The German government threatened to prosecute and imprison Madonna, while the Russian Orthodox Church, the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical League all denounced the crucifixion scene from her recent tour as distasteful. Italian Muslim and Jewish leaders agreed. Even the Dutch were appalled — one of their ministers phoned in a bomb scare before a concert.
No one is aware of the religious protests more than I am. I have a master’s of divinity from Yale, and many of my colleagues were among those protesting. But frankly, I don’t get all the fuss.
Now the American Family Association and the Parents Television Council have joined religious officials in wanting the crucifixion censored from NBC’s airing of the concert on Nov. 22. NBC agreed. Yet the pop star maintains that “I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he would be doing the same thing.” So who’s right here: world religious leaders and television execs, or the pop-music icon?
To recap the concert: The audience hears tales of personal suffering from Madonna’s dancers. Then she ascends a cross, dressed as Christ and wearing a crown of thorns, to sing “Live to Tell,” which speaks of the importance — and difficulty — of telling the truth. Photos of impoverished toddlers and statements like “In Africa, 12 million children are orphaned by AIDS” flash before the audience. Madonna then descends, removes the crown of thorns, and prostrates herself.
Where’s the problem? Religious leaders maintain that these actions are insulting, even blasphemous, because they imitate Christ’s salvific actions. But Christians are encouraged to imitate Christ. Clearly, this line of reasoning contradicts itself.
Maybe Madonna’s interpretation of the cross offends. Yet she uses it to speak of poverty, famine, disease and discrimination, the very issues about which Jesus was concerned. And Madonna doesn’t exempt herself — in removing the crown of thorns and prostrating herself, she takes responsibility for these injustices.
Perhaps the offense is simply that Madonna uses religious imagery in the first place. But artists depict Christian scenes — including the crucifixion — all the time. Renaissance sculptors formed images of Christ crucified; Bach took passion narratives and set them to music; Zeffirelli purchased a ticket for the artist bandwagon when he directed “Jesus of Nazareth.” It makes sense that Madonna, a dancer and singer, would use her body and voice to depict Christ’s sacrifice.
It might be that the problem is not what Madonna is doing but that Madonna is doing it. After all, her lifestyle at times contradicts Christian mores. But she’s not alone here — Italian painter Fra Filippo Lippi seduced a girl modeling for him in a convent; composer Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover; Mozart is a rumored adulterer. We don’t judge the work of these artists by the godliness of their lives. Why should we judge Madonna’s any differently?
One could argue that the crucifixion scene is a profit-swelling stunt.
But Madonna donated a portion of the proceeds to African orphanages. And besides, for-profit performances of “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar” aren’t similarly criticized.
So why did Madonna slight so many? Is it because there is something visually offensive about a woman’s identification with Christ? Possibly. Is it because she has offended religious leaders before? Definitely. Madonna repeatedly presents herself as someone angry at Christianity, and this rage has led her, throughout her career, to push against traditional tenets. To this I reply that if Christianity weren’t important to Madonna, she’d have let the issue drop long ago. So rather than a Christian-hater, Madonna might be better personified as a seeker, as someone fraught with fury who deserves a pastoral — not a judgmental — response.
I’m not saying that we should condone Madonna’s artistic decision. Personally, I’m ambivalent about it. But I do think the arguments issued by authorities are theologically weak, and if religious or media moguls want to present ethical and spiritual justifications for editing the concert, then these need to be better conceived. Otherwise, these leaders metaphorically crucify by censorship. And in light of the fact that Jesus himself was crucified for blasphemy, these individuals fashion themselves as the Pharisees and Madonna as an imitation of Christ. Irony indeed.
Danielle Tumminio is a 2003 graduate of Yale College and a fourth-year student at the Yale Divinity School.