Two weeks ago I saw the film adaptation of Rent; I’ve never seen it on stage, but it has been the subject of both adoration and controversy among my peers since I was in high school. The controversy was easy to understand, even without familiarity with the musical—any time homosexuality is portrayed as normal there are bound to be people who will get upset. What I didn’t understand until seeing the film was where the adoration came from, save the fact that the few songs I’d heard from the show were wonderful. There’s a loyal number of Rent groupies who have seen the stage production as many as twenty times; they even have a name: Rentheads (a Google search of the term "Renthead" will bring about 16,800 results). It’s a rare piece of art that inspires such devotion. There are a number of reasons that Rent resonates with our generation, with all the twenty- and thirty-somethings that have made it the phenomenon that it is today. Two of its core themes are community and living life to its fullest, both powerful ideas in a society that is increasingly fractured and materialistic.
We live in a world of subdivisions and the isolation that comes from building proverbial castles in cul-de-sacs, hiding from the outside world. Our generic houses are set back far from the street—we don’t have porches, we have decks in the backyard; we don’t interact with our neighbors. We don’t have a firm sense of rootedness, of place. From suburb to suburb, little changes besides the size of the houses–the strip malls and Walmarts look the same. We drive everywhere, and our cars become another haven preventing us from meeting friends and strangers on the street as we walk. And we find it so easy to pack everything up and move, leaving friends and family behind.
Humans have an innate longing for community, for substantive relationships, and in a postmodern society that community becomes ever more difficult to find. And it’s not just the fault of suburban sprawl and the ease of travel in our country; its roots are more entrenched, more widespread. In Paris, you’ll see the rupture in the lives of the international students; the French university system doesn’t emphasize creating student community the way that the American model does, so it’s not uncommon for international students to have only a handful of friends, to feel isolated. What Rent captures is this hunger. Life is far from easy for its characters: they are poor, several have AIDS and many are disconnected from family. But they have each other, and it is enough. There’s only us / There’s only this ("Life Support"). They are a patchwork family of exotic dancers, filmmakers, crack addicts, teachers, drag queens, lawyers, musicians and performance artists—it’s a strange family, but one nonetheless; they find love and support in each other. They need each other. It is only when their family falls apart that life truly becomes unbearable.
Relationships can give us a sense of purpose, a reason to live. But while we can find this in each other, we also want our work to be meaningful. We want to know that what we’re doing matters, that we’re doing more than giving and taking money away, that we’re doing more than just making someone else rich. And that’s why the message of "La Vie Boheme" makes such a strong impact: To days of inspiration … / Making something out of nothing / The need to express / To communicate, / To going against the grain. The movie Fight Club also captures this sentiment. We were not meant to be trapped in the daily grind, in "9-5 little prisons" (Pete Greig, The Vision). We want to live, to really live. To create. Tolkien called man a "sub-creator"—humanity’s ability to create is one of the ways in which we were made in the image of God. This isn’t just limited to the arts; engineers create just as much as painters, scientists as much as musicians. Francis Schaeffer once wrote, "The area of creativity therefore is no minor footnote to the Christian life, but is an essential." It’s intrinsically human.
Rent captures some of the deepest longings of our generation, and as Christians we should be paying attention. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35, TNIV). Sadly, we often fail. Christianity’s public image is marred by hatred and divisiveness, and this will only change if we as individuals and churches take Jesus’ command to love seriously. We should have stronger, more welcoming communities than anyone else—we claim to have experienced unconditional love, and that kind of love refuses to let us go unchanged, refuses to leave our relationships unchanged. We should be less judgmental, knowing our own sins full well. We should embrace life to its fullest. We should be revolutionaries, forsaking the fame, comfort, wealth, "success" that the world tells us we are entitled to, instead serving the poor, the marginalized, yes, even the AIDS patients and the homosexual commnity. Will we always get it completely right? No. But if not us, then who?
They are free
yet they are slaves
of the hurting and dirty and dying.
What is the vision? The vision is holiness that hurts the eyes.
It makes children laugh and adults angry.
It gave up the game of minimum integrity long ago to reach for the stars.
It scorns the good and strains for the best.
It is dangerously pure.
from every secret motive,
every private conversation.
It loves people away from their suicide leaps,
their Satan games.
…And this vision will be.
It will come to pass;
it will come easily;
it will come soon.
How do I know?
Because this is the longing of creation itself, the groaning of the Spirit,
the very dream of God.
—Pete Greig, excerpted from The Vision