As we move deeper into Lent and Good Friday approaches, Christians devote special time to reflect on the Passion. We contemplate the meaning of Jesus, Christ crucified, perhaps even taking an afternoon to pray the Stations of the Cross.
I remember kneeling before the giant crucifix in the church from my childhood during Holy Week. As my mother prayed next to me, I would stare at this massive wooden Jesus, his face tilted downward and contorted with pain, the nails through his hands and feet so gruesome that the image is forever burned in my brain. While I knew to be sad for this man, he felt so other to me, an utter stranger to my world. Somewhere in my young mind I also knew he was God. As I grew older, this broken, unfamiliar man stood like a wall between me and my ability to cultivate a relationship with God.
The Feminine Divine
Then in graduate school I discovered theologians who discussed the feminine divine—Elizabeth Johnson, Sandra Schneiders, Rosemary Radford Ruether, among others—and I began to bridge the distance between me and God, between me and Jesus, daring to shift my God-images so they expressed the familiar feminine body, the same body that would empower me to reconnect with God and repair my relationship with Christ. Eventually, I began to propose this same feminine divine to the women students who populate my classes each semester—encouraging them to envision Christ Crucified with a woman’s body. For years I’ve struggled to help them make that connection but last semester I was armed with a new weapon. Madonna, the pop star, handed me a powerful teaching tool: her body on a cross.
The young, mostly Catholic women who take my classes aren’t terribly well prepared to tackle how we talk about and portray the feminine divine—at least at first.
Jesus Was a Man
“In Sunday School, we were told that God was a man,” chimed student last fall as I pushed the discussion into the uncharted territory of thinking about God in feminine terms. Other students nodded in agreement. “And Jesus was a man. You can’t dispute that,” said another.
I’m not saying Jesus wasn’t a man, I tell them. That’s a historical fact. But at the core of the Christian message is that believers are called to see the Christ in each and every person we meet regardless of any particularities—including gender. I then dutifully launch into exercises designed to stretch their religious imaginations—especially concerning Jesus.
Despite forty-plus years of feminist theology, we have reared yet another generation of young Christians who cringe, cry blasphemy, and at the very least, squirm uncomfortably when confronted with the divine depicted with the female body, or Jesus portrayed by as a woman. Alternative images and language for the first and second persons of the Trinity are that difficult to digest—even after endless assurances that all our talk and images of God are metaphorical. As Sandra Schneiders argues in Women and the Word, the “theological tradition has virtually always maintained that the maleness of Jesus is theologically, Christologically,soteriologically, and sacramentally irrelevant,” and that “to make the maleness of Jesus a necessary precondition to his being who he is, God with us, and doing what he does, redeeming us by his paschal mystery,” is to jeopardize the universality of Jesus’ redemption—specifically for women.
If you managed to avoid the controversy last summer and fall, the centerpiece of Madonna’s summer Confessions Tour was a crucifixion scene. Each night an enormous, mirrored cross rose up from the performance stage to reveal Madonna wearing a bright crimson blouse and long black skirt, a crown of thorns resting on her head. With her arms outstretched, she sang the somber ballad “Live to Tell” (reportedly written about her experiences of domestic abuse while married to Sean Penn), while images of African children suffering from AIDS flashed in the background.
It didn’t go over well.
When Madonna’s tour stopped in Rome, it met widespread protests and ire from the Vatican. Cardinal Ersilio Tonino described it as “a blasphemous challenge to the faith, a “profanation of the Cross,” and called for Madonna’s excommunication. Bishop Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Apostolic Signatura, claimed Madonna’s decision to get up on a cross “represents the rotten fruit of secularism and the absurdity of evil.” And Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, denounced the scene as “Christ-bashing.”
The Catholic Church was not alone in its outrage. A wave of anger surged across the continent, city by city, at each point on Madonna’s tour. In the Netherlands, Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner explained that, while the show could go on, “It is understandable that Christians feel offended by the crucifixion act that Madonna performs.” In Germany, Madonna was threatened with criminal prosecution for “insulting religious beliefs.” When she arrived in Moscow, as The Daily Mail reported, “the Russian Orthodox Church called on people to boycott the concert and religious groups have staged protests, including one where they drove a stake through a picture of Madonna.”
In the United States, when NBC announced it was planning to broadcast the concert, Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council (NCC), which represents church leaders of Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox and Protestant traditions, and Donald E. Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association (AFA), challenged NBC to black out this “mockery of Christ” from concert footage it aired in November—and won their case.
And sadly, NBC caved. For those who tuned in to Madonna’s prime time pre-Thanksgiving performance, her crucifixion scene was censored. During “Live to Tell” the cameras oddly turned from center stage to Madonna’s backup dancers. You could hear Madonna’s voice, but the image of “Madonna as Christ” was deemed unfit for audiences.
It’s not that I’m not aware of Madonna’s past and her infamous ability to shock and scandalize especially when it comes to all things religious—it’s that in this case, I don’t think it’s relevant. In She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Elizabeth A. Johnson argues that “the Christological symbol of God’s active suffering in Christ [is] a historically inclusive one, encompassing the suffering lives of women and men of all ages.” In other words, the possible portrayals of the divine are not only endless but endlessly diverse. For as Johnson argues, women are “imago Dei, imago Christi, daughters of Wisdom.”
If we are all imago Christi, then why not Madonna too?