This is a guest post by honeyandlocusts. honeyandlocusts is a cis, white, queer, femme, young Episcopal priest whose work centers around bodies and sex and gender and the church, life with mental illness, rural identities, quality theological education, religion as an important instigator/sustainer of radical politics, religion as a simultaneous site of oppression and liberation, the pestilential nightmare that is fundamentalist USian Christianity and lots more. She blogs very, very sporadically with her heart community at specialcommunion.wordpress.com
So, Lady Gaga made a video called Judas that’s sort of about Jesus and Judas. Here it is:
It’s pretty classic Gaga, if we can talk about “classic” Gaga already: visually lush, intricately choreographed, fantastically costumed. Also, it’s a total fucking mess.
And a boring mess, at that, at least from a theological perspective. In this video, she’s manipulating serious and beautiful religious imagery to serve her own need for attention, her own drama, instead of tapping into the tremendous well of shock and life that is already present in the Jesus, Mary and Judas traditions.
I mean, first of all, one probably shouldn’t try to extract a coherent theology from the experience of having a difficult breakup with someone who apparently really liked to listen to Judas Priest.
Second of all, this kind of religious-cultural mashup is generally unhelpful to the many, many people who experience and practice liberation through religious traditions, including through Roman Catholicism. Lady Gaga trifling with being Mary of Magdala, torn between Jesus and Judas, only reinforces conservative theologies about Jesus and women.
See, the real Mary of Magdala was a phenomenal character in the story of the Jesus movement. She even had her own Gospel! Her own Gospel that actually describes and addresses the crisis of women in leadership in the Jesus movement! (Karen King is far and away the best source for information about this Gospel: check out the intro to her book here). Mary of Magdala was described in early Jesus communities as the apostle to the apostles and it is incontrovertible within the tradition that she and Jesus were especially close. To have such a vivid Magdalene tradition survive the efforts by misogynist patriarchs to erase her place in the Jesus movement only proves that her power was undeniable.
Because she freaked so many people out (though obvs not JC himself), the early church immediately started trying to figure out ways to tone down and phase out her memory. Through a ridiculous bit of biblically ungrounded sleight-of-hand, they tried to eliminate her priority by calling her a prostitute, claiming that the demons Jesus cast out of her were, of course, sexual in nature (we’ve never heard that before, right ladies?). There is no biblical evidence for this. It is pretty unlikely that she did sex work. (However! This doesn’t mean at all that Jesus was hostile to sex work, or that a negative valence is given to sex workers in the tradition. Within the first chapter of the first book of Christian Scripture/“New Testament”, we learn that Jesus is descended from at least two women – Tamar and Rahab – who did sex work. Maybe three, depending on how you read the book of Ruth. So it is wrong to try to get rid of Mary of Magdala in this misogynist/sexphobic way but also it is internally inconsistent with the tradition as it is being established.)
So why does this matter? It matters because it matters to get people’s stories right. It matters to respect culture, and religion, and not treat those things as your personal playthings. In justice communities, we hold an intention to not speak on behalf of communities of which we are not members. We place a high value on prioritizing voices within and from communities rather than imposing our own prejudices and stereotypes upon them. Many of us fail to keep ourselves from inscribing meanings on top of bodies and lives that aren’t our own, but we maintain that ideal and we hold each other accountable when we fail. The kind of co-opting that Lady Gaga is doing encourages people outside Christian practice to feel like access to deep, complex symbolic systems is up for grabs/community property. This soft imperialism only alienates religious practitioners and erases that productive, vibrant space where we can talk about the profound layering of people’s real whole lives.
It matters because Lady Gaga is actually siding with the patriarchs on this one, portraying Mary as a pretty corrupt person caught between two loves, one “good” and one “bad.” Don’t even get me started on the character of Judas and the ways the tradition solidified around him to make him the lone betrayer rather than focusing on, oh, you know the Roman Empire that was occupying Jesus’s land at the time, the empire that executed political rebels (crucifixion, as a labor-intensive, humiliating, and public execution method, was reserved by the Romans as a punishment for political insurgency).
It matters because Lady Gaga cannot be trusted to be acting in good faith (pun totally intended, and reading Flavia Dzodan’s excellent comments on this post are really helpful here). We’ve been through “pop stars should not eat,” the transphobia of the Telephone video, the WTF of the “Orient/Chola” lyrics of Born This Way, and the “disability chic” of Paparazzi. This doesn’t even touch the ways she visually draws on Latin@ and chol@ culture within the Judas video itself. Grossness.
It matters because good religious art is extremely valuable and healing. Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ was amazing because Serrano cared about the tradition he was engaging. Many years ago I heard him say that he that wanted people to experience viscerally the reality that Jesus was a person, who shit (shat? shitted?) and ate and peed and sweated. It’s incredibly orthodox, actually. Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary was profound and gorgeous in a similar way. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Sweet Thing, the Mother of Jesus, is awesome and re-radicalizes Jesus’s mother in a necessary way. Note to Gaga: it can be done.
To her credit, she didn’t fail in all possible ways. Rick Gonzales’s Jesus is steaming hot (important when we’re tempted to sanitize Jesus!). A POC Jesus paired with a white Judas, given the history of artistic portrayals of Judas (particularly in Last Supper paintings) as “semitic”/dark/”ugly” vs. a pale and pretty Jesus, is a really compelling statement. Flipping the script on white, powerful, dude, USian Jesus imagery to make Jesus a gorgeous member of an oppressed and marginalized class is absolutely in line with the Christian story and the real power dynamics of Jesus’s political situation. But the confused lyrics, the fucked up dualistic theology, the appropriation of a particular cultural expression of Roman Catholicism, and the reification of Mary of Magdala as a troubled temptress figure only hurt the cause.
It matters because religious literacy matters. I found reading various online commentaries on the Judas video pretty off-putting, because there was a trend of Christians getting upset about the video (God, Christian touchiness is boundless) or people who aren’t Christians misrepresenting the traditions and the stories that are relevant to the tradition (Lesley Kinzel’s piece was the sole exception to this trend, with several points of excellence and only minor missteps, like stating that the Christ story “means little” without the crucifixion – actually in the Gospel according to Mary, there is no crucifixion and they seem to be making meaning just fine.).
Finally, it matters because the conversation around Christianities, appropriation, and colonization is super fraught, and we need to be able to have it. On the one hand, the moneyed minority position of some powerful douchey USian Christians is in fact just that: a moneyed minority position that ends up oppressing lots of people, including millions of other Christians like myself. Some powerful Christians force corrupt theologies and annihilating practices on other people, and that force has long-reaching consequences, including death, torture, hatred, and starvation. Some strains of Christianity are the “default/normal/natural” religion in many places, including the U.S., and that is viciously erasing and disastrous for our common life.
On the other hand, this video changes none of that. Lady Gaga is not challenging Pat Robertson’s Christianity or Jerry Falwell’s Christianity or Rick Santorum’s Christianity. Lady Gaga is amusing herself with a Latin@ Catholic aesthetic, because she’s a privileged lady and she can, and that’s pretty fucked up. And in point of fact, she’s using a cheap Christian stereotype as a substitute for what is already a profound and radical space within Christianity. The Judas video is symptomatic of a kind of religious dismissiveness that serves no one. We can choose to rediscover the wealth of hope and action at the roots of the Christian tradition, the wailing cries of an occupied people rebelling against empire, and the creation of a faithful community predicated on love and solidarity and bravery and, yes, tenderness. We can choose to honor the wildness of St. Mary of Magdala. We can do better. Let’s.