Idol Chatter

Forever 21–the homage to cheap and chic that’s almost (but not quite) as ubiquitous on the streets of Manhattan as that other homage to cheap and chic, H&M–is apparently preaching the gospel with every sale. Deborah Kolben, a staff writer at The New York Sun, reports in her article, “Evangelism in Fashion” that:

Forever 21, a popular chain of cheap-chic clothes with stores throughout New York, is literally spreading the Gospel with every sale. When customers leave the shopping emporium with bags full of red cocktail dresses and panties emblazoned with phrases like “Y is for Yummy,” few realize that they are also walking away with a bit of religion.

The owners of the company are devout Christians who print in small type on the bottom of the company’s iconic yellow shopping bags the words: “John 3:16.”

One of the most frequently referenced passages of the Bible, John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Anyone who has ever stepped into Forever 21 knows that the clothing on the racks is not exactly the height of Christian modesty, and Kolben leads her article with what seems the burning question about Forever 21’s Christian affinities: “What would Jesus say about that backless halter minidress?”

At this late point in summer, the controversy about the crucifixion scene in Madonna’s Confessions Tour–when Madonna sings “Live to Tell” while up on a cross, arms outstretched, with scenes of poverty in Africa flashing behind her–has escalated to a cacophony. (Watch the scene here.)

I feel quite alone in applauding Madonna’s act. While I received many letters of thanks for my NPR commentary, “Madonna’s Cross Raises Thorny Questions,” I’ve also endured a good amount of venom for my argument: that Madonna is embodying a powerful and important ideal by asserting the right for a woman to image Christ.

Just about everyone–including both the Catholic Church and Church of England–has called Madonna’s move “offensive,” in much the same way Christian leaders have responded to past attempts to put a woman in Jesus’ place. Perhaps most famous of all these attempts–prior to Madonna’s, at least–is Edwina Sandys’s four-foot, bronze statue, Christa (right), which depicts a bare-breasted, wide-hipped woman nailed to the cross. The sculpture was sent on a decades-long tour around the world that inspired outrage wherever it went (most notoriously at St. John’s Cathedral in New York), until it found a final resting place at Yale Divinity School, where it can still be seen today.

Although Christ is often depicted artistically as being of virtually any race–African, Asian, Latino, Caucasian–the idea of seeing Christ on the cross as a woman sparks automatic and seemingly universal rejection. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the dominance of the male form and male language about God, which has been the norm throughout Western history. And, of course, there’s that pesky fact that Christians are always mentioning about Jesus–that, of course, he was a man.

But feminist theologian Sandra Schneiders explains that when it comes to speaking about and imaging the divine, our society suffers from a “paralysis of the religious imagination.” Even though most Christians believe that all portrayals of God, even those of Jesus, are metaphorical–and therefore portraying the divine as feminine is well within the boundaries of the tradition–Schneiders writes, with sadness, that “to imagine God or speak to God as feminine does not simply change the God image for these people; it destroys it.”

Is this, then, the problem with Madonna climbing up onto the cross? Do people believe she is out to destroy for believing Christians the divine figure that is Jesus? Are we witnessing a society-wide paralysis of the religious imagination as Madonna’s tour moves from city to city across the globe? If so, the controversy betrays the need for a long-overdue reflection among believers about why it is so utterly problematic, offensive, and even blasphemous to allow a woman’s body to image the divine, and what that says about society’s valuing–and devaluing–of women’s bodies.

No doubt Madonna’s crucifixion scene is subversive and outrageous–but it is in no way gratuitous. It’s subversive only because our ability to imagine the divine is impoverished by the fact that we don’t allow for these images to embody gender differences. And it’s outrageous only because it is considered offensive and even blasphemous that a woman, regardless of who she is, should step up and take her rightful place on the cross.

Despite the seemingly-universal criticism she’s getting, I applaud Madonna for her daring. She is accomplishing a task that I and many others have attempted: offering her own body on the cross. And she’s doing it with a degree of success never before seen in Western culture, traveling the world before hundreds of thousands of people every night repeating her powerful example in city after city. And newspapers and magazines everywhere are reproducing this image, not realizing, I suppose, that they are bringing what has long been forbidden contraband to the eyes of people all over the world, most of whom have never had the opportunity or even the desire to view a woman on the cross.

So thank you, Madonna, for providing the world with this extraordinary, historic opportunity.

