Our Lady of Contrived Spectacle

It was Henry Hart Milman who evaluated Christendom in the post-Constantine era thusly: “As Christianity worked downwards into lower levels of society […] the general effect could not but be that the age would drag down religion to its level.”[1]

Let us consider Milman’s critique of the popularization of Christianity through the perspective of relating it to popular culture and abuse of the Christian symbolic. Here, Lady Gaga makes for an excellent case study. I propose Lady Gaga is an embodiment of the modern age of relativism: symbols, including Christian symbols, are our property; we may do with them whatever we please.

A brief example: in the video for “Alejandro,” Gaga is a nun holding an oversized rosary, which she later consumes in visual innuendo. Whereas the rosary traditionally recalls images of penance and clinging to the cross of Christ, Gaga ingests the glittering cross and orbs as scenes cut back and forth between this ingestion and her near-naked body, clad with a fabric, inverted, crimson cross covering her genitals. The meaning behind this scene is difficult to discern and the visual elements seem confused and poorly executed from a symbolic standpoint. What is achieved, perhaps, is a sexualization of the rosary, of the cross, but we are not left with any indication as to what we are supposed to take away from the display. The scene cuts to Gaga prostrate on a bed in fishnet stockings, a bra and panty set dating from the 1940s—the sexualization of the Nazi is far from subtle in this cinematic soft-core, and continues on a new, unrelated track.

Previously, Gaga has stated: “Religion and the church are two completely separate things. […] I was raised Catholic, I believe in Jesus, I believe in God, I’m very spiritual—I pray very much. But at the same time there’s no one religion that doesn’t hate or speak against or be prejudiced against another racial group or religious group or sexual group and for that I think religion is also bogus.”[2]

Religion and church are divorced. She believes in Jesus, but by the end of the statement argues for a coexistent religious environment in which Jesus is just a namesake. These ideas further show us that, for Gaga, the link between symbol and meaning is loose at best. Indeed, the link is so weak that any sort of caricature or interpretation, no matter how lazy, shall do.

Between statements such as this one and the visually engaging but poorly plotted storylines of her music videos, we are left to conclude that the imagery of Christianity is no more than an opportunity for stagecraft for Lady Gaga.

The erotic interpretation of the sacred is popularization to the point of bastardization, eventually flattening all meaning. We return to Milman’s claim: the religion has been dragged down to a popular level. Now that the popular level is decidedly secular, so too have the symbols of the faith in the hands of the careless become decidedly secular. The popularization of the symbolic, for Gaga, shall, in her words, bring us to a place of “a more peaceful state of mind.”[3]

It appears that this peaceful state is the complete embrace of the erotic and the complete washing-out of the symbolic. The drama of Lady Gaga, as a popularized Church is hard-pressed to hold onto its symbols, is her attraction—cathartic, mindless, reinterpretation without apparent consequence: our contemporary age.

Preston Yancey is a graduate of Baylor University with a degree in Great Texts of the Western Tradition, focusing in medieval monasticism, theology, and literature. He will enter St Andrews in the autumn to pursue an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. 


[1] H. Milman, A History of Latin Christianity (New York: Armstrong, 1903), 3: 417. This position remained unmodified, for instance, in Ronald C. Finucane’s Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England (London: Dent, 1977), 23-24.

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2rThsV3zAA

[3] Ibid.

6 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Preston, thanks for this excellent post on Lady Gaga and Christian symbolism. Your suggestion that in the post-Constantine era religion has been ‘dragged down’ to the popular masses is an interesting one. Do you view this trajectory as problematic, or does popular culture present Christian symbolism with positive opportunities? With your example from Lady Gaga, it would seem that you present popular culture as having a negative influence upon Christian symbolism. How should Christianity relate to a popular culture that is “decidedly secular”? Should it retreat from popular culture and so reverse this post-Constantine trajectory, or something else?

