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.”
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.”
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.”
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.