Monthly Archives: July 2012

the works of lady gaga, one of the prophets in the reign of obama

Israel had many prophets, but today the church isn’t adding anyone’s words to the Biblical canon. When did God stop speaking? Did humanity stop needing prophets once Jesus lived, died, and lived again? Perhaps a better question is: when did we refuse to see the prophets in our midst? Pop star Lady Gaga is more than an entertainer, she is a prophetic voice of today. Through her fashion and performance art, Lady Gaga functions as prophet for secular USAmerica, which can aid the church in learning how to better engage contemporary USAmerican culture. This piece will define the traditional role of the prophet, evaluate how Lady Gaga can be understood to fulfill such a role within USAmerican culture, and reflect on the ways that Gaga’s work as a prophet questions the church’s engagement of today’s culture.

The primary role of a prophet is to fight injustice. Dan Allender explains that a prophet is one who actively stands outside of society in order to critique the injustices within society, with the hope of bringing about sociocultural change and reconciling groups of people who have been opposed to one another. The prophet “creates a vision for the future and exposes the reality of the present” by provoking her or his audience. Traditional tools of the prophet include “piercing narrative, powerful images, prescient poetry” and a willingness to “bear the consequence of being viewed as an enemy of the status quo.” Such artistry and suffering is employed by the prophet to create a compelling vision of what the situation could be if justice were carried out, if love and mercy were lived.

Perhaps most notable is Lady Gaga’s prophetic work against injustice against the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer) community. She came out as bisexual to both acceptance and criticism from the queer community: she has been “accused of not being gay enough” to claim bisexuality nor to be a representative voice. However, claiming bisexuality to a national audience, regardless of the depth of its truthfulness, was a prophetic move: Gaga chose to align herself with the marginalized, removing herself from the hetero-normative mainstream culture. As many prophets before her, she actively stands outside of the cultural norm in order to actively engage and critique culture’s treatment of a marginalized people.

“Born This Way” Live Performance

Lady Gaga adopts the prophet’s work of reconciling groups by working to reconcile LGBTQ and heterosexual individuals, who often have been viewed as oppositional. “Born This Way,” the chart-topping track on an album of the same name, has been accepted by many within the queer community as a new anthem, much like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Cher’s “Believe” have been in the past. What is significant about the song is its overt shout-out to the LGBTQ community; even more significant is that she includes heterosexuals:

“No matter gay, straight, or bi,

lesbian, transgendered life,

I’m on the right track, baby,

I was born to survive.”

This is more than an effort to speak on behalf of LGBTQ individuals, more than a matter of advancing rights for the gay community. The lyrics of “Born This Way” unites the LGBTQ and heterosexual communities. Live performances of the piece end with Gaga and her male and female dance company bending towards one another in a circular, all-embracing hug. The performance offers an image that speaks to a vision of what our reality could be, one in which gay individuals are not only equal, but lovingly included. Her image calls us toward the possible reality in which we are one, united humanity that includes multiple sexualities and sexual orientations.

Prophets must bear the consequence of provoking controversy and disrupting the status quo. As a result of Lady Gaga’s involvement with the LGBTQ community, many rumors have been started in an attempt to slander and shame her. One of the most direct attacks on her sexuality has been the rumor that she has a penis. Rather than retaliating (and effectively proving that she would be ashamed to be part of the transgendered community), Gaga claims to love the rumor. She states: “‘This has been the greatest accomplishment of my life: to get young people to throw away what society has taught them is wrong.’” If fans believe her to be transgendered and still come to her performances, listen to her music, and support her work, Gaga takes it as a hopeful sign for future inclusion of transgendered individuals in society. Rather than suffer, Gaga reframes the consequence into a cause for celebration.

Another consequence has been the protestors who gather outside of Monster Balls, Lady Gaga’s stadium concerts. One writer recalls a concert in Nashville in which picketers held signs “urging ‘homosexuals’ and other ‘sinners’ to ‘repent’.” During the show, Gaga shouted from stage, “Jesus loves every fucking one of you!” before launching into a raucous performance, “as if to say, the only proper theological response to bigotry and hatred is to dance in its face.” Prophet Gaga practices a living theology; rather than discussing abstractions, she moves into actions.

