Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thinking About “Judas” or How I Became a Lady Gaga Conspiracy Theorist

By Joseph Laycock

In the 1970s, a Catholic woman from Queens named Veronica Lueken began receiving messages from the Virgin Mary about the end of the world.  The Church eventually condemned her movement and Lueken herself died in 1995.  However, her prophesies are now a permanent fixture on the Internet, where they have become part of a milieu of conspiracy theory and apocalyptic lore.  Prophesies are like living things, gaining new layers of meaning as the world moves on.  As a doctoral candidate writing a dissertation on Lueken, I spend much of my time tracking her continued presence across the Internet.  This has led me into a strange underworld of peripheral Catholic culture, rife with tales of apparitions, exorcisms, and Vatican intrigue.  But I was still surprised earlier this month when I found that Lueken’s messages of sin and divine retribution had collided with the work of another deviant Catholic woman from New York––Lady Gaga.

These Last Days Ministries, one of several groups devoted to Lueken, reposted a story on Lady Gaga’s new single “Judas,” in which Gaga declares her love for the betrayer of Christ.  The song, which was scheduled for release during Holy Week, combines Biblical iconography with Gaga’s signature transgressive sexuality.  Before the release, Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, was asked to comment.  He dismissed the song as a “stunt” calling Gaga, “Another ex-Catholic whose head is turned around.”  These Last Days Ministries took this several steps further, juxtaposing the story with one of Lueken’s messages from the Virgin Mary, given in 1979: “You must remove from your homes these diabolical agents of hell, the recordings of Lucifer, that will put into your child a spell, a hypnotism leading to promiscuity, deviant sex, homosexuality, drugs, murders, abortions and all manner of foul deeds that could only be conceived in the mind of the prince of darkness, Lucifer himself.”  The implication is that Gaga’s work is not only in poor taste but part of a Satanic plot for world domination, and that the Virgin Mary foretold of Gaga’s new single almost a decade before the artist was born.  If this seems far-fetched, there are in fact, thousands of websites that debate Gaga’s connection to the Illuminati and dissect her videos for occult imagery.
Seeking a break from reading Lueken’s descriptions of the end of the world, I watched the music video for “Judas” to see what all the fuss was about.  The video is loosely inspired by the Last Supper and set in a club called “Electric Chapel”––the title of another song on Gaga’s new album.  Jesus and the apostles are cast as a leather-clad biker gang.  Viewers witness a love triangle between Jesus (identified by a crown of golden thorns), Mary Magdalene played by Gaga, and Judas.  Gaga sings, “Jesus is my virtue / Judas is the demon I cling to.”  In an apparent attempt to prevent Judas’ betrayal, Gaga points a gun at Judas, but finds herself unable to pull the trigger.  In dreamlike symbolism, lipstick emerges rather than a bullet.  In the end, it is neither Judas nor Jesus who is killed, but Gaga.  An angry mob stones her and the video closes on her body.
 Lady Gaga is frequently compared to Madonna (also an ex-Catholic and possibly her distant cousin).  Many remember Madonna’s 1989 video “Like a Prayer,” which also borrowed from Catholic iconography.  This led to charges of blasphemy, a cancelled contract with Pepsi, and even official censure from the Vatican.  Since then, religious critics have become savvier.  Rather than blasphemy, Gaga has been accused of “religion-baiting.”  This allows Christian groups to present themselves as being above the petty barbs of a reckless artist.  It is also shrewdly implies that artists are more interested in money than making a statement about religion.  After seeing the video for “Judas,” the Catholic League softened its tone, commenting, “If anyone thinks the Catholic League is going to go ballistic over Lady Gaga's latest contribution, they haven't a clue about what really constitutes anti-Catholicism. The video is a mess, incoherent, it leaves the viewer more perplexed than moved.”
Initially, I also subscribed to the religion-baiting narrative.  In fact, I still suspect that promoters contacted the Catholic League before the release of the video in a callous attempt to boost media coverage.  I also became annoyed when Gaga appeared to defend her song as being about something other than a challenge to traditional Christian theology.  In an interview, she explained that Judas is “an aggressive metaphor” for bad boyfriends and other things she had trouble leaving behind.  Her video was explained as, “an affirmation of faith, not a challenge to it.”  This seemed like the sort of calculated double-speak that has become all too common from pop-stars who sell transgression and then claim no knowledge of being transgressive.  Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera did it with teenage sexuality and now Lady Gaga was doing it with blasphemy.
The trouble was that now I had that damned song stuck in my head.  I began to wonder if there might yet be something of interest here to a religion scholar.  Digging deeper, I found clues that “Judas” was intended as a radical theological message.  First there was an interview with Laurieann Gibson, Gaga’s choreographer and creative director, who remarked:

I will tell you now, first off, I'm Christian, and my career is evidence of God in my life, and I think that most people are already thinking that Gaga and the blasphemy and they're premeditating the approach and I think they'll be very shocked to find out how huge and really groundbreaking the message is and how freeing the message is for all the right reasons. And it's really going to shock the world.

