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    PloughCast 37: Vows, Liberty, and Victor Hugo

    The Vows That Bind, Part 1

    By Caitrin Keiper, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    September 27, 2022

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah discuss Peter’s lead editorial, “Word Is Bond.” In a culture where keeping our options open is the categorical imperative, how can we become ourselves? Peter argues that the voluntary self-limitation of vows allows men and women to live their lives thoroughly, rather than skimming along the edge of reality.

    Monasticism, marriage, and the military are forms of commitment that commonly allow people to dig in to their own lives; all three are on the wane. How can we embrace commitment and push back against the ephemerality and weightlessness of the uncommitted life?

    Then, they welcome their colleague Caitrin Keiper to discuss vows in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Both Valjean and Javert, in their different ways, live their lives according to a vow. How do these different commitments lead to each of their ends? And how does grace shape the outcome of each of their vows?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section 1: Peter Mommsen: On Not Keeping Your Options Open

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to the PloughCast. This is the first episode in our new series linked to our vows issue. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. In this episode, we’ll be talking about Pete’s lead editorial, “Word Is Bond,” and then we’ll be welcoming our colleague, Caitrin Keiper, Plough’s editor-at-large, to talk about Les Misérables. So Pete, let’s talk about your editorial.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, let’s talk about vows.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Let’s talk about vows. So why do a whole issue of Plough on vows? What were we thinking?

    Peter Mommsen: It seems like a really obscure topic, doesn’t it? Well, there’s all kinds of reasons to talk about vows, but let’s first start with the big picture, which is that I think it’s a fair generalization to say that we live in a culture that’s increasingly addicted to low commitment everything, low commitment friendship, low commitment clubs, low commitment organizations, low commitment magazine subscriptions. Because of the consumerist world in which we live, the idea of binding ourselves, giving up future freedoms, giving up future options, locking ourselves in, is a pretty widespread phobia, and that’s not just me saying that. There’s a whole bunch of social science data that also seems to indicate that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You have a phrase here, “the categorical imperative to keep your options open.”

    Peter Mommsen: I can only speak from my own experience as a college student; I mean, I even wrote embarrassing poetry about this. I mean, just this idea of “nobody’s going to lock me down,” right? The sky’s the limit! Be all you can be! These things that you almost don’t think about; how deeply that type of stupid categorical imperative is ingrained into folks who’ve grown up in the last thirty or forty years in a way that is unprecedented in human history. Whether that’s good or bad, I think it’s the case. We can talk about this, but there’s three big institutions in society that reflect real lifelong commitments that are all in trouble.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What are those three?

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. So of course, thank you. That’s what I was waiting for. Tee me up. OK. So one big one is marriage. So it’s not a new story. People are postponing marriage. They are avoiding marriage. More and more people are never getting married. They’re cohabiting before marriage, which is statistically leads to more likely divorce. There is – on the cultural fringes, but we’ve seen that cultural fringes can be quite influential over time – a growing critique of monogamy itself.

    So that’s not only this drum beat in certain quarters for open marriage and polyamory and so forth, but also well-regarded ethicists saying even voluntary monogamy is by its nature oppressive. You are binding the freedom, the future freedom of somebody else by putting them into this emotionally coercive expectation that they won’t be unfaithful to you. So marriage is one big one. People seem to be scared of marriage.

    Another one is military service. The New York Times did an interesting article over the summer saying, for instance, this year, the US Army is unable to recruit enough new soldiers. They have a shortfall of 40 percent, at least at the time of writing the article, and this really seems to reflect a lack of desire to serve.

    Of course, there’s a lot of background stuff to this. Part of it is, possibly, just disillusionment with America’s foreign wars, a sense that the type of deployment that I might be sent to isn’t the type of thing I’m going to give my life for because it doesn’t really have full democratic support. There’s the issue of massive lack of physical fitness that only a quarter of enlistment eligible young people actually are physically fit enough to get into the military forces, even though they’re squinting sometimes and letting people in, but more basically, just this idea of service to country is just not that attractive an option, and this idea of locking yourself down, now not for life as in marriage, at least ideally as in marriage, but for a good long time in a identity shaping way.

    Then there’s, I guess, the most niche example, but I think it reflects also some wider things going on, in the field of religion, monastic communities. Monasticism is one of the oldest forms of lifelong commitment where you give yourself to a particular way of life. Obviously in Western countries, Catholicism is the main locus where that happens. Although, of course, other Christian and non-Christian traditions have monastic communities going back hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years.

    Monastic numbers just have been in free fall since the ’60s. It’s not bad everywhere, there are traditionalist orders, and some of them are really great friends of Plough and of the Bruderhof, the community I’m part of, that are doing actually quite well. But taken as a whole, the declines are just staggering in the number of Catholic sisters and Catholic religious brothers over the last forty to fifty years, and that’s around the world. Again, there’s a few countries where there’s counter currents, but really, where modernity reigns, monastic numbers decline, and that seems quite fascinating because it also seems to track with the much-discussed rise of the “nones.” So even much weaker, more diluted forms of religious commitment just to a denomination seem to be in trouble. So we can talk about the reasons for that, but I think that’s just a fact that there’s something in our society that really doesn’t like commitments.

