The musical Rent is probably not one that many people associate with Christianity—or with any religion, for that matter. There are only a few irreverent mentions of religion in some of the song lyrics, and if you have seen the play (not the movie) there is a brief scene where a priest yells at Collins for not being able to pay for Angel’s burial and uses the term “queer” to insult him. This seems pretty bleak from the religious end, but to me Rent actually has some amazing Christian themes. The basic message of the musical is to love everyone and to take care of the poor, vulnerable, and outcast in our society. Well, that’s basic Catholic Social Teaching right there. Sure, the religious institutions in Rent (and in real life) don’t always live up that message, but our small band of artists try to. In particular, they are shown how to love and live their lives by Angel. Angel is central to this story and the Christian themes of the musical, as they basically act as a Christ figure who leads the others through their actions. In this way we get an important story not just for queer people, but particularly for queer Christians. In this post, I will be referring to Angel with gender neutral pronouns since the characters refer to Angel with with both masculine and feminine pronouns and it’s not clear how specifically Angel identifies.
Now, usually in our media when there is a Christ figure in a story, they have one thing in common, and that is death and resurrection. Christ figures from Aslan to Harry Potter to Superman all have that moment of death (or in some cases near-death) and resurrection. However, this is not always the case; authors have written Christ figure characters that aren’t always as allegorical, meaning the characters aren’t meant to be literally Christ. For example, Aslan is a literal Christ figure. Yes, he’s a lion in a fantasy world, but all his beliefs and actions, as well as his death and resurrection, show that he is Christ. Harry Potter, on the other hand, dies and rises again to save the wizarding world from evil, but bears very little resemblance to Christ in other ways. For more information on different Christ figures and the differences between literal and figurative Christ figures you can check out my previous article on the subject. In the Lord of the Rings you actually get three Christ figures in the form of Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo, but none of them are meant to literally be Christ. In fact, Gandalf is the only one to go through a death and resurrection, so it is possible to have a Christ figure who doesn’t have those. Christ figures are also always strong moral characters; even the Christ figures that are flawed and imperfect are always very clearly good. They always seek to help and guide people, or put themselves first on behalf of other people.
So in what way can we say that Angel is a Christ figure? I think first and foremost it’s in how they live their life. Angel always acts with love and compassion. From the first moment we see Angel, they are attempting to take care of Collins after he got mugged. Yes, Angel does kill a dog to get the money they later use to help their friends, but I never said they were a literal Christ. Despite Angel’s probably hefty bills for their AIDS medication and their own abject poverty, Angel is intent on spending all of their money to make sure the others have food and have a good Christmas. Angel’s constant loving, giving, and compassionate actions inspire the others to a huge degree.
After Angel’s death, the other characters are distraught and even scared, much like the apostles were after Christ’s death. Some of them attempt to leave and separate themselves from their lives in New York, from Angel’s memory and other relationship or emotional issues they are struggling with. Certain characters are shown as being drawn back onto a better way of life because of their connection to Angel. Mark, in particular, reflects this; he abandons his new fruitful job with a television studio to create a film about Angel and how they inspired him. Though Angel is never resurrected, we do hear from Angel again after their death. When Mimi returns at the end of the musical, she passes out and almost dies, but wakes up because she claims she had a vision of Angel telling her to go back.
But many of these qualities are ones that are typically shown with Christ figures, so what makes Angel such an important portrayal of Christ? In my view, it’s Angel’s queerness that is important. Angel’s sexuality, sexual acts, gender, and gender presentation really makes them into a fantastic Christ figure, because what Rent is doing, probably unknowingly, is queer theology. Marcella Althaus-Reid is one of the first and most influential queer theologians. In one interview she explained what a Queer God is like:
It is an unfinished God. We have God coming out of the closet saying ”I can’t be God, I have another identity, I need to be a man.” It is not a concession to men, but a need held by God to reveal himself. To say: ”I am weak, I am human.” Coming out of that closet was hard. That is a new interpretation of God, arising from a new way of relating with the divine. Metaphors of a perfect God, one of supreme wisdom, a complete God, come from a pre-modern way of thinking. I work with the post-modern. The Queer God is an unfinished God. One that is in process, ambiguous, one of multiple identities that we never quite get to know, because when we try they escape, there is more.
Angel examplifies God in many of these ways, Angel has to come out and deal with their various identities on multiple occasions. Angel, when we first meet them, dresses in a masculine way and helps Collins, but also reveals that they are gay by flirting with Collins; then they have to further come out to Collins as someone with AIDS. These identities are all ones that Collins as a gay man with AIDS can relate to. Just as the Christian God desires a relationship with humanity and seeks one out through Christ, Angel desires a relationship with Collins and identifies with him on a number of levels. However, Angel ends up subverting and deconstructing these presumptions about them in their next appearance in drag. Angel also uses different pronouns throughout the musical, being referred to as both he and she. Is Angel male, female, genderfluid, transgender? We don’t know and Angel never really tells us. In many ways Angels seems to embrace all of these identities at once.
This again can be an interpretation of a Queer God. The Christian understanding of God is already one of contradicting identities—we see this particularly in the Trinity. God the creator is depicted as male, female, mother, and father all in one, but also beyond all of those descriptions. Christ is a poor man and a king of heaven and earth. He is human, God, and male. And then we come to my favorite, the Holy Spirit, whose gender is sometimes attributed as female, but on other occasions is viewed as genderfluid or agender. The Holy Spirit in a lot of ways is an image we use to express all the other things God is that we can’t articulate as well. It’s the catch-all identity that takes on anything that doesn’t seem to fit as well into the previous two. God is all these identities at once and in many ways doesn’t fit into previously understood categories. In this way theologian Genilma Boehler uses Althaus-Reid to point out that a Queer God, or in our case Christ figure, is a better portrayal and understanding of God. It’s a God who breaks out of binaries and taboos, who understands the world beyond our preconceived, society-created categories. She writes:
This is about deconstructing the hegemonic, recovering the possibility of the particular, of the fragment, that gives meaning to a community of faith. According to the author, “The heterosexual, gay, lesbian, transsexual or other Christ do not need to be exclusive, but to be placed in the space-time of the experience of a community.” For theologies accustomed to universalities and absolutisms, what indecent theology offers are serious questions to the status quo of traditional theologies.
In this case, Angel breaks down and changes how we expect a Christ figure to look. Angel is someone who is queer, complex, hard to define, and has multiple identities, and that in my opinion is a much more accurate understanding of God than the one society and religion has historically presented us with.
Even if you disagree with me and don’t think Angel can be viewed as a Christ figure, I would still insist that Angel is revolutionary when it comes to introducing audiences to queer theology. There is a reason that Angel is named Angel, after all; the character is meant to represent some aspect of the divine or goodness in general, and since it’s a priest who confronts Collins about Angel’s burial, we can even assume that Angel is a Christian, hence why their funeral was at a church. This is a character who deconstructs what we think of Christ and Christianity in general. Rent is doing queer theology in musical theatre, and Angel is a Christ figure I think that many Christians need to see a lot more of.