The Meat Dress

Lady Gaga has also served as a prophet is in the conversation of gender. In this realm, Gaga exposes the reality of the present by reflecting back to her audience what the present really looks like. She holds up a mirror, and the reflection is startling. Gaga as prophet “exposes the hardness of the heart.” One of the most notable examples is the ‘meat dress’, which Gaga wore at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Feminist Kate Durbin notes that “masculinists see but a piece of meat, so Gaga gives them exactly what they ‘see’ – a piece of meat. In order, of course, that the Male Gaze might ‘see’ itself.” The powerful fashion image of a celebrity wearing raw beef holds up a critical mirror to the way members of USAmerican society view and objectify women.

Some of her other fashion pieces have been similarly tied to society’s treatment of women. Lady Gaga has worn many weapon-inspired bras, including a flame-thrower bra in the music video for “Bad Romance,” a ‘gun bra’ in her video for “Alejandro,” and a ‘fire bra’ to the Much Music Awards and on the cover of GQ magazine. Durbin states that, like many women, Gaga’s “breasts were seen as a weapon, therefore she was going to literally turn them into that.” Gaga hears the narrative society tells women and exposes the flaws and pain in the narrative through constructing a powerful fashion image.

An equally blatant statement about gender was the introduction of Gaga’s alter-ego, Jo Calderone, at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. The opening monologue made it clear that this performer was not Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone: “Gaga? Yeah, her,” Jo says while pointing to some vague distance; Gaga is not here. To further emphasize the opposition between Gaga and Jo, he informs the audience, “She [Gaga] left me [Jo].” Gaga, according to Jo, groups him in with other men: “She said I’m just like the last one.” Jo, for his part, dances in a company comprised entirely of men; the audience does not see a single woman on stage during the performance. This is not an image of a woman who includes masculinity into her being. Instead, she is one body, portraying both a female and a male who are in opposition to one another. Similarly, the viewers are one humanity in opposition to one another as a result of the gender divide. The audience knows it to be absurd for Gaga to critique Jo, just as it is equally absurd for Jo to feel left out from Gaga’s life, since they are one and the same. The audience can then look back on themselves and see that they create divides within the one humanity, divides where there should be unity. Gaga-versus-Jo is a picture of humanity, a mirror for how we relate across the sexes.

Jo Calderone

An additional role of the prophet is to expose idolatry. James Danaher writes that in today’s USAmerican culture “what we recognize and revere about a person is their celebrity status.” USAmericans unknowingly idolize celebrity and the formation of identity that leads to celebrity status. We join the game, attempting to construct an identity for ourselves to gain some amount of fame. At the same time, we hate celebrities for their status and for having the resources to continually re-create their identities, so eventually we demand their destruction.

Gaga, while seeming to be part of the system that perpetuates obsession with celebrity and identity construction, undermines the system and shows that it leads to death and destruction. In her performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga opens by naming the idol USAmericans have come to worship, and recognizes her potential position as sacrifice: “I pray the fame won’t take my life.” The fame is the god that this society has made, and it demands ritual sacrifice. By the end of the show, Gaga is covered in blood and hanging from a rope, enacting her own death. She had explained the performance idea to her label by asking “I imagine that my pop career could be quite long and people will wonder for a very long time what my demise will look like, so why don’t we show them?” By walking, willingly, to her own enacted death, she showed the audience what they do to celebrities: demand violent destruction. The image does what prophetic images are meant to do, which is to “disrupt denial and expose the subtle and overt idolatry of the heart.” Having shown the audience her destruction, Gaga is then free of the audience’s demands on identity because she has fulfilled that identity and shown that it leads to death. After that moment, all her work is free to be performed without inhibition because it is enacted in the shadow of her own death. The audience are no longer able to impose an identity on her; it is she who identifies herself with true identity/ies.