    So, what does this have to do with vows? One might ask. Well, a vow is the exact opposite of keeping your options open. A vow is, as I think G. K. Chesterton says, making an appointment with your future self that you bind yourself to make, that you’re going to show up. That’s really scary, and it’s not coincidental that marriage and military service and monastic life all begin with a vow. From a Christian and Jewish point of view, scripture is just suffused with the language of vows and also of covenant, a related idea. So obviously, there’s something going on here if you are a Christian believer to pay attention to.

    Section 2: Peter Mommsen: Post-liberalism, the Political and the Personal

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the things that was interesting to me about your piece is that you really marry two different strands of human experience. One is this very subjective or you might think subjective thing: how are we experience our lives. There’s a sense of free-floatingness that doesn’t actually seem to be very good for us. It doesn’t conduce to our happiness in the fullest sense, although it seems to promise a fast food version of happiness. Then there’s the political element as well. One of the words that comes up pretty early on in your piece is post-liberalism. Do you want to talk about the connection that you drew between someone like Jordan B. Peterson and the post-liberal moment that we seem to be having?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, before we get to post-liberalism, I guess we should talk about what we mean by liberalism. The real elementary school version of it is those famous lines from the American Declaration of Independence, in many ways, the founding charter of liberal modernity: that every human being is “endowed by their creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So this prizing of the individual’s right to liberty is at the heart of liberalism, the Western liberal tradition.

    So post-liberalism is saying, “Well, what does that all leave out? Who does it leave out? Who are the people who have this or are able to exercise this right of liberty?” Well, people who are healthy, probably male, probably rich, but what are the other things that it leaves out? It leaves out community. It leaves out mutuality. It leaves out solidarity. It leaves out a shared sense of what is good and what is bad for human beings because we’re each just free to pursue our own solitary paths toward life, liberty, and happiness. That seems to leave out a lot of what actually makes human beings flourish.

    So what I was looking at in connection with this addiction to endless options as being a feature of our modern society, is that there really is a countercurrent to that individualist liberal creed going on today in the political world, but then also just in the therapeutic mode. Somebody like the Canadian Jungian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who sold millions of books and attracted millions of people to his YouTube show by talking about, as his book says, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, right?

    So there’s this chaos out there, the chaos of endless options, of endless freedoms, the promise of endless self-definition, which it turns out a lot of people are really unhappy with and hasn’t made them happy, and they haven’t grown up happy living in chaos, living in a society that doesn’t seem to have firm anchors, firm guideposts, as though they’re looking for some type of facility, and Jordan Peterson is giving them that in a way that I’m always just fascinated by: the hunger that his actually fairly anodyne prescriptions seem to fill.

    I mean, they’re really not that big a deal, and although he’s become coded as this intellectual dark web type figure, if you read his book, some of which is actually laughably ponderous, it’s mostly stuff that a good dad should tell his son, basically, “Stand up straight, make your bed, don’t be a jerk in your dealings with other people and with animals.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: You live in a world of cause and effect, and depending on what you choose, you are going to be reaping either a weightlessness or a more weighty life.

    Peter Mommsen: So while we’re riffing on Jordan Peterson, I also just got a new puppy. So I brushed off some dog training books, and I was reading this classic dog training book. It was by this guy who was on TV for a long time, Cesar Millan. Did you ever run into him?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think I might have, yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. Oprah had him on a show. He trained Oprah’s dog. He had a lot of celebrity dog owners whose dogs were just wreaking havoc in their lives. His book, it’s called Cesar’s Way, and he has a fascinating backstory. The book’s old. It’s been around for a long time. Predictably enough, I think if you go online, you’ll find lots of critics now of Cesar being a bad guy, but it just struck me, reading his thing, which is basically about how in your relationship with your dog, you need to establish dominance, and submission on the part of the dog, not violently, but just in the way you bear yourself: stand up straight, walk like you’re Julius Caesar or Cleopatra through your suburb with your little dog in tow, projecting the energy that a pack animal will respect, right?

    I was just going through this book and just laughing to myself because I had just read Jordan Peterson. Cesar Millan is giving the exact same type of advice. Of course, he hasn’t reaped the same liberal scorn as Jordan Peterson has. I guess he has the right friends, but he is basically just telling dog owners how to be a good animal, how to be the good leader of an animal pack, and a lot of it was just Jordan Peterson rules.

    So I think that those rules for life are good as far as they go. Yeah, it is probably pretty good to stand up straight, to live an orderly life, to work out, to project a sense of confidence and not hate yourself. That’s probably good. However, that’s not nearly enough to live a good life.

    So I think these things that respond to the sense of “liquid modernity,” as Zygmunt Bauman called it twenty years ago, are they’re very incomplete answers and potentially misleading answers if you don’t fill your life with an actual goal that goes beyond them.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It seems to me that they are extremely necessary and also extremely insufficient on a couple of different levels. One of those levels being that they are self-helpy things that are very individualistic – which you definitely need!

    Peter Mommsen: Jordan Peterson’s book is extremely individualistic. It’s really about being the top lobster, right?