In my opinion, the best commentary so far on Madonna’s crucifixion stunt in her “Confessions” tour comes from that important 21st-century theologian Manolo the Shoeblogger: “Ecce Ho!” Because, frankly, the image of Ms. Ciccone Penn Richie standing with her arms outstretched in slings on that glitter-ball cross isn’t so much blasphemous as ridiculous. Or rather, if any blasphemy has been committed, it is blasphemy against standards of taste, creativity, and most of all, artistic inventiveness.

If Madonna had wanted to do something truly “subversive and outrageous”–I’m quoting my fellow Idol Chatter blogger Donna here–that would stand up for “the right for a woman to image Christ” (Donna’s words again), why didn’t she go the whole “Christa” hog: bare her breasts (or perhaps display them clad only in one of her famous nuclear-warhead cone brassieres), have her hands actually nailed to the cross instead of stuck in those dumb-looking braces, and assume the twisted, agonized posture of an actual victim of crucifixion, one of the most painful methods of execution ever invented?

Now, of course Madonna just celebrated her 48th birthday, she’s a mother of two, and even though she’s in great shape for a gal her age, she’s still a gal her age, on whom a loincloth and nothing else is not the most flattering costume. So Madonna is fully clothed for her crucifixion, in silk blouse, dark skirt or gaucho pants, high-heeled pirate boots, and crown of thorns color-coordinated to match the boots. This is supposed to “image Christ”? It may all be in a good cause–the point of the crucifixion act is to highlight the plight of impoverished sub-Saharan Africans–but Madonna looks just plain silly. I know she’s supposed to be the “Material Girl,” but I don’t think Jesus got nailed up there on Calvary just to show off his designer footwear. Madonna looks as though her next stop after the crucifixion isn’t the tomb but martinis at the Royalton.

So if I’d been Pope Benedict XVI, I would have called off the Vatican denunciators, poured myself a stein of wheat beer, and ignored Madonna’s entire cross-and-pony show. I would have also dropped strong hints for German authorities not even to think about prosecuting her. Still, the fact that many Christians have regarded Madonna’s staged crucifixion as offensive, rather than simply laughed it off, suggests exactly what is wrong with it. It’s not, contrary to what Donna suggests, that having Madonna, as a woman, “image the divine” undercuts our notion of what God is like and thus undermines our belief in Jesus’ divinity. It’s that such an image, whether it be Madonna or “Christa” or your favorite feminist theologian up there on the cross, undermines our belief in Jesus’ humanity–our belief that Jesus was actually one of us.

Jesus came to earth in Christian belief not as an abstract symbol of humanity, a symbol that could be imagined as either male or female, or maybe even as sexless, but as a specific human being with a specific gender. He was a man. To depict him as a man, whether in a Greek icon or an African folk-art crucifix, is to recognize his incarnation–his taking on human flesh via his human mother–as the central event of Christian salvation history. God became a human being so that human beings could become like God. To depict Jesus as a woman, any woman, is to suggest that this event was no more than a vague metaphor for some other process that was vaguer still. It is not surprising, then, that many Christians have concluded that Madonna hasn’t simply made a fool of herself by pretending to be Jesus but has belittled their very reason for believing in him as their savior.

I emailed with Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s longtime publicist, seeking comment from the Material Girl about the brouhaha concerning her on-stage crucifixion. Here’s what she (Rosenberg, not, alas, Madonna herself) had to say about the act that has German authorities reportedly threatening prosecution:

There were reports of a huge controversy when Madonna played Rome with her current show and the reality is (as I saw with my own eyes) that there was absolutely no controversy. Madonna performed before 70,000 adoring fans who cheered her arrival on the Crucifix. There were no protests at her hotel, at the Olympic Stadium or anywhere in Rome for that matter – not even the media made a big deal out of it. I frankly do not think that Madonna has any reason to worry about prosecution in Germany. I have not seen any official statement released from the Catholic Church.

Madonna’s appearance on the Crucifix is not at all disrespectful to the Church or Catholicism. In fact, it’s a poignant beautifully moving segment of her show. She is bringing attention to the millions of orphaned children in Africa and pleading for her audience to pay attention to citizens of the world who are in desperate need of help. She should be applauded – not condemned. Don’t believe everything you read in the media.

No doubt, being Madonna’s publicist requires taking the long view and not reacting to every quasi controversy surrounding the singer or her faith. And prosecution for her crucifixion act does seem extreme, shocking as it may be to Christians to see the Kabbalah Queen up on that cross. Here’s hoping, though, that Rosenberg is right, and that Madonna succeeds in bringing that much-needed attention to African orphans and not to the German legal system.