According to Allender, an important piece of the work for a prophet is to be a “servant of the church who stands outside the church in order to invite those who appear to be in it to return to true worship.” Lady Gaga’s work as a prophet within the secular community questions and critiques the church, inviting its members to return to what we too-often refuse to see as good news and worship. Gaga, in acting as a secular prophet, aligns herself with the marginalized people of the LGBTQ community. The church should be convicted: we are called to stand with the oppressed and marginalized, and instead are the ones excluding and condemning. As Gaga reconciles and unifies queer and straight peoples, the church creates divides with hateful language on picket signs. Gaga’s work asks the church: what is a loving response to individuals, regardless of sexual orientation? Her scream of Jesus’s love followed by dance questions: what would action look like on your part? Can you ever stop the debates over scripture and sin long enough to act?

Gaga’s use of fashion and performance art raise questions of communication. Gaga confronts the culture through symbols that it fluently understands: music, performance, and fashion. The church insists on using scripture as its primary form of engagement, but for many people in USAmerica, the text does not carry authority over their lives. How could the church better engage culture on its own terms? What would happen if we ceased to articulate and defend every position, and made room for a conversation through image and action that made sense to today’s culture, within and outside of the church?

2009 VMA Performance

Finally, Gaga’s enacted death to expose the idolatry of celebrity questions the way the church teaches the narrative of Jesus crucified. We often have sermons trying to explain what Jesus did, but her bloody performance and murderous stare ask: how would the church enact the narrative? Pastors try to educate congregants by explaining the historical context of the cross, but what if they moved the narrative into the context of today’s culture? What would we critique? What idols would we expose? How can the church live into the story of life, nonviolent death, and resurrection in a way that speaks to the contemporary world?

The prophet known as Lady Gaga is doing God’s work in secular USAmerica. Rather than fight her, the church would be wise to allow itself to be critiqued by her exposures and educated by her forms of communication. After all, God has often provided prophets who have worked outside the church to invite the church itself to repentance; we should not be surprised that the Living God is still speaking, should not be startled to see a prophet in our midst. The proper response might be gratitude and worship: perhaps a dance would be appropriate.

This piece was originally written for Cultural Exegesis: Pop Culture and the Kingdom, taught by Kj Swanson and Jev Forsberg. Students were asked to use a piece of culture to inform theology.

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writing life

Here’s my confession: I don’t love to write. Finding the right words with the proper connotations is tedious. Moving those words into a linear order to convey non-linear thoughts and emotions is frustrating. Constructing a piece so that the reader has all the needed information before arriving at the next point and the next point and, eventually, the conclusion, requires an out-of-myself-ness that’s draining. My thoughts, I find, are unwieldy. They are animals, some angry, fighting, blood-thirsty; others weak, starving, simply thirsty.

And yet, here I am. At my desk, as I aim to be every morning (but truthfully, after checking emails, I only manage to keep myself here about half my mornings). I have a mug of tea, or maybe it’s just a glass of water, my phone is face down, my everything notebook at my side in order to refer to my scribbles about my life and try to make some sense of them. I swivel in the chair, I look out the window. I wonder when the dog will interrupt me to be loved. I manage to get a sentence or two out. Swivel, stare. Where is that dog? I hope he comes by soon, to check on me, to be loved.

I’m here because, while I may not absolutely love the process of writing, I do love reading. Everything is arranged in a logical way, and after going through a well-written paper I understand the conclusions and it’s all so simple; I could explain the universe, or at least this fraction of it. For a few minutes, I feel secure in some new knowledge. Then the information gets admitted into my inner jungle of a world where it interacts with lurking creatures who live there, and this new piece quickly mutates into another unwieldy beast.

So I write something, I wrestle, I struggle, I re-phrase and re-order. I hate the piece. I hate my poor writing. I boil. This is shit!, I inwardly yell. Eventually, I decide I can’t take any more of that topic, or, as a godsend, the deadline approaches, and I stop. I call it good enough.

Some weeks go by.