    Susannah Black: There is a place for that! There is a place for learning how to be a good animal, and that being a project that you as a – probably a young man, is his prototypical audience. This is something that you can only do, only you can do, but even there, the role that Jordan Peterson plays in a lot of people’s lives is as a mentor. It’s not just a self-help thing. It’s also this sense, the reason that people are very passionate about him is that there’s this sense that he is another person outside you who is telling you to do these things.

    I think that one of the things that that implies and that his book leaves open is that necessarily communal nature of any non-liquid, any real solid life that you’re going to make for yourself or receive from others, even. So I think that what you began speaking about at the top of this episode, the idea of vows and the vows that we actually concretely make to communities – to each other in marriage, which I just did three months ago; as Christians in our baptism, the vows that we make to God – these are things that are not self-helpy and they’re not individualistic.

    They’re ways of being a good animal that actually transcend animality or at least transcend the instinctive animality that might lead you to be a good wolf pack leader or dog pack leader and lead you into a full humanness.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, and this is where I think that just the existence of vows, the public existence of vows, is a sign to the wider society that the liberal promise isn’t enough. I think that’s why we put together an issue on it. I hate to say, I think you and I both know many things we appreciate about political liberalism. The rights and freedoms and human dignity, those are all wonderful and important things, but it’s this and yet part, that vows, although they may seem so niche, actually are super central.

    I can say just like you said, you got married: that was an utterly transforming vow, right? There’s very few parts of your life that are not changed by saying “I do” to this one other person and becoming united in marriage. I definitely remember that from my own marriage, and in my editorial I also talk about taking lifelong vows of membership in the Bruderhof community, the Anabaptist community that publishes Plough. That feeling: although it was not an exalted moment, I remember it very vividly.

    There’s a question that’s asked, “Do you yield yourself completely and bind yourself unreservedly to God and to your brothers and sisters?” There’s another question that says, “Do you give yourself with all the strength of your being, all the faculties of your body and soul?” Those were the things that earlier were precisely what I wanted to keep for myself. So in saying, “Yes, I’m giving that over” – obviously didn’t change me to a better person, I hasten to add; there’s a million ways since then that I don’t live those vows out, but they took a whole bunch of stuff off the table.

    What I see a lot, just looking around just anecdotally, is people paralyzed by daydreams of the options of the people they might be, the Instagram figure life they might lead, how they might be different if they bought this or that service or appliance or became a bodybuilder or picked up this or that skill, and that’s not a way to live your life.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, I think that probably the choice of a spouse is the thing that is most familiar to the average person. Even if you’re not married, for most of us, we’ve at least thought about, “What if I gave myself to this person? What if that was it?” I think there is a sense of, “OK. That would be closing down every other option. To make a choice is to close down every other choice.”

    Peter Mommsen: Exactly.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s scary because it feels like, well, you feel as though you’re limiting yourself.

    Peter Mommsen: “What if I meet the perfect guy next week?” or the perfect girl.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, but what you find out when you actually make those vows in that moment, it feels, “This is . . . ” I’m so sorry, I’m going to do it again, it’s C. S. Lewis time, it is something that’s bigger on the inside. It looks like you are going into a smaller place because you’re going from a place of potential to a place of actuality, but as it turns out, when you make those vows to another person, there’s this whole other world inside that that you could have never gotten to except by making those vows, except by going through that door and closing it and being on the other side. Then once do that, you realize the potential life is not a life. You have to actually live your life. You can’t have it be perpetually freshman year.

    Peter Mommsen: Yup. Yeah. You can’t be perpetually, “I’m about to choose my major, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do after college,” right? At some point, you are just that thing that you are. So here’s this G. K. Chesterton quote, and you mentioned C. S. Lewis, of course, you love Chesterton, and Chesterton was our guiding Virgil in putting together this issue. I want to read one quick quote. It’s actually on the back of the magazine. “There is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the ascetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice, and it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing.”

    I just love that quote because that’s what it’s about. Here we get to why this matters. So one thing I’ve talked about in the editorial, and we’ve talked about it on this podcast many times, and I’m sure we will again, is the ways that a certain kind of post-liberal politics fills the void that ought to be filled by things like the vows.

    I do think that there’s a certain strain of the post-liberal right that seeks identity and meaning and togetherness in ways that are noxious because they create that friend-enemy distinction and emphasize it and drum it up and live off it in a way that is just incompatible with Christianity’s command to love the enemy. I think you can see a similar phenomenon happening on the left, where these ideologies of social justice, likewise, create an “us” and “them” such that rather than the commitment of a vow, this transfiguring self-giving to a vocation or to a spouse or to a faith, seeks that identity and self-positioning.

