How Does the Pagan Play “Rent” Bear Witness to Christ?

What do we make of the relation of the sacred and secular? For example, what makes Christian art Christian, if it is Christian? Do certain Christian symbols like the cross make a piece of art decisively Christian? Do the lack of those symbols make it unchristian or non-Christian? If the latter were the case, what then would one make of the Book of Esther, where God’s name is not specifically mentioned? Esther is considered sacred literature traditionally to Jews as well as Christians.

I remember having this discussion years ago, when one of my seminary classes and I went to see the play, Rent. During the intermission, I said to a few students that I saw more gospel themes and values in this pagan* play than I found in some Sunday School flannel graph presentations. Of course, a live play or a movie will always win out over flannel graph in terms of aesthetic appeal; but the raw earthiness of the play won out over the felt texture of some of the Christian conversations. Sometimes we know the Bible so well we no longer understand it. When the theme song of Rent cries out words about betrayal from landlords (homeless artists) and blood cells (AIDS victims) and lovers (broken relationships), I was taken onstage of the human tragedy where Christ lives. Just as there was no room for the homeless at the Holiday Inn in New York around Christmas at the end of the second millennium, so there was no room for Jesus in the inn at the beginning of the first millennium. Jesus knows their struggle, and Jonathan Larson alluded to it in his script. Yes, there was the allusion to the Christian story, albeit briefly, but the theme of betrayal and abandonment and longing for love and community was exceptionally secular yet sacred at the same time.

All the world is a theater of redemption, not simply the church. Secular plays and movies can serve sacred ends in pagan forms, not simply Christian art and Sunday School flannel graphs. Can you think of other examples beside my illustration of Rent? What stands out to you about such pagan forms and how they bear witness to sacred ends?

UPDATE: *There are different meanings and associations with the word “pagan,” as many dictionaries will indicate. Whenever I use the word to refer to non-Abrahamic religious or spiritual traditions, I capitalize the term out of respect for those traditions (here I am referring to articles/posts I have written in the past on the subject of Paganism in the ancient as well as contemporary world). In this article, the only time the word in question is capitalized is in the title, where all key words are capitalized. In the body of the article, I do not capitalize the term as I am conveying another association or meaning bound up with the term in contemporary English: irreligious, non-religious or secular. I certainly mean no harm to the Pagan community by my use of an alternative rending of the term “pagan.”

This piece is cross-posted at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • duskglow

    I think Christians need to be very careful about separating performance art into “Christian” and “non-Christian”. The first is for the reason you describe – inspiration can come from multiple sources, and God can speak through many things that are not ostensibly about him. Another reason is that Christians tend to be so AWFUL at it… and the third, I think, is that in separating Christian art from non-Christian art, it only reinforces the insularity of the culture and makes it more difficult for them to go out and engage in the broader world.

    For me, I found inspiration in “Jekyll and Hyde”. I have yet to find much that addresses the topic of sin in such a poignant manner. Once I was accosted by a 15 year old missionary while I was accompanying a performance, and she (of course) tried to convert me. I asked her who she thought the villain was. “Well, Hyde, of course”. No, I said, I think Jekyll is the actual villain. Because of the two, Hyde was the one who was true to himself, and Jekyll continued his experiments, knowing full well what was happening, and with no regard for those around him or those he cared about. People ended up dead. She had no response to that and probably thought I was nuts.

    … I have so many stories like that. :D

  • Monty Group PDX

    Both the church and pagan has contributed to this myth that the sacred can be easily segregated from the secular – it’s perhaps dualism or asceticism or a expression of prosperity gospel or some combination thereof. I’ve found personally that it’s certainly difficult to separate the secular from the sacred. The sacred is often found interwoven with the secular and vice versa. There seems to be no human centrifuge in which the two can be spun apart (maybe separating the two is not exactly necessary or even the point?). Aren’t we who believe on Jesus all made of flesh yet indwelt by the Spirit? Isn’t Jesus incarnate both material and divine simultaneous? “Being in the world but not of it,” likely needs further in depth exploration, popular theology has only scratched it’s surface with “Christian” clothing, bookstores, fried chicken, etc. (I’m embellishing a little…). Let’s also be reminded that the symbol of the cross/crucifix was a Roman (pagan) device for torture, punishment and execution that was later on converted to a Christian (sacred) symbol.