Then, my hatred calmed, cooled, and stilled, I revisit the work. Perhaps I decide I’m able to work on it again, perhaps it was just returned to me from my professor. I read my own thoughts but more clearly explained. The wild beasts are tamed, the fledglings are cared for. I realize, this is really good. I second-guess myself, check the header, Did I really write this? It all seems so much more manageable in this black-and-white linear space.

And I sulk back to my desk, hoping to tame the rest of the jungle.

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liturgy: honest creations

The most genuine moment of communal worship I’ve experienced was at a concert. Singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens was performing to a full house in Detroit and ended with his song Casimir Polaski Day. The piece is about the death of a girl with whom the narrator is in love. The final lines are heartbreaking in their blatant honesty: “All the glory when He took our place/But He took my shoulders and He shook my face/and He takes and He takes and He takes.” As the hundreds present sang along, ending in barely above a whisper, there was a sense of solidarity, community, even worship. God is sometimes awful, and it feels like He takes endlessly, and yet here we are bound together by our human hurt, sharing in and singing of His presence. I craved more art forms and more honest art in aiding my relationship with God, and in joining my community in our covenantal relationship with one another and God.

Sufjan Stevens

In contrast, many of the church services I’ve attended are full of smiling people. From the moment I walk in the door, I’m welcomed by a grinning greeter before a smiling volunteer hands me coffee and a program, then sit down to hear a pastor tell me how great love and grace and forgiveness are. The Church has become a center for certainty and belief, a place to feel better about human experience. We hide our doubt and avoid acknowledging the hardships of evil in our lives. The arts can teach the Church about honest engagement, and incorporation of arts into our practice can guide community into encompassing and embracing the range and depth of human experiences.

There was a time when the arts, like present day liturgies, were full of idealism and beauty in perfection. Artists were once encouraged, as John Walford puts it, to “avoid addressing the brokenness of creation as we experience it.” Instead, they were to depict beauty in perfection, to conjure an imagined or lost ideal. Walford goes on to point out that  “such works fail to engage the viewer because they are devoid of the substance and grit of life as we know it.” Art portraying idealized beauty is sentimental, and in the Church such art “cheapens, rather than deepens,” as John Witvliet states, the viewer’s relationship with God. Indeed, sentimental art in the Church is counter-productive in that it averts viewers from action, as well as from their own encounter of a genuine emotional experience with the world.

Eventually, artists’ understanding of beauty moved from an ideal into one that is equated with truth. As Walford summarizes photographer Cindy Sherman’s understanding, standard beauty had become dismissive “as obvious, easy and boring.” Artists began to develop a mature aesthetic of beauty, characterized as broken and wounded. In this understanding, beauty incorporates the horrible, hurting, and disfigured as part of the art’s honest engagement of the world we inhabit. Herman argues that such an aesthetic is not only permissible but encouraged by the resurrected Christ. To Herman, the aesthetic of wounded beauty “bears the marks of Christ’s resurrected body — marks that memorialize suffering but move beyond it to redemption.” Just as Christ bears the marks of pain while simultaneously offering a hope that is beyond the present world, the challenge is for art to bear pain while offering an image of what could be.

Art in liturgy is also a participation in the work of the Spirit. Begbie approaches the question of art in worship by looking at where we are headed as shown by the ending chapters of Revelation and by the Spirit’s work among the Church as portrayed in the New Testament. He writes of a Spirit who “exposes the depths” of both humanity’s forsakenness (exemplified of Christ’s cry on the cross) and the depths of God’s love for us (exemplified by the act of Christ on the cross). Artists participate with Jesus and the Spirit by avoiding sentimentality and delving into the depths of both human joy and sorrow.

Another way that artists join the work of the Spirit is in the act of re-creation. Artists take existing materials and transform them into objects of beauty or curiosity: pieces that evoke a response from the viewer. Similarly, the Spirit took the existing person of Jesus and resurrected him. It was not a mere resuscitation, for the resurrected Christ was in some ways unidentifiable to his followers at first glance. The Spirit’s work was one of transformation, of taking a person and making him new. When artists take tired materials and create something compelling, they are participating in the redemptive and transformative work of the Spirit in our midst.