    I realize I’m speaking probably way too loosely and everything I just said comes with a whole bunch of footnotes that there’s probably good ways to do both these things, and it’s not just that something’s political that makes it bad, but the amount of passion and energy that gets put into political forms of post-liberalism as opposed to what may seem to be more private, but are actually very public things, and there’s nothing more public than a marriage, seems to be totally misplaced and is, I guess, one of the things that we’re going to keep on hammering at in this podcast is the partisan political is getting way too much of the oxygen in the room.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s what it is for me. I am a political post-liberal, and I have great deal of sympathy for a lot of these projects. I don’t think that politically we should be neutral towards the good, which is the basic post-liberal position, but at the same time, the commitment of the self to something that is bigger than you and is transcendent and actually makes a concrete difference in your life and that you then have everyday physical obligations towards, which is something that happens in marriage, in monasticism, in our baptismal vows, and in military service: these are things that are extremely concrete and actually point us towards a form of life where, actually, we don’t have the emptiness that we then need to fill with political positioning as the thing that tells us who we are.

    I think political positioning is important. I am way too online. I love the discourse. I love it all, but my husband and I meet up at the dinner table, and there’s something very solid and real there that is a reminder of – not the unreality or the unimportance of the political, but the relative importance of it.

    When we go to church and when we take communion, that’s another reminder of the relative importance of the political, and it’s something that tells us who we are apart from political friend-enemy distinctions. People need to have that sense of non-weightlessness, that sense of weightiness and commitment and belonging to someone other than yourself. It’s absolutely necessary, and the culture that tells you that you only belong to yourself and should only belong to yourself, it’s going to make you insane, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter who you belong to or what the thing that you throw yourself into is.

    In other words, post-liberalism doesn’t tell you much. It tells you what you’re not, which is liberal. It tells you that you’re after that, but it doesn’t tell you what you have committed yourself to. I think that what you do commit yourself to, what you say yes to, that’s a whole separate question.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, that’s exactly it. It’s strange. It’s not that you can’t find counter examples. You can find athletes who give themselves to their sport for decades, and that’s admired. You can find people give themselves to their art. There is the example of military service, which although is declining, it’s still a pretty robust institution in our society. I would just say even there, though, those are typically, with the exception of military service, which we can talk about in a minute, those are increasingly just for a certain small niche of people. They’re almost monkhoods, and getting to military service, it’s actually increasingly also becoming a monkhood.

    There’s been these studies. It’s certain families, right? It’s definitely not a broad reflection, at least in the United States, a broad reflection of the full swath of the American population. There’s increasingly a caste of people who tend to serve. You could ask why does a magazine like Plough, which is on the record as being committed to nonviolence and we’re pretty much against war, care about the health of the US military and how well it’s meeting those recruitment goals, I mean, at least in the context of this discussion, one big reason is that military service is one of the premier symbols of self-sacrifice, of that giving, of making that vow through your enlistment oath that, “I’m going to serve a cause higher than me,” and that to me has enormous value. I mean, I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, Susannah. I realize you don’t share my priors on this.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I don’t, but at the same time, I do think that, I mean, the thing that seems to me to be most crucial in military service is not that you’re committing yourself to be willing to kill someone else, but that you’re committing yourself to be willing to die. When I took my baptismal vows, I think of that as a military oath in a way, and I think that was a very common way that early Christians thought of what they were doing when they were getting baptized: like, “I’m committing myself to potentially die.” Obviously, this was a big part of my freak out in conversion. I knew that there wasn’t anything that I could hold back. There weren’t any conditions that I could put on this, and I knew Jesus makes it very clear that you are signing up to die.

    Obviously, I think that baptism and entrance into the kingdom of heaven through baptism, that’s the paradigmatic thing, that’s the thing, that desire that we all have to be committed to something fully is meant to find itself in or to express itself in, but there are all these other kinds of things that are like that that are also good and that can be also good in as much as their symbols of that.

    Obviously, marriage is a symbol of, in a way, what we do when we’re baptized. It’s a symbol of union between Christ and his church. When we’re baptized, that is us entering into that union. This is a very weird way to think about marriage as a symbol of baptism, but I think that’s a little bit accurate. I think that the appealing part and the potentially good part of military service and that commitment is that it is also a symbol of that better thing.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, and the early Christians, but scripture itself just loves to use military symbolism and terminology as an expression of what it means to be fully in service to the commander, right? Going back to Ignatius of Antioch and, of course, to St. Paul, “put on the armor of God,” which is the vow. So I guess with that, that’s why we did an issue on vows. Hope we’ve convinced you that vows matter and that they’re something worth paying attention to. What we didn’t get into today, but we probably will in future podcast, is bad vows because we’re not saying that every vow is a good one.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Again, after liberalism, what? What are you committing yourself to?

    Peter Mommsen: After liberalism, what? So there’s the object of that vow that we need to pay some attention to, but I think we gave away where we think that should go. So welcome to this new series and we’ll be talking about vows and some of these other subjects that we touched on, marriage, monasticism, the military, and other ways that we can show complete commitment in a society that seems to avoid it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We should also say that this is a high commitment podcast. It’s a very demanding podcast. Having finished listening through this podcast, you are now committed to listening to all the rest of the episodes. Welcome to the PloughCast.

    Section 3: Caitrin Keiper: Jean Valjean’s Vow

    Now, welcome to Caitrin Keiper, Plough’s editor-at-large. She’s written a piece about Les Misérables. So welcome Caitrin.

