30 June 2006

Everything is Rent

In a world ripped apart by disease, poverty and war, how do you find meaning? How do you measure time? By daytimes or sunsets? By lessons learned? By triumphs? By strife? Death? The opening chorus in Rent suggests love. This musical develops the importance of community, of commitment to each other in a world chalked with alienation, loneliness, death, and hopelessness.
In a world where time dies and opportunities have been wasted, how do you leave a legacy? Roger searches for the song that will leave one “blaze of glory” while Mark desperately keeps his camera rolling to find and document real life.
In a world taken over by the virtual reality seen in “Cyberworld,” where change “rips away” and friend betray to pursue the corporate latter, how do you connect?
When bills can’t be paid and scripts and dreams are burned to keep warm, what remains? What is real?
When the smell of death wafts before your nostrils, how will you face the final moments? Will we lose our dignity? Will someone care?
Jonathan Larson, in a musical and wordsmithing style akin to Sondheim (to whom he plays homage in “La Vie Boheme”), adapts Puccini’s opera, La Boheme (playfully using popular themes from the opera in his translation) to address the hard questions of life and discuss life in today’s culture. Larson intimates that “there is no future, there is no past…there’s no day but today.” Tomorrow is not guaranteed, so live today. We are living and dying in America, but we’re not alone. Meaning is found in relationships. This philosophical standpoint takes its cues from Existentialism. Rent, both the musical and now the movie, has had a cult-like following because of its connection with North Americans asking the same questions. Larson died just hours before the opening of Rent on Broadway, but posthumously received several Tony’s, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and several other awards. So what in Jonathan’s answers captures the loyalty of thousands?
Maureen suggests taking a “leap of faith” and “jump over the moon” to leave the emptiness of Cyberworld, whose diet coke does not quench, and enter a place where your parched throat is soothed by something of substance and meaning. Collin advocates choosing to live in “actual reality” instead of virtual reality, where philosophy has been confiscated by short-lived but destructive comforts.
Roger finds that his legacy, his song, his meaning, is Mimi. Mark’s camera finds itself focused on the faces of people; his documentary centers on relationships. There’s only us. Love becomes the highest virtue, played out in acceptance and commitment to one another. It is seen in the hospital room as friends gather around Angel on his deathbed, proving that someone does care. It is seen in mended relationships that forgive hurts. It is seen in hours and days searching for the missing friend who has lost herself. They found "connection in an isolated age." They did not disengage when the pain hit.
This is a group of admitted imperfects. They pursue relationships at times selfishly, refusing to give up flirting or list-making for the significant other, sometimes loving selfishly rather than selflessly. But they also sit in the hospital with the sick and hold the shivering during drug withdrawal symptoms. They long “to [be] an us for once, instead of a them,” to belong. They want to express themselves because in a world of war, perhaps peace is not the answer, but creation. They question what is mainstream, what is normal. They recognize a dirty world, and suspect that anyone can be exclusively right, that anyone is not condemned.
“Sin” is betraying a relationship. It is also selling out to the corporate world, which hinders truly living today. Bennie, the corporate enemy who betrays his relationship with them, says their lives are a fallacy in their head. He claims that his way is truly visionary, is what is transforming, but he does not see the people he is bulldozing to get there or the disconnecting cyber life he is propagating that substitutes illusions for real relationships. With the last name of Coffin, Bennie symbolizes death in that he is not truly living. Bennie criticizes others for not drawing lines in the sand and taking a stand then asks them to abandon their protest in exchange for free rent so that he can move peaceably ahead.
As believers who are told to love our neighbors as ourselves, we can glimpse this love in this group of friends’ commitment and love toward one another. As Christians who are told to live every day as our last, we can take cues from Larson’s lesson that there is “no day but today.” As church-goers who often get trapped in the programs and busy-ness of doing good, we can learn that true meaning is found in relationships.
We also need to recognize that often the church is viewed as the corporate bulldozer moving ahead at full speed with our agenda, marketing our proposition. Christ did not publicize Himself on the streets (Isaiah 42:2) but lovingly healed and entered into the lives of the condemned, the sinners, the outcasts, the lepers. Too often the church takes the position of the righteous “objective” judges pretentiously standing outside of the world ever rebuking rather than an embodied Christ walking in the world, healing, loving, and bringing redemption. Bennie criticizes me: I am told I stand for nothing while perhaps I am standing for something he doesn’t like. I am told that the life for which I long, the love, the relationships, the acceptance, the embracing of life, is a fantasy in my head. I am Roger watching my life pass me by as I search for significance and legacy. Rent scratches that interminable itch, the itch that seems to have a hidden origin. You scratch your thigh, but that doesn’t seem to satiate. You try the bottom of your foot, but still the itch nags. You consider scratching your groin area, but that would be uncouth. So the itch rages. Until Rent, for me.
While Rent isn’t overtly out to disprove that God or Truth exists, they perhaps approach indifference to these aspects because the way we have talked about God and Truth doesn’t matter to them. There is no one to tell them that God cares for them. There is no one to display the true joy of life. Where are Christians in a hurt and dying world? When peace is fought for, often through bloody battles, we, as made in the image of God, can instead embody our Creator in creation. We, as redeemed by Christ, can embody His love in relationships. While our life is lived fully today, our hope is in our complete restoration with our Creator, with community, and with nature. This we practice every day.

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