Play in Les Miserables and Isaiah

Some of the themes about fun I have been drawing out of the Bible are illustrated in a great work of literature. If you have seen the movie, you will remember that the orphan Cosette lives with the swindling Thenardier family, and is mistreated by them until she is adopted by the repentant criminal Jean Valjean. This story as told in the original novel demonstrates the goodness of play, the potential of sin in play, and the prerequisites of play; and it illustrates why we can play in the Kingdom of God.

The Goodness of Play

Among the great cruelties of the Thenardiers is their refusal to give Cosette a doll. Cosette gazes into a shop where an expensive doll is for sale, and to her it looks like paradise. The doll “was joy, splendour, riches, happiness.” Cosette is rarely allowed to play with a toy sword, and she dresses it up and sings it to sleep. The narrator explains:

The doll is one of the most imperious necessities, and at the same time one of the most charming instincts of female childhood. To care for, to clothe, to adorn, to dress, to undress, to dress over again, to teach, to scold a little, to rock, to cuddle, to put to sleep, to imagine that something is somebody–all the future of woman is there. Even while musing and prattling, while making little wardrobes and little baby-clothes, while sewing little dresses, little bodices, and little jackets, the child becomes a little girl, the little girl becomes a great girl, the great girl becomes a woman. The first baby takes the place of the last doll. A little girl without a doll is almost as unfortunate and quite as impossible as a woman without children.

Play is inherently “charming,” and is also useful for preparing a child for the important work of adulthood. It practices and displays the good functions of humanity, including the creativity that imitates God (see Theology of Fun: The Play of Creation). The Thenardier girls further demonstrate their creativity by dressing up their cat and enacting a story in which one girl is surprised at how hairy the other girl’s baby is. As we reflect God’s creativity and display the goodness of humanity, we bring glory to our Creator.

Finally, play brings happiness. When Jean Valjean meets Cosette, she is ugly because she is unhappy. When they move into a convent together, one of the best results is that Cosette is allowed an hour of play every day.

At the hours of recreation, Jean Valjean from a distance watched her playing and romping, and he could distinguish her laughter from the laughter of the rest. For, now, Cosette laughed. The gloomy cast had disappeared. Laughter is sunshine; it chases winter from the human face.

The result of this joy is that, when Cosette is fifteen years old, she is remarkably beautiful. The sunshine of laughter causes the rose to bloom.

The Potential Sin of Play

While the Thenardiers beat Cosette and force her to work, there is a group of drinkers constantly having a lot of fun. They laugh and sing an obscene and blasphemous song while completely ignoring Cosette’s plight. Rather than enjoying and displaying the goodness of creation for the glory of God, they pervert creation and dishonor Jesus; and their complete lack of seriousness prevents them from helping Cosette.

The Prerequisites of Play

Unlike the drinkers, Jean Valjean is determined to bring joy to Cosette. There are three related things that prevent Cosette from playing. First, she is terrified of Mrs. Thenardier. Second, she is forced to work with few breaks. Third, she does not have a doll. Jean Valjean has the means and the desire to overcome these obstacles. As Mrs. Thenardier makes Cosette knit stockings, Jean buys the unfinished stockings at an outrageously high price so that she will be free to play. After Mrs. Thenardier kicks Cosette for touching the girls’ doll, Jean buys the doll that Cosette had dreamed of from the shop. Unlike the drinkers, Jean Valjean is serious about letting children play.

Play in the Kingdom of God

Jesus, through his seriousness and suffering, buys His people the freedom to play. When we were slaves to fear, sin, and poverty, he bought our lives at the cost of his. By creating perfect peace, He frees us to play:

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,

and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.

Isaiah 11:8, ESV

Today we can play because the security, righteousness, and wealth of the new creation are already ours. And yet we are serious, because Jesus has called us to follow his example of laying down our lives to bring others into the joy of His kingdom. We are playful in our seriousness because nothing can take our eternal joy, and we are serious in our playfulness because our present joy is a foretaste of God’s eternal kingdom, bought at the high price of Jesus’ blood. The church must have fun, praise God for its freedom, and welcome the world into its joy.

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