This is the art of suffering, allowing art to ask the same difficult questions we ask of God that encompass not only hope and love, but also despair and tragedy. With broken or wounded beauty, art is a continuation of the work of transformation the Spirit began in resurrecting Christ, and the resurrected Christ can be found there. Just as Christ carried the memorializing marks of his crucifixion while offering hope for a new world, so art can expose the depths and range of human emotion while avoiding sentimentality.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on liturgy.

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the hunger games, gender, and god

Our society struggles with gender identity. Some people have concrete ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman while others question if there are any traits essential to gender. Everyone seems to be attempting to bend society to their preferences, whether for stricter gender conformity or for a move towards androgyny or multiplicity. For Christians, questions of gender are taking place not only horizontally in society, but also vertically: is God masculine or feminine? Is it acceptable to use both feminine and masculine pronouns when referring to God? Is it preferable to do so? In the first novel of her Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins presents an image of a post-gender society that helps us imagine the Kingdom of God as a reality, a society in which individuals live out of true identity without societal pressure to conform to a predetermined gendered concept of identity.

The main characters of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta, give a glimpse of gender within the Kingdom of God. They do not conform the gender norms of our current society, and thus question the existence of such societal norms. Peeta, an emotional and artistic baker, values connection over hierarchy and bonds through shared feelings at least as much as shared experiences. Because of his traditionally feminine qualities, many have been interested in Peeta’s portrayal of feminized masculinity, some even criticizing Collins for having unfavorably over-feminized a lead character. Katniss herself is a stoic and emotionally distant hunter. It is easy to view the relationship between Katniss and Peeta as a gender-role reversal even through the limited lens of their primary daily occupation: she a hunter, he a baker.

Fan art of Peeta

However, such statements assume that the culturally constructed norms of gender we hold today are in some way intrinsic to human males and females. Reviewers attempting to place our current understanding of gender onto Peeta and Katniss have a hard time of it. Kelsey Wallace concludes her character evaluation of Peeta by writing, “If Gale is the bad boy, Peeta is, well, something else. Not the good boy exactly, but maybe the nice boy.” In some way, Peeta resists categorization. Indeed, the entire society of Panem seems to resist categorization to the extent that it could be described as post-gender. In District Twelve, survival matters more than conformity so much so that no one seems surprised by a young girl who ventures outside the protection of the fence to hunt and gather. The other spectrum of society in the Capitol also defies our current gender norms. Both men and women are concerned with fashion and appearance; even the simplest style of Cinna, Katniss’s male stylist, calls for gold eyeliner.

Rather than imposing our society onto Panem and its inhabitants, we would be wise to allow the text to question our internalized understanding of gender roles. Why are we, the readers, surprised by a female archer, or a man in makeup? Why are some of us angered by Peeta’s vulnerability, or by Katniss’s inability to intuit Peeta’s emotions? We have been so indoctrinated by the gender norms of our culture that we can’t even see past them when another society, another way of being, is presented.

A new way of looking at gender is exactly what Collins offers her readers. While Katniss is preparing for the pre-Games interview, she is trying to figure out how best to present herself: “charming? Aloof? Fierce? … I’m too ‘vulnerable’ for ferocity. I’m not witty. Funny. Sexy. Or mysterious.” Unable to categorize herself in either (from today’s standpoint) feminine or masculine roles, she vents to her stylist: “I just can’t be one of those people [my coach] wants me to be.” Like many individuals in today’s world, Katniss just can’t force herself to fit into a culturally-dictated cookie-cutter role, regardless of its femininity or masculinity. Cinna offers a solution to both Katniss and the reader that is at once obvious and beautiful:

“Why don’t you just be yourself?”

Amidst the questions of Katniss’s combination of masculinity and femininity, and Peeta’s (over-)feminized depiction, critics have missed Cinna’s prophecy. Is Katniss a masculine woman? Is Peeta a feminine man? Within the world of the novel, the questions don’t apply: Katniss is Katniss; Peeta is Peeta.