    Peter Mommsen: At long last.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. So Caitrin is our colleague. I had to look up her official title, which is editor-at-large, which is really cool because it makes her seem like she’s on the run.

    Peter Mommsen: The outlaw editor.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. She’s the outlaw, which is appropriate because today, we are going to be talking about a piece that Caitrin did for our vows issue about a man who was at large. I just thought of that tie in . . .

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, this is really bad, but getting to the point and his name is . . .

    Susannah Black Roberts: . . . and his name is Jean Valjean. So Caitrin, you pitched this piece and I was psychotically excited. Pete was less so. Although there’s . . .

    Peter Mommsen: That’s not true. I’m a Victor Hugo fan and I like Les Misérables in which Jean Valjean appears, just for anybody who’s listening who’s not making this connection . . .

    Susannah Black Roberts: Sorry.

    Peter Mommsen: . . . but I did watch a pretty bad production of Les Misérables in high school and it jaded me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, I mean, also my insider sources tell me that your sister, Marianne, listened to the soundtrack repeatedly, like repeatedly, when you were at a very impressionable age-

    Peter Mommsen: This is also true.

    Susannah Black Roberts: . . . and it might have damaged you in some way. Caitrin and I do not have any . . . our attitudes towards both the book and the musical are quite simple. As I was reading your piece, which is incredible, it’s subtitled The Vows of Les Misérables, yeah, everything having to do with both the book and the musical gets me , constantly, whenever I run into it. Do you want to talk us through what is the storyline here?

    Peter Mommsen: What does it have to do with vows?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Why vows? Where are the vows in Les Misérables?

    Caitrin Keiper: All right. Well, first of all, Pete, Les Misérables is all about redemption. So this is your opportunity to redeem your love for this production. So Jean Valjean is the main character. He’s been unjustly imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family, and he gets to prison and it does nothing good for him, and it does nothing good for society. He ends up staying there for nineteen years. He’s let out, but society does not accept him back. He can’t get a job. He can’t even find a place to stay.

    He eventually finds his way to a bishop’s house, who lets him in and gives him a bed for the night, and is pretty much the first person to be kind to him since he has left prison, but overnight, he steals every valuable in the bishop’s house that he can find. He runs away. The police intercept him and bring him back and they say, “This man said that you gave these to him. This is a ridiculous story, right?” The bishop, thinking on his feet says, “No, no. That’s right, and in fact, you left the best behind,” and he picks up his two beautiful silver candlesticks. This is a very humble bishop who doesn’t like to live in luxury unlike most of his peers, but he does have this one thing that is really special to him. It’s these candlesticks. He takes this opportunity to give them to Jean Valjean. He cements the story, gives him another chance, and the police go away.

    Then he says, “But remember this, my brother, see in this some higher plan, you must use this precious silver to become an honest man,” and then he tells him, “I have bought your soul for God.” Valjean doesn’t know what to make of this. He stumbles out into the night.

    Then if you’re watching the musical, he has this crisis of conscience and a conversion, and he goes out and he performs a life of service to anybody that he can find. There’s this woman who’s thrown out of her job because she’s trying to support her young child, and she’s stigmatized as a single mother. He vows to help her out and help her with this child.

    He goes and he finds the child, who’s being cared for by very unkind foster parents, and he rescues the child, and he does all these things, but along the way, there is a police inspector who gets onto his trail and just can’t let him go and follows him from one place to the next.

    Susannah Black Roberts:  So Valjean, essentially, there’s this moment of transformation, and the moment of transformation has a vow-like quality to it, but it’s a weird kind of vow. You described that weirdness in a really interesting way. You say the promise, as the book described, was made prior to his own knowledge of it. “Do not forget ever,” this is what the priest says, “that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man,” the Bishop said. “Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of any such promise, stood dumbfounded,” writes Hugo. “It seems that the bishop has somehow vowed this on Valjean’s behalf, which is impossible, but in this very impossibility lies the reason why all this is irrelevant to the grace the bishop has offered and even why the outcome is not his to know.” So do you want to unpack that a little bit for us? What is this vow and what does it tell us about the nature of different kinds of vows that you see throughout the book?

    Caitrin Keiper: Right. So there’s one thing that I do in the piece is the musical is fairly close to the book there, but there are a few interesting differences. In the musical, it’s pretty straightforward. The bishop sends him out and says, “You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.” In the book he tells him, “Do not forget ever that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man,” as if he has already accomplished this on Valjean’s behalf somehow, but now he’s offering it towards him for him to embrace for himself.

    Naturally, this is very confusing to Valjean because it doesn’t make any sense, but what he’s basically offering him is, he’s already forgiven him, and he’s already given him the means to start another life. He’s given him this grace, and he’s offering him the opportunity, “You can go and do this, I’ve already accomplished it for you and you can follow on this new path.” He’s free to do that or not. One thing that you see in the book is he almost doesn’t do it. He goes out and he commits another petty theft for no real reason, but then he chooses to embrace this path of redemption that’s been held out to him.