    Personally, in music – in the so-called secular album “The Downward Spiral” in the song called “Hurt” by NIN (i.e., Nine Inch Nails), covered by Johnny Cash later on, for example, I hear a well-developed exploration of human depravity. Not everyone acknowledges human depravity, not even every churchgoer much less the pagan. Not even everyone takes human depravity quite serious or far enough. When I listen to the song and its lyrics, I get to acknowledge my own desperation for Jesus and the implications of a potentially meaningless life if devoid of God.

    It seems that Trent Reznor understands the implications of a world devoid of meaning and the legacy left behind, singing ‘You could have it all – My empire of dirt’. I believe that that songwriter’s realization in itself is a sacred revelation expressed in what most would consider secular song. It’s clearly not a Christian song as it includes a four-letter word (because Christians never use those “bad” words…), yet the song is most clearly authentic and full of deep, spiritual symbolism that still ushers my spirit towards worship of God. I’m always curious why I find meaning in a song that explores meaninglessness.

  • Noah Hoff

    I really like your question of – what makes Christian,
    Christian? This is something that is often times never thought about but is of
    dire importance to question. There are so many ‘secular’ movies, songs, art
    pieces, even people that portray many ‘Christian’ traits. Unfortunately, there
    are also many ‘Christian’ movies, songs, art pieces, and especially people who
    do not portray ‘Christian’ traits. I once heard someone bash the church saying,
    “So many people that go to church are hypocrites, they’re broken, and they
    don’t represent God well (they’re lost), that’s why I don’t attend.” The answer
    to that statement is simply, “Well of course they are broken, hypocritical, and
    lost, that’s the whole reason they are at church seeking God.” The church is
    full of broken people because broken people seek God! Often times, people need a kick in life to realize they need something better, something to save them,
    redeem them – God.

    Back to my earlier point, I cannot count how many ‘secular’
    movies I have seen that tell the story of Jesus, or represent his love, or
    represent our brokenness and seeking of Him, or just have blatant Christian values present. Any story of Good vs. Evil where good prevails evil can be seen as the story of Christ. It is imprinted in many, if not all, cultures minds that good
    will prevail evil. So where does this idea come from? Is it possible that this
    idea comes from the hope and even belief that eventually an ultimate good will
    prevail against evil? Often times, ‘secular’ and ‘Christian’ are more alike than what meets the eye.

  • Jody Rutherford

    “All the world is a theater of redemption, not simply the church.” Amen! I often find this in movies I see–two recent examples: Thanks for Sharing (a movie about sex addicts facing their addiction) and Things We Lost in the Fire (directed by Susanne Bier–all of her movies are amazing). Also, Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities has always been one of my favorite illustrations of this truth.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • Brian Considine

    Shalom! A concept I have been working on and writing about for some time, nothing published yet but I do have a manuscript sitting waiting completion.

    Hebrews, as with many cultures, did not have this.dualistic division between the sacred and the secular, a very Western idea. Shalom, wholeness and much more, allows us, I think, an understanding that “the whole earth is filled with his
    glory” (Numbers 14:21). That is everything is sacred as it is created by God. We don’t worship everything, in a pantheistic way, but only the Creator. What the prophet Habakkuk
    told us was missing was the “knowledge” of God’s glory (Habakkuk 2:14).

    When we understand that our dualism is not rooted in Scripture, we can better grasp the magnificence of God in his created order, in every day life. So there are in
    fact many things that are sacred apart from the religious symbols we
    associate with sacred.

    I believe that anything that is meant as an
    expression of God’s giftedness and done for God’s glory is sacred. Of course, there is much that is done that is unholy and with unrighteous motives that are in fact rebellion against the Creator, therefore not sacred. I believe that plays like “Rent” and many other movies and literature often weave in, knowingly or unknowingly, redemptive analogies.

    What I think is amazing is that God throughout all of human history has desired to make himself known. Don Richardon’s “Peace Child” explores the idea of how woven into many cultures is a redemptive analogy that shows a redeemer child is coming to deliver people.

    The recent movie, “Saving Mr. Banks” is also such a redemptive analogy. Broken by her life’s experience, and tortured by the memories of her alcoholic father, the author of Mary Poppins is “saved” by her encounter with Walt Disney and freed to share with the world her wonderful work. It would be just like our God who desires to be known to continue to speak through the arts, through film, and all means possible.

    The apostle Paul
    quotes some unnamed Greek prophets as saying, “in him we live and move
    and have our bring” (Acts 17:28), which to me makes all of life sacred,
    in Christ. I.don’t claim to know what that all means but that is the
    journey for #LivingSentToday.