Madonna, the pop icon of my generation – her debut album hit the charts when I was in 3rd grade – is causing quite a ruckus with a performance depicting the crucifixion in her new concert. In this routine, she wears a crown of thorns and stands against a large mirrored cross, mimicking the image of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet unlike traditional images of the crucifixion, this new image places Madonna’s feminine body and sexuality in the traditional place of Jesus’ stripped and wounded asexual, male body.
The moral and religious outrage has been overwhelming. But I wonder if such strong outrage is warranted. As a creative expression of faith, art, or popular culture, I am not bothered by the image of a woman on the cross. But this is not just any woman – this is Madonna, a performer many perceive as a morally-bankrupt opportunist who uses sex and blasphemy to sell herself. Her tainted image renders her incapable of contributing to any meaningful conversation about faith or religion, the thinking goes.
The thinking is wrong.
Madonna’s inherent sexuality – her (very attractive) body, occasionally suggestive lyrics and dance moves, and past print and video releases that border on soft porn – is not enough to make this concert routine offensive. Her reputation and in-your-face sexuality are at best secondary or tertiary issues, especially because she is so modestly dressed in this segment of the performance. Let’s face it: the strong reaction to her rock concert crucifixion routine is exacerbated by who and what she is. But we cannot dismiss the art because we do not like the artist.
The image of a woman on the cross – an attractive woman, at that – expands our understanding of the crucifixion. It shades how we consider the questions, what was the crucifixion, who was it for, and who was crucified? In no way am I suggesting that the historical Jesus was a woman or that Madonna somehow atones for our sins – what a stupid hole to fall into – but I value what Madonna’s cruciform image provokes in our imaginations, our faith, our discipleship. If in Christ there is no male or female, and if Jesus is the wisdom – the sophia (in Greek) – of God, then it is not just allowable but appropriate and edifying that we reflect upon the image of a crucified woman and seek in it a divine truth.
Of course, this is not simply an image of a woman on a cross. This woman is Madonna. Yet it is precisely because she has little credibility in the pantheon of religious and moral elites that her expression of art/faith/popular culture is worth our consideration. Are we to accept only the art and expressions of the morally clean and religiously upright? Do not those who live at the edge of religious acceptance merit our attention? They merited Jesus’ attention . . . It seems that we should look for God and faith in the least expected of places.
The only problem I might have with this performance is that Madonna seeks to profit from the cross. I am offended when people use religion for personal gain: whether contractors who use faith as a marketing tool (how about that cross in the newspaper or phone book advertisement), or clergy who abuse their title to earn prestige or profit. But Madonna is hardly alone on this issue, and in this category of offense I’d include many politicians, business people and preachers.
In the end, I’d suggest that the personal profit she gains from her commercial use of the cross is outweighed by the positive provocations of her performance. Because of her, many of us are asking what it means for a woman to take the place of a man – even a place on the cross. And for that I thank her.