    There are several moments along the way where it’s very difficult for him to do that. Something very hard is being asked of him, but he thinks back to that moment and what he promised to do and the grace that was given him. It seems to buoy him up when he doesn’t find any other strength to go on. That’s the support that he gets from this vow, which he didn’t even make himself, but then he did choose for himself and it carries him. It gives him a direction for the rest of his life.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There’s something in this that, as I was reading it, I hadn’t thought of this before, but it actually is the structure of infant baptism. That’s what’s going on. The priest, basically, on Valjean’s behalf, vowed his soul to God and then offered that vow to him with the payment that already was made, both Christ’s payment and also the priest’s own taking on the loss of the silver, which he doesn’t experience as loss because he himself has this profound sense of having himself been bought by God.

    The priest, having received mercy, can’t do anything else but pass it on, and the way that he passes it on is through this vicarious vow. Jean Valjean, when he looks back on what has buoyed him up, he’s not looking back on his own vow in a way, he’s looking back on what was the actual power of Christ’s forgiveness of the Bishop’s vow on his behalf. That’s just a really interesting way to think about what baby baptism is about. That’s a weird way to think about what a vow can be because we think of vows as primarily being things that you do on your own behalf. Obviously, he does have to. He has to convert. He has to then confirm. If the bishop’s vow is baptism, his conversion is his confirmation. He does have to confirm that.

    Caitrin Keiper: Yeah. Well, actually, I had that same thought. One thing is that if you are in a tradition that does infant baptism, every time a new infant or an adult is baptized, the congregation reaffirms your baptismal vows together. You have many opportunities to retake that vow that at some point was made on your behalf, but he also mentioned something there. The bishop, he sees himself as equal to Jean Valjean in need of grace and having received it from Christ originally. Pretty much in their society, nobody else looking at these two characters would see them as equal in any way. You see that in the way that Valjean is received as a convict and everything else, but the bishop sees that correctly, and he says that to Valjean, he calls him his brother, which no one has ever done that before as well, and they both stand in this fundamental equality towards their need for grace and then their ability to pass it on.

    Section 4: Caitrin Keiper: The Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time

    Susannah Black Roberts: There’s something that you get at when you go on to talking about the police inspector, who’s the one who keeps on in this relentless pursuit of Valjean throughout the years: Javert. Javert has committed himself, I hadn’t really thought of this either, but Javert has committed himself to the laws of France. He’s upholding the laws of France. He has made that vow. Actually, this is a detail that you get in the book that you don’t get in the movie, he actually hates the restored Bourbon regime, but he loves the law or love might be the wrong word. He feels the law as absolutely necessary to his sanity. Can you talk about the relationship between that love of the law and how that gets disrupted by grace, which takes the structure of a vow or an offered vow?

    Caitrin Keiper: Right. So Javert, too, has a vow. He has a vow to himself, to the law. As you learn as it goes on, he was born into the criminal underclass, and he really detested it, and climbed up into the level of police and law and order as the thing that he saw is necessary to keep human society organized because of his experience. I mean, you talk about living for something greater than yourself. That’s well and good and that’s what Javert does, but it’s not good enough because there’s something that’s missing there, but it is greater than himself. At points when it conflicts with his own interests, he’ll go with what he believes that the law requires him to do.

    What he doesn’t understand is that there is a justice that is even greater than this human law, and he really doesn’t want to understand that. So for some reason, Valjean is the one who really gets under his skin, and he spends his whole life chasing him around, even though there are worse criminals that he could be going after, but he gets really fixated on him.

    So I think of it as there’s almost like these three layers to reality that you see depicted in the book. The one is really the underneath, the filth of the sewer. There’s this one guy, Thénardier. He’s a con man. He’s cruel to everyone he knows, and he tries to rip them off, and there’s nothing to him except for a life of filth and crime. He runs into Valjean down there at one point, who’s trying to rescue an injured man, and all that he can see is that . . . He assumes that Valjean is doing what he himself would do, which is trying to rip off dead bodies. That’s the only layer of reality that he could see, “Everyone is like me. Everyone is out for themselves.”

    The next level up from that is the playing of law and order, and that’s Javert playing, and that’s where you have your law, and people who go against the law, they go to prison and you punish them, but you maintain order.

    But there’s another layer of reality that is even above that, and that is the layer of grace. At one point, Valjean forgives Javert and sets him free for something that Javert has done wrong, and thus gives him the opportunity to recapture Valjean. Here, actually, let me pull up this quote too because this is really nice. “Javert had never seen the unknown except below. The irregular, the unexpected, the disorderly opening of chaos, the possible slipping into an abyss, all of that belonged to inferior regions, to the rebellious, the wicked, the miserable. Now, Javert was thrown over backward and he was startled by this monstrous apparition, a gulf above him, and he was staring upwards into this void, into this gulf of heaven and grace,” and this whole other part to reality that he never understood, and he has the opportunity to understand what that is, but he really doesn’t like it, and he chooses not to be a part of whatever that is.

    Peter Mommsen: I was just going to say harking back to an earlier part of this podcast where Susannah and I were talking about Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, Javert is actually stuck at those therapeutic twelve rules for life, where you are learning how to be a reasonably good animal but missing what it’s for.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think he’s actually a little bit above that, because it’s not just self-discipline for Javert. There is this communal aspect. There is the law, but there is also the sense – I mean, I think that he’s very Petersonish in the sense that you get that he has this incredible sense of the Lovecraftian chaos of the world that might just bubble up and consume you if you don’t stick very strictly to law.

