t they know they’re making love | To one already dead!”
The Christian View of Prostitution is Sympathy
In my work in the Pro-life ministry we often show graphic pictures of abortion to demonstrate its horrors. This includes a DVD of an actual abortion being performed. This is much more graphic than the scene in Les Miserables both in nudity and content. I am often confronted by Christians who dislike the use of these images, often accusing me of offending post-abortive women. The result of such emotionally driven censorship is the alienation of post-abortive women. All of our sins can be displayed in media, whether we are talking about murder or adultery, but abortion in its graphic detail is not allowed. Even worse, this emotionalism has crippled pastors who are afraid that they may offend the post-abortive woman in the pews. In actuality, this emotionalism creates a gulf of separation between real hurting women and those who can offer help. When the woman thinks of her sin she wonders, “Is my abortion so evil that they can’t even show me what I did?” or “Is my sin so huge that my pastor has no hope for me?”
This is the same sort of relationship breakdown that happens when we become so apprehensive to the prostitute that we can’t even bear to have a scene of one in our media. Hugo wrote to prick the conscience of the Christians; the Catholic church of his time was not appreciative of his criticism, and even today the Christian world rejects his cutting scene. Yet in the apostolic literature, Christ calls the harlots to the front of his teaching on sexuality. In the woman caught in adultery, we are are given Christ’s dramatic encounter with a woman caught in the act — one must wonder what the Victorians among us would do to sanitize this story. As we move back into Biblical literature, the relationship between Hosea and Gomer is a type of how God sees Israel. Gomer runs away from her Husband Hosea and sleeps with another man, but he loves her anyway and goes to buy her back. God does not hide prostitution, nor does he make it an unforgivable sin. Instead he demonstrates his fatherly responsibility to rescue those lost in harlotry, to buy those like Gomer and Fantine back. Hollywood is faithful both to Hugo and to scripture by including such a scene. As Hugo describes it,
“What is the story of Fantine about? It is about society buying a slave.”