When I look through the stack of “Madonna on the Cross” images I’ve collected, I see an incredible theological opportunity to revitalize questions about how we are allowed to portray Christ in ways that reflect the idea of universal salvation—as a white man? Black? Hispanic? Gay? Obese? Homeless? As a woman? A mother? A sister? Madonna’s performance is an occasion to reflect on why, as Sebastian Moore asserts in The Crucified God Is No Stranger—no stranger because Jesus became the ultimate example of what we are ourselves, the crucified—it is so difficult to see Christ in a woman or a girl.
If what Schneiders and Johnson claim is true about the imago Christi, then from what theological position were critics crying blasphemy? Who has the right to determine which people can represent the crucified and who cannot? Madonna is infamous for crossing lines, but how exactly did she warrant excommunication? Since when is it heresy to offer a new portrait of the Christ?
Apparently, in cases that involve a woman’s body.
This isn’t the first time people have been shocked by the female body on a cross. Edwina Sandys’s Christa caused consternation in 1984. Christa is a four-foot-tall bronze statue, depicting a bare-breasted, wide-hipped woman nailed to a cross. According to Johnson, “The figure does not intend to deny the male Jesus of history but to evoke the all-encompassing scope of God’s identification with crucified people, including and in particular abused women.” Yet Christa inspired protests and cries of blasphemy wherever it went (most notoriously, at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York), until it finally found a resting place at Yale Divinity School. More recently, in 2000, when Janet McKenzie’s multiracial portrait, Jesus of the People, won a contest sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter for best contemporary depiction of Jesus, it sparked such protest and threats of vandalism that—owing to, among other reasons, the fact that a woman sat for the painting—it could only be displayed behind unbreakable Plexiglas on its eight-city tour of the United States.
The problem, it seems, is not simply Madonna. This automatic rejection of a woman—any female figure portraying Christ or the crucifixion—is not surprising given the dominance of the male form, father images, and masculine language about God that are normative throughout Christian history. Schneiders explains that when it comes to speaking about and portraying the divine, our society suffers from a “paralysis of the religious imagination.” Yet, she argues, despite the fact that most Christians believe that portrayals of God are metaphorical and that Christ is present in each of us, “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 real problem with Madonna climbing up onto a cross? Do people believe she is out to destroy Jesus for believing Christians? Is it simply the fact that Madonna has committed this act, as many claim, or is it a deeper aversion—one rooted in an inability, even a fear, of envisioning the Christian God in feminine terms?
For decades, women have tried to “claim” the cross, or better, “re-claim” this historically male “right” to portray the suffering, human-divine form. Though the voices of women scholars ring strong in feminist theology courses, they go virtually unheard in wider circles of the Christian faithful. The closest we’ve come to a popular dialogue about the feminine divine was generated by curiosity provoked by Mary Magdalene in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Hardly a triumph.
True, my feminist theological forebears probably didn’t have someone like Madonna in mind as the ideal breakout. Yet images and videos of Madonna on a cross are everywhere that younger eyes are looking. What an opportunity for conversation about the very issues to which countless women theologians have devoted their careers. Madonna brought us The Contemporary Christa, feminist theology live, and with her own body.
Last semester, when I taught the feminine divine yet again, this time my students’ imaginations didn’t have to work over time. Instead, we contemplated Madonna on the Cross.
“What’s really unsettling about Madonna is that she almost looks like me,” explained a sophomore woman in one of my classes. She was peering uneasily at the large photograph of Madonna I’d projected onto a wall of the classroom—the singer’s arms outstretched, the crown of thorns, the mirrored cross. “I mean, she’s even wearing an outfit I might wear. And when I see this image, I can imagine myself or any of my friends in her place. And that’s kind of…weird.”
Isn’t that the point, though? I pressed her: If the Cross is the cornerstone of Christian faith, aren’t we called to identify the crucified in each and every person we meet? Even in ourselves?
“I’m just not used to seeing a figure on the cross look so familiar,” she answered. And another young woman added, “It seems wrong to see a woman crucifix.”
No Stranger at All
As I listened to conversations around the room, this one particular student’s comment stood out. That she could see herself represented by this image of Madonna—this same image that has caught such rage from religious groups and journalists across the globe—was profound. This crucified one was no stranger at all. She was someone familiar, a woman that perhaps my students had grown up singing along to, trying to dress like, even dance like. Someone young people see constantly all over newsstands, on TV, and even in concert.
What luck that a world-famous pop star would unwittingly take up the issues long dear to pioneer feminist theologians and to a central strain of inquiry in Christian theology. That of all things, Madonna’ summer concert tour would offer fuel to a fading conversation about the feminine divine. Madonna’s subversive act has pushed open a spacious and fertile area for discussion. In the cries of blasphemy and threats of excommunication, it saddens me that what was revealed were not the sins of a pop star, but the complainants’ own fear in the face of a theological understanding that threatens their own image of God.
Now that the sting of Madonna’s “transgression” has been tempered with time, I hope that during this Lenten season we can begin anew a conversation about Madonna’s Passion Play, asking those young women who see themselves in Madonna’s image: So how does it feel to see yourself in Jesus’s place?