Fan art of Katniss

The God of the Bible can be understood to include both feminine and masculine traits. In the beginning, God creates “male and female” in Her/His image. Throughout Scripture, God is described with masculine images such as father (e.g., Hosea 11:1) and king (e.g., Psalm 29:10), as well as feminine depictions such as mother (e.g., Isaiah 66:13). Surely, this is a God whose identity is carried and reflected by both men and women. With this understanding, in the Kingdom of God both masculine and feminine genders will be not only tolerated, but accepted and celebrated.

However, such a view, as hopeful as it sounds, is too limited, too unimaginative. The God of scripture includes and transcends gender. From the anthropomorphic images of God as father, king, and mother, we could easily picture God as a male or female figure. However, to do so would be to misconstrue the characteristic being invoked. As Hebrew scholar David Stein notes, “Personification was employed as a vehicle to convey a statement about deity—and especially about one’s relationship with deity.” What is being invoked in the image of father or mother is an aspect of relationship, a situational similarity, rather than the full, embodied, engendered being. Such an understanding of the text gives a clearer understanding of what the scriptural author wants to invoke in the audience. It also clarifies seemingly paradoxical images, such as “suck at the breast of kings”, in which a female biological function of nursing is ascribed to male rulers. To understand the personifications of God too literally means to deny the grand all-ness of a Divinity that transcends all human boundaries and definition, including gender.

Genesis 1 not only sets the stage for the entire story, it introduces the character and event of God with a powerful first impression of a being who is beyond every human category. This God creates and orders the universe with a word; it is part of this deity’s identity to surpass all traits of humans, meaning that this being is almost nothing like a human. Such a God is so other that “the audience not only receives no warrant to ascribe social gender, but would be hard pressed to do so.” Just as Collins’s created society of Panem does not ask questions of Katniss’s nor Peeta’s gender, the audience receives no warrant to ascribe social gender either. Those who do have an equally hard time, as demonstrated above. Stein, emphasizing the importance of first impressions, summarizes the rule for understanding the transcendent inclusiveness of God with regards to gender: “What is inappropriate to the opening, do not do what’s joined to it—that is, the whole Torah. The rest is commentary—and translation.” How, then, should gender be understood in a Kingdom that lives under a God who is introduced to be beyond human understanding?

Christian theologians have been easily sidetracked by our own understandings of gender and identity in the debate over God’s masculine and feminine descriptions. Some attempt to equally disperse masculine and feminine pronouns, others try to discern which parts of the Trinity are which gender. As a solution, to paraphrase Cinna, why don’t we just let God be God? If Christians are to read Scripture to understand the character of God, as Stein claims the people of ancient Israel did, we must not allow vision to be clouded by the predominant culture’s misunderstandings and false truths. Doing so would be to superimpose our paradigm onto God, effectively killing the living God and creating an idol in humanity’s image. Just as readers of The Hunger Games can fully appreciate the narrative by allowing Katniss and Peeta to live out of their truest selves, so should even the most critical reader of scripture allow God to be the true God, without attempts to superimpose a gendered box onto Her/Him.

A Kingdom of God understanding of gender, then, must reflect a God who acts uniquely and creates humanity in Her/His image. Although a dystopia, Panem presents a society that appears to be largely beyond concerns of gender roles, whether such nonchalance is the result of desperate survival, as it is in District Twelve, or boredom and body decoration, as it is in the Capitol. In Panem, people are intrigued and impressed by the full identity of Katniss, not only that she’s a strong woman. Even more so, the audience of the Games is captivated by Peeta’s emotional vulnerability and intuitive ability to connect, and not only because he is a man doing so. Rather than praising individuals for breaking gender boundaries, Panem is a society that allows individuals to live out of their truest identity and understanding of self. May we anticipate a Kingdom in which we are accepted and celebrated for living out of our true self rather than a societal expectation, in which gender is secondary to identity.

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