In my early adulthood, Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" had attained cult status, and derivative fantasy epics, designed by other authors dreaming of similar success, clogged bookstore shelves. Mostly forgettable, they've mostly been forgotten.
I suspect that Tolkien's works have endured, along with C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia," not only because they were brilliantly written but because their implicit religious themes resonate with readers in a way their often shallow imitations didn't.
So, too, I believe, with the remarkable ongoing success of the musical "Les Miserables," due to appear soon in film. It's profoundly and overtly religious.
"But remember this, my brother," says the Bishop of Digne to the former convict Jean Valjean, whom he has just rescued from return to prison and, in an act of unmerited grace, is now making rich.
See in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
to become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood,
God has raised you out of darkness.
I have bought your soul for God!
"My soul belongs to God, I know," says the transformed Valjean when, 10 years later, wealthy and respectable, he faces — and triumphantly meets — a horrifying moral crisis. "I made that bargain long ago." And he embarks on a lifelong journey of self-denying care for a young orphan while pursued by the implacable Javert — who embodies the law as it would exist in a world lacking atonement, forgiveness and grace. At the end of the play, Valjean will be described, not unjustly, as "a saint."
Meanwhile, the most expressly atheistic words in the musical are sung by the brutish and amoral innkeeper Thenardier as he callously loots the bodies of the dead after an abortive Paris uprising: "God in His Heaven, He don't interfere, 'cause he's dead as the stiffs at my feet. I raise my eyes to see the heavens, and only the moon looks down."
The contrast could scarcely be plainer.
We aren't shown Thenardier's final end, but it will certainly be ugly and cruel. Jean Valjean, on the other hand, crowns his life with the holiest of deaths:
"God on high," he sings, "hear my prayer. Take me now to thy care. Where you are, let me be. Take me now. Take me there. Bring me home." In response, Fantine, the long-dead mother of the orphan girl to whose care he's dedicated his life, appears. "Come with me," she says, "where chains will never bind you. All your grief, at last, at last, behind you. Lord in Heaven, look down on him in mercy."
Fantine is then joined by the spirit of yet another tragic character who has plainly entered into God's grace after a premature death. "Take my hand," they sing together. "I'll lead you to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God."
Valjean dies, and immediately the final chorus swells, as all the characters in the story — including others who had died defeated and crushed — re-emerge upon the stage: "For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies. Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord, they will walk behind the ploughshare, they will put away the sword. The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!"
"To be loved," said the Roman poet Ovid, in rather a different context, "be lovable."
God and his plan for us are supremely lovable, but that has often been obscured by human sin, betrayal and corruption. Still, we humans yearn for him, even if, very frequently, we've forgotten and become distracted. As St. Augustine said, addressing God in his "Confessions," "Our hearts are restless, until they rest in thee."
"Les Miserables" doesn't preach doctrinal details at us. Rather, it reaches down deep into the souls of its audience, reminding us of our homesickness for God, of our longing for truth, love, beauty, meaning and redemption.
The field is, truly, white, already to harvest, and there are many tools available beyond the indispensable service of missionaries — art, music and literature among them. The truth, to be loved, must be shown to be lovable. "Preach the gospel at all times," goes the advice popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. "When necessary, use words."
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.