A few months ago, one of the local high schools performed the rock musical Rent. Megan and I attended the show as a number of students in the musical were in my youth group. They had the audience sit on the stage, to be up close and personal; to be a part of the experience; to live in the story with the actors. It was so well received and popular that the school opened up the balcony at a reduced price to accommodate all the interest.
During the intermission, I overheard two women talking. One of them was expressing amazement that these high school students in 2014 had put together this 1996 Broadway musical about a time and issue that seemed to be so distant from high school students today. I thought to myself, this is what should be happening. Great art – in whatever form it takes – sparks conversation.
Great stories not only inspire great conversations, but great theology. In seminary, I spent a lot of time pondering with professors who would become mentors and friends on how stories can be the catalyst for theological reflection. Whether we are reflecting on stories from the stage or the big screen, or from our own lives, they have the power to open our eyes to see the world – and ourselves – in a different light.
Rent did that. Its creator, Jonathan Larson, heavily based the musical on Puccini’s opera La Boheme. Larson merged musical themes, plot themes, and even some of the lyrics from Puccini into Rent. While this made Rent unique and creatively powerful, it was the issues of the day that made it stand out. La Boheme was about a plague; Rent modeled that by focusing on AIDS.
The musical takes place in New York City’s East Village, focusing on a group of young adult artists who are attempting to make a living (and pay the rent) while being true to who they are. These young artists in the 1980’s knew the reality of not being accepted, struggling with life, challenged by friends who sell out, and mostly the reality of HIV/AIDS.
Jonathan Larson, ever since college, had a thing for social issues. He was deeply concerned as a young adult about equality and he used his talent in song writing and acting to communicate this concern. Rent was not only heavily influenced by La Boheme, but also by Jonathan’s experiences living in New York. His encounters with the homeless, struggling artists like himself trying to leave their mark on society, and friends he had come to love who were dying from AIDS all contributed to his storytelling.
According to the most recent statistics, there one million people in the United States living with HIV, one in six are not aware that they are carriers, and African Americans are most at risk, no matter their orientation. Just as in the early 1980’s, HIV-positive persons are stigmatized and isolated. Worldwide, HIV/AIDS does not discriminate based on race, gender, orientation, or age. In many countries, including Africa, China, and the United States, children are born with HIV because their biological mothers are carriers. These children face the same stigma in their communities.
In John 9, Jesus and his disciples meet a man born blind. The disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:2-3). Children, adolescents, and adults living with HIV/AIDS face a similar stigma today. They are treated as if they have sinned and this is the punishment for their sin. In John 9, Jesus wonders why it has to be about sin. Why can’t it be about grace and God’s glory?
When Jonathan Larson’s best friend Matt was diagonsed with HIV, Matt was told to get his life in order. (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”) This stigma and treatment towards his friend moved Jonathan. The list of friends and associates that Jonathan and others knew who were diagsoned and died from AIDS continued to grow.
His friend Matt took him to a Friends in Deed support group. As Jonathan heard the stories bravely being told, he was moved and motivated to do something. He began volunteering with Friends in Deed, and these experiences – these stories – continued to shape the musical. Rent was written to save people, to educate, to advocate, and to be the voice in the wilderness crying out, ” The kingdom of God is at hand!”
These experiences taught Jonathan that every second of life matters. And as his own life reminds us, no one knows when they will die. Each of us has been created in the image of God, and we are good. This gift of life requires an amount of responsibility. We can choose to be selfish with it, or we can choose to be sacrificial with it. We can do something – anything – with our lives that will make a difference. The gospel-like song Seasons of Love reminds us that we measure life in love.
Rent matters today because it beckons us to hear the stories of others and to find ourselves in those stories. Rent matters because it reminds us of the importance of telling our own stories. Stories have the power to heal – ourselves and our communities. This is the power of Rent.
Yet, Rent offers us more. It is one thing to hear and tell stories, and another to respond to them. As we reflect on the stories we share theologically, they call us to go forth and live our lives differently. These stories call us to be different, to transform the world around us, and do something.
The characters all do something to make a difference. Maureen pulls her friends together to stand up against the injustices of forcing the homeless out of the tent city. Angel is a modern day Good Samaritan when he shows compassion to Collins who has been beaten up and robbed.
Rent still matters because it reminds us that the “other” is not all that different from you and I. We can relate to each of the characters in one way or another. And suddenly, as their story merges with ours, we find ourselves in the drug addict, the transgender, the gay man, the bisexual woman, the homeless, the poor, the unwanted.
We try to find ourselves as we accept that the “other” is really us. It’s not just a show about a bunch of young adults in the east village, its about all of us.