Then I found a series of videos released from Gaga’s website entitled, “Transmission Gagavision.”  Number 41 of the series contains footage of Gaga confronting an Evangelical protestor outside of one of her concerts.  He informs Gaga that her music cannot be about God because she supports, “the homo stuff,” and disparages her Catholic upbringing as “getting raised in a screwy religion.”  At the end of the clip a voice-over declares, “Judas is coming, let the cultural baptism begin.”  A screen appears asking, “If they were not who you were taught that they would be, would you still believe?”  This question appeared again in an interview with MSN.  Perhaps the story about Judas being an “aggressive metaphor” was simply a cover to throw off the uninitiated.  Maybe underneath the pop-culture façade is a deliberate challenge to how we think about the Gospels.  Now I was becoming a conspiracy theorist!  So what, if anything, was the secret meaning of “Judas?”
Judas Iscariot, much like Gaga, has been read in multiple ways.  His name is synonymous with treachery and in Dante’s Inferno, he resides in the very last layer of Hell.  But Judas also acted to fulfill a divine plan.  This has led theologians from Erasmus, to Martin Luther, to John Calvin to debate whether Judas can truly be blamed for Christ’s death.  As an enigmatic figure herself, Gaga likely has some sympathy for the outcast Judas.  She sings, “I am beyond repentance.”  Both figures have been interpreted as agents of evil, zealous rebels, and misunderstood lovers.
Some historians have suggested that Judas was a rebel who sought the end of Roman rule.  The name “Iscariot” bears some resemblance to the word, “Sicarii,” an order of Jewish insurgents that formed after the time of Christ to oppose the Roman Empire.  In this interpretation, Judas betrayed his master because he could no longer wait for a peaceful revolution.  By casting the twelve apostles as bikers, Gaga reminds us that, in their own time, Jesus and his followers were perceived as radical figures who threatened the social order.
 Even more intriguing is the interpretation that Judas arranged Jesus’ death out of loving obedience.  This interpretation draws support from The Gospel of Judas, a second century Gnostic text discovered in Egypt in the 1970s.  In this version of the story, Judas is the only apostle who understands Jesus’ divine mission and loves him enough to help him fulfill his destiny.  For doing this, he is reviled and has a dream where the other apostles stone him.  Gaga’s death by stoning at the end of video suggests that she too sees herself as condemned for her loyalty to Christ.  As Jesus warned his disciples in Luke 21:17, “All men will hate you because of me.”
It is also interesting to consider the song’s chorus, “I’m just a holy fool, oh baby, it’s so cruel/ but I’m still in love with Judas, baby,” as Gaga singing in persona Christi. While the idea of “loving Judas” seems inherently blasphemous, Jesus does still love Judas, as he loves all sinners.  The term “holy fool” refers to figures like Saint Francis, who followed Christ’s teachings through unconventional, even shocking behavior.  Loving those who betray us is foolish, but it is also Christ-like.
 This reading also sheds some light on the song’s enigmatic “middle eight” lyrics:

In the most Biblical sense,
I am beyond repentance.
'Fame hooker', 'prostitute wench', 'vomits her mind'.

But in the cultural sense

I just speak in future tense.
Judas kiss me if offenced, or wear an ear condom next time.

Gaga commented on this verse, “In terms of traditional views of what a woman is supposed to be I'm beyond the ability to redeem myself. But I don't want to redeem myself, because in the cultural sense I believe that I'm just before my time.”  In other words, Gaga sees her message as prophetic.  Furthermore, asking for a kiss from Judas expresses a desire for martyrdom.  It is with his kiss that Judas marks Jesus for death.  Inviting this kiss signifies a wish to die in Jesus’ stead––a wish that is apparently depicted at the end of the video.
I now think that “Judas” goes beyond mere “religion-baiting” or unchallenging pop-culture spirituality.  If we follow these clues to their conclusion, “Judas” raises serious questions about who is a loyal disciple of Jesus’ teachings and who is betraying those teachings.  Is Gaga really going to hell for supporting “the homo stuff” or is the Christian protesting her concert a modern day Pharisee?  The Gnostic Christians who wrote the Gospel of Judas believed that only a select few could understand the truth of Jesus’ message.  By concealing a message about the more radical implications of the Last Supper as a song about loving bad boys, Lady Gaga would seem to perpetuate this Gnostic pedagogy.  Does this mean her “cultural baptism” is only for her elite fans?

What I have always admired about Lady Gaga is her ability to get away with transgression by disguising it as innocuous pop music.  The music industry is eager to sell sexy dance beats, but shies away from prophets and authentic revolutionaries.  In a sense, Gaga really is the subversive threat that conservative Christians perceive her as: A revolutionary posing as a pop star posing as a revolutionary.  Time will tell if her message remains concealed or if she is gaining momentum to unveil her take on Christianity at full force.  As a theologian, Lady Gaga gives new meaning to Paul's message in 1 Corinthians 4:9 that, “We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as men.”

Joseph Laycock is a graduate of the Program in Religion and Secondary Education at Harvard Divinity School. After spending several years workings in American high schools, he is now completing his doctorate in religion and society at Boston University.

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