    • Preston says:

      Hi Jim,

      I would say that the problem I see with popular culture and its interaction with Christianity is when, like in this case, it is used without a tangible reference to ground its ideas. Gaga doesn’t even seem to know how to parody the images she’s pilfering, which leaves the work disjointed and poorly constructed.

      Further, while I support Milman’s theory, I think what he misses is how this was the catalyst for the saint culture. Saints helped spin the wheel back toward an up swing, to borrow a medieval image of Fortune, and in so doing helped course-correct an age. In the absence of a saint culture, it’s harder to discern where we should draw our lines. Christianity cannot retreat from culture, when it tries, it retreats in part from Christ–in Him are all things held together–and to deny the good of the present age is to deny the good that God is accomplishing about us. That’s a sophisticated way of saying it’s a question I struggle with consistently and I have yet to form a cohesive answer.

      • Jim Watkins says:

        Preston, thanks for these thoughts. I agree with you that “Christianity cannot retreat from culture, when it tries, it retreats in part from Christ – in Him are all things held together.” This is why I wonder about Milman’s trajectory, and why I am skeptical about dichotomies between sacred and secular.

        I wonder if it would be helpful for this discussion to define “popular culture.” Holding up Lady Gaga as exemplary of all popular culture might be problematic, though I must confess that I do not know her work very well. Your post brings to mind Madonna’s similar use of Christian imagery, but there are of course many who use Christian symbolism in different ways. One might look to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games as recent, more positive, borrowings from Christian themes that, in my opinion, do not “abuse the Christian symbolic.”

        I mention more examples just to point out that it is not clear what counts as “popular culture” and many more examples could be offered that, unlike those above, would provoke disagreement regarding their status as “popular culture.”

        I also wonder what you mean by “a tangible reference to ground its ideas.” Are you simply saying that Lady Gaga does not know anything about Christianity? Or are you saying something about her symbols themselves?

  • Kiana T says:

    Preston, I very much enjoyed reading this article as I’ve had to wrestle through my understanding of Lady Gaga’s work from a biblical perspective. Although I agree with you on your main points here, I can’t come to agree with your conclusion of Lady Gaga’s quote on religion and church. I completely agree with her that all religions (including Christianity which I believe to be the only True one) have shown hatred towards one race, ethnicity, gender, people with disabilities, sexual group, etc. Why they might have done that is a whole other discussion (but I strongly believe it is a result of the oppressor’s sinfulness and the oppressors have commonly used religion and the idea of a God to oppress others). So, although I think Lady Gaga’s vocabulary usage is different than our Christian vocabulary, I think she has a good point. We cannot succumb to these injustices created by “religion” that tells us “how” to live instead of “why” to live. Instead, we should be living by the Church which includes Jesus at the head and community on the side. Now, I don’t know if Lady Gaga meant her statement to mean what I’m thinking, but what do you think of my interpretation? Was there anything else in her interview that led you to conclude that she is advocating for “a coexistent religious environment in which Jesus is just a namesake?”

    • Preston says:

      There was. In the long version of the interview, she discusses the peaceful state of coexistence, but this is explained through a lens that does not make mention of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the significance of Jesus is left unstated. Whereas she makes several comments enumerating what she believes in: freedom of sexuality, freedom to do what you please, freedom to love, she puts Jesus into the conversation the way we might reference an atom. I believe in atoms, but unless I say something about what an atom is, I have not truly communicated to you that my belief is sustainable, moreover that it is authentic. Jesus is an afterthought to God, how she phrases it in her speech, and this is at best a sort of deist theology, at worst, an this is what I suspect, a rather not thought out position on religious issues that she sort of drops here and there without regard to the deeper things that are at stake.

      • Kiana T says:

        I can see that. I think Lady Gaga among MANY other celebrities have tried to please everyone, including Christians. And I think unfortunately, our Christian culture has been taught to just care about whether or not someone claims to be a Christian without looking at the deeper matters. I haven’t heard the full interview obviously, so I cannot judge what she meant, but what you are describing does seem to fit her position. Thanks for the explanation!

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