    Peter Mommsen (00:51:14): He is the antidote to chaos.

    Susannah Black Roberts: He is the antidote to chaos. He is a good lobster, and that is better than chaos, but then at the same time, he doesn’t understand what . . . The solution here is not antinomian. As you point out, Jesus himself says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill,” Matthew 5:17. So it’s not that that void, what Javert perceives to be a void of chaos above in heaven is actual chaos. It’s a kind of order that he doesn’t recognize and that he’s not familiar with, and that feels out of his control, and that fundamentally is frightening because it’s a gift. It’s not something that he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to accomplish. He can’t have a handle on it the way that he can have a handle on his own self-discipline on his role as a servant of the laws of France.

    I have to say, I’m doing it again, this is my second Lewis reference of the day. One thing I jotted in the margin here when you talked about, you have this line, as Hugo writes, “To sacrifice duty, that general obligation to personal motives,” those personal motives are that Valjean has been merciful to him, “and to feel in those motives something general too and perhaps superior.” So there’s this sense of – to have received mercy, there’s something, an offering there that’s not just personal motives. It’s actually the law of love. It is a law, but it’s a higher law, and that’s what Javert can’t handle. I jotted in the margin, “the deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” which, again, I’m sorry, Lewis reference.

    Peter Mommsen: You’re quickly using up your Lewis quote quota for the day, you realize that?

    Susannah Black Roberts: I know, I know. I’ve done two. I’ve done two, and we’ve only done two segments of this podcast. Huge problem. Anyway, so that weird non-antinomian perception of grace, I thought you did a really good job of teasing out of the book and of the musical, Caitrin.

    Caitrin Keiper: Yeah. Well, I mean, Javert, he’s so close to getting it. Actually, what do you see when you look upward? You see the stars, and Javert actually swears by the stars. He has this beautiful song in the musical, where he appeals to them, “Filling the darkness with order and light.” He thinks that is what is there to truly govern the world. In a sense, it is, but the thing is that he just doesn’t understand what it is that he’s appealing to at all.

    To me, it’s a very interesting symbol because . . . So if you go to see the musical, one thing that I’ve seen in every program that when I’ve ever seen it, and you’ll probably see this in the program, is this other beautiful quote from Hugo, and it goes like this, “Shall we continue to look upwards? Is the light we can see in the sky one of those that will presently be extinguished? The idea was terrifying to behold. Lost as it is in the depths, small, isolated, a pinpoint, brilliant but threatened on all sides by the dark forces; it’s surrounded, nevertheless, no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds.”

    I think that’s there because a lot of the aspirations of almost everybody fail. There are these revolutionaries railing against injustice, but they die and they fail and nothing’s changed. Really, that’s very sad, but this is Hugo’s promise that, “Don’t worry. This means nothing to the final cause of justice. It is still out there like a star in the jaw of the clouds,” and that’s Javert’s same star, but he doesn’t understand it and what it is.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Also, there’s another thing that there’s another step to this, which I think you imply, at least, in your last section about the candlesticks. I mean, I read a this is a step from transcendence to imminence in a way, and there’s something of the incarnation there. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

    Caitrin Keiper: Yes. Well, that is exactly what I had in mind, Susannah. I mean, so you have this quote, and how are we going to read it?

    In one sense, it’s the progressive view of history: that we didn’t succeed this time, but the history is long and bends toward justice and this will happen in the future. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think that to whatever extent the progressive view of history is true, I think that, well, for example, I would rather if you took any given one of these characters, a convict or a single mother or an orphan or prostitute in France 200 years ago or today, I would rather be that person today. I think they did achieve some progress and in steps and starts.

    At the time that Hugo writes this book, they’re on another set of barricades. I think that in the course of the nineteenth century, there were barricades in the streets of Paris, somewhere on the order of eight times or so. This is maybe the second time, and then they’re on their fourth or fifth by the time that he writes this novel and it’s like, “We’re getting there. We’re still reaching towards this light of progress,” but we’re Christians, and I think that we can do better than that for one thing because all those particular people that suffered and died, what does their suffering mean if it’s only the case that in the future humanity will be better?

    Still, here we are. There’s the stars way up there. They’re in the jaws of the clouds and the clouds can’t overcome them, but we’re down here, and what is going to bridge that divide? The answer is, it’s Christ come to earth. On the night that we celebrate that happening: think about it. You’re standing in a church and there’s one candle. Then that candle lights up another candle, and then everybody’s lighting each other’s candles, and sooner or later, there you are. You’re standing in the starry sky right here on this earth. It has come to us and it is for God to show his love to this world and then for us to pass that on amongst ourselves.

