Now that Lady Gaga’s newest video, “Judas,” has been released to the public, we can see what all the fuss was about.
Though the short form of the video beautifully narrates what can only be called a conversion experience, the song itself has been quite controversial. A few weeks ago, Martha MacCallum of Fox’s"America Live" and Bill Donahue of The Catholic League were quite angry with Lady Gaga; Donahue even called the song a “middle-finger message.”
If you look closely at their complaint and the reality of the video, though, you’ll find it betrays a Pharisaic assumption that God belongs to them.
“Judas” is a song about a bad relationship with an untrustworthy partner. The biblical Judas is a pretty good metaphor for that, actually. So in this song, Gaga is just using religious imagery to discuss something else. This is one of the more common themes in Western art, used in everything from painting to pop. There’s nothing particularly surprising or offensive here.
But wait a second … if the religious imagery in the song isn’t offensive, then what’s the fuss about?
Since “Judas” itself is a fairly standard piece of Western art, the reaction against it reveals what Merold Westphal calls a “moral fiction” in his brilliant "Suspicion & Faith: On the Religious Use of Modern Atheism." This is a way we wrap behavior in moral garb that we would not approve of otherwise. In this case, Gaga’s critics claim to be morally outraged about something that isn’t outrageous at all. For another example, note that MacCallum played a clip of the song in her interview, but then admitted she had no idea what it meant. So she’s offended about … what, exactly?
The real issue is that Donahue and MacCallum do not think Lady Gaga has the right to use religious imagery. She just can’t be trusted with these characters and ideas. They don’t trust people who try to use God talk outside their systems. That’s why when Gaga swallows rosary beads, instead of seeing someone trying to admirably internalize the rosary, they interpret her actions negatively. After all, if she really wanted to internalize the rosary, she’d be at Church, and not doing the vulgar things she does in her videos! When she makes reference to Judas, instead of it being mundane Western art, she is offensive. For many of her Christian critics, the point is not how Lady Gaga deals with this imagery, the point is that she is not supposed to use it at all.
And here we find the Pharisaism in the moral fiction. Christian God talk is off limits for Gaga because MacCallum and Donahue don’t approve of her use of God. They approve of how they, and people like them, use God. But do they get to approve how one accesses God? Of course not, and they would be the first to admit it. While they would never claim to determine how one can legitimately access God, they would claim to know how one can access God. In practice, these two things are the same.
This was, I think, the core problem of the Pharisees: As they constructed the oral Torah, they were offended by those, such as Jesus, who were not bound by it. They were offended by those who related to God in a way they didn’t approve of. Whether that was healing by God’s power on the Sabbath or forgiving sins, Jesus and His followers did not relate in a way that was approved by the Pharisees. As such, they didn’t trust Jesus.
This isn’t a problem exclusive to Pharisees or Bill Donahue, as the persistent reaction to Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" shows. For most of us who believe in God, it can be difficult to understand how others relate to him. But we don’t own God, God owns us. Which begs the question: How can anyone who claims to understand God a little bit avoid making this same mistake?