More than any pop artist of our time, Madonna has made a reputation by combining what most people consider unlikely opposites: sex and religion. In her latest concert tour she poses as a crucified Christ figure on a larger than life, lighted cross during the performance of "Live to Tell," a hard hitting song written in the 1980's that reflects the painful experiences that were part of her failed marriage to actor Sean Penn. In "Confessions on a Dance Floor" the song takes on entirely new meaning and has provoked strong negative reactions from an array of commentators. (I'll ge to that in a moment, in the meantime, I suggest you check out the crucifixion video for yourself.)
Of course, Madonna is not the only artist to use crucifixion imagery to make a point. John Lennon probably came closest to the mark with a line that turned out to be prophetic -- "the way things are going, they're going to crucify me" -- this from "The Ballad of John and Yoko." More recently, rap artists Nas and Sean "Puffy" Combs used crucifixion imagery in the "Hate Me Now" video and Kanye West appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns.
But Madonna's crucifixion scene in the Confessions tour is not a one off, shot from the hip; her use of religious themes and visual images in her music is practically a trademark. Riding the connotations of her given name for all its deep associations and transforming it into one of the best known brands in the world, she went on to record 'Like a Virgin', 'Like a Prayer', and now 'Confessions on a Dance Floor.'
Not surprisingly, as the Confessions tour made its way across the US, Europe, and Russia, religious leaders rose up to condemn it in a chorus of curses. A Church of England spokesperson chimed: "Is Madonna prepared to take on everything else that goes with wearing a crown of thorns? ...And why would someone with so much talent seem to feel the need to promote herself by offending so many people?"
David Muir of the London based Evangelical Alliance said: "Madonna's use of Christian imagery is an abuse and it is dangerous. The Christian reaction to this sort of thing tends to be tempered but if the same thing was done with the imagery or iconography of other faiths the reaction would be very different," he told London's Evening Standard newspaper, in a thinly veiled reference to the recent controversy about the cartoons of Mohammed.
What this analysis ignores is that the figure of the crucified Christ is probably the most frequently reproduced image in western culture. There is nothing in the official teaching of Christianity that would discourage an artist from interpreting or representing the crucifixion, whereas in Islam it is generally understood that ANY visual depiction of Mohammed is out of bounds.
Further, the Danish cartoons of the prophet were blatantly polemical whereas Madonna has a strong positive message. More on that in a moment.
Having been criticized by church officials in the US and England, the negative reactions followed the tour to the continent, especially Rome, where "Confessions" was staged not far from the Vatican. Catholic priests from across Rome piled on.
"This is disrespectful, in bad taste and provocative," said Father Manfredo Leone from Rome's Santa Maria Liberatrice.
"Being raised on a cross with a crown of thorns like a modern Christ is absurd. Doing it in the cradle of Christianity comes close to blasphemy." (Would Father Manfredo object to Good Friday observances in the streets of Rome, or Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" where actors do the same?)
And the attacks were thoroughly ecumenical and interreligious as Muslim and Jewish leaders added their voices to the condemnation.
"I think her idea is in the worst taste and she'd do better to go home," Mario Scialoja, head of Italy's Muslim League said.
Riccardo Pacifici, spokesman and vice president of the Roman Jewish community, added that Madonna should have pulled the routine considering where she was performing.
I respectfully disagree with these religious leaders and suggest that few of them have seen the concert. Was her performance and its reference to the crucifixion "heretical," was it "blasphemy," was it "distasteful?" Clearly some find the production distasteful, but taste is now and always has been a matter of personal preference. Just take a look at the video. To be sure, Madonna occupies the position of Christ on her theatrical cross, but in the background are pictures of African children, victims of AIDS. At one point, near the end of the song, these words are projected: "In Africa 12 million children are orphaned by AIDS." The photos call to mind not only the tens of thousands of children suffering from AIDS, but the hundreds of thousands today suffering from hunger, homelessness and now mass extermination in Darfur. And Madonna doesn't bring these images to the screen for their shock value.
She recently announced plans to raise at least $3 million for programs to support orphans in Malawi, and is giving $1 million to fund a documentary about the plight of children there. She has also teamed up with developing-world expert Jeffrey Sachs on programs to improve the health, agriculture and economy of a village in Malawi, and she's met with former President Clinton about bringing low-cost medicines to the area.
Toward the end of her "Live to Tell" number, Madonna steps down from the cross and assumes a position of prayer, on her knees. She removes the crown of thorns and at this point on the screen above, these words appear: "Whatever you did to one of the least of my brothers ..." That is a direct quotation from Matthew 25 which contains the inspirational words of Jesus equating acts of human kindness and love for the "least of these" with love of God. The New Testament message is that in reaching out to help the helpless we are being faithful to Jesus, whereas, on the contrary, if we ignore our neighbors in need, we are, in effect, repeating his crucifixion.
Far from blasphemy or heresy, Madonna's "Live to Tell" production is a very traditional Christian appeal for love and compassion. In it she connects her personal pain recalled from an event in her own past with the suffering of millions of people in Africa today. It is the truth about their suffering that she hopes she will "Live to Tell." I, for one, found this moving and even inspirational.
This was Madonna at her best. Religious leaders should be applauding her efforts to focus our attention on some of the very things Christ was most concerned about, not criticizing her for offending