    So that’s why I really love the symbol of the candle. The candle is the promise that this ideal of the star is going to mean something to us, each of us in our lives and after, and not just in the long story of humanity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, I think that Hugo, even in his maximalist optimistic Kantian progressive statement in the book, which is Enjolras’s speech on the barricades – I had such a crush thing going on with Enjolras, among other people in this musical, when I was a kid, but, you read Enjolras in the book, and he’s the blandest of . . . It’s very inspiring. He’s talking about progress and he’s talking about, “We’ll have airships and we’ll have submarines and we’ll have all this stuff and there’ll be justice.” Then he says something like, “One might even say there will be no more events,” and it’s very much like “Enjolras’ end of history.” It’s like, “If that’s what you’re going for, even at its best, the vision of political progress that’s offered is dead.”

    What’s offered through grace and by the priest and by Valjean’s faithfulness and by the bits of grace that make their way into people’s lives is a justice that’s alive and an end state that’s not dead and frozen, even if it’s just and . . .

    Caitrin Keiper: Look at us now. We have the submarines and we have the airships – and I don’t know about the justice. So I had this professor in college, and I really wanted to study Les Misérables with him. He had defected from a communist country to France and then ended up in the United States. Apparently, he would get this request all the time, “Can you teach Les Misérables?”

    He said, “No.” He said, “Everybody loves it for the revolution, but I’ve seen that movie and I don’t like it.”

    I said, “No, I’m really interested in Jean Valjean and what redemption means in his life.”

    He said, “Well, OK. Well, we can study it through that lens,” but I don’t mean to turn, I mean, I don’t have to rain on the revolutionaries. They’re onto something. I mean, it’s unfortunate that there was only one politician, Lamarque, who apparently cared for the suffering of the people at the time. I think we just need to keep our eyes on the now and the not yet because it’s both.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I want to figure out a way to include clips of the songs in this audio, in this podcast. I’m not sure if that’s legal or not, but we’ll see what we can do.

    Peter Mommsen: So far, I’ve refrained from bursting into any of the numbers based on my long listening to my sister’s CD of this back in the ’90s.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Pete, I feel that the suffering that you’ve endured listening to Caitrin and me talk about this, give that to God and who knows what he will do with it, but I’m just really impressed, and you’ve done a great, great job.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s that arc of justice. No, but there is one piece of it that I’d still like to hear about from you, Caitrin, and that is these two vows, Jean Valjean’s vow and Javert’s vow. For playing out the vow side of this plot line, what happens to them? They collide according to the subtitle of your article.

    Caitrin Keiper: They do. Well, so Valjean has a vow to go where his now consecrated conscience leads him, which is often into situations of some pretty extreme self-sacrifice. One of which is to go and save Javert. They end up on the same barricade. Javert is being held prisoner and Valjean says, “Well, give him to me and I’ll take care of him,” and he lets Javert go, sorry, knowing that he’s going to come back and arrest him, but he knows that it’s his responsibility to keep on extending that grace that was given to him, and that’s his vow.

    You have Javert’s vow to the law that now comes into this paradox because he knows that he owes Valjean the debt of his life personally, but he also knows that, according to his standards, Valjean belongs back in prison and he needs to go and do something about that, and he can’t make sense of it without this grace that he doesn’t want to think about. So it just comes to an end right there.

    Susannah Black Roberts: He ends up choosing not to be. As you said, he throws himself into the Seine rather than live in a world where everything that he thought he understood is turned on its head and he has to recognize some profound, common humanity between himself, and Valjean, and he has to see an order that’s more encompassing than the order that he has, that he’s got a grasp on in a way.

    Caitrin Keiper: What is the point of giving somebody that costly gift of grace who doesn’t want it? You especially see that, a little preview of that in the book before you get to the interaction with Javert because it seems that Valjean almost isn’t going to do anything with this new life that the bishop has given him. He’s just going to go out and keep on terrorizing people and stealing, but what was the point of what the bishop did for him if it is going to have no effect on him as far as anybody could tell? Because there’s still a freedom in that gift of grace, and freedom means he can choose the other way.

    In Javert, you see that really does happen. I mean, it must have cost Valjean a lot internally to offer this up knowing what it could do to him, and what does Javert do with that? Nothing, but I think he just has to have faith that it is meaningful in some deeper sense. I don’t know. Maybe we can have David Bentley Hart on to argue for some universalism for Javert, but that’s a topic for another time.

    Peter Mommsen:  Well, we’ll hold out hope for Javert, and I’m convinced, and dear listeners, definitely read Caitrin’s article, which we’ve just only scratched the surface of it today, and then join me in rereading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I don’t know if I’ll watch the musical, but I will read the book. Thanks so much for joining us, Caitrin.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks, Caitrin.

    Caitrin Keiper: Thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Bye-bye.

    Peter Mommsen Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met and share with your friends. For a lot more content like this, check out, for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe. $36 a year will get you the print magazine plus digital, or for $99 a year, you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits from free eBooks to regular calls with the editors, to invitations, to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect for the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as an extra advisory council. So go to to learn more.

    Join us next week when we’ll be talking with theologian John Milbank about post-liberalism, nationalism, and the nature of commitment, and with King-Ho Leung about how we can dare to make vows at all.

    Contributed By CaitrinKeiper Caitrin Keiper

    Caitrin Keiper is editor-at-large of Plough and a senior editor of The New Atlantis. Previously she was editor of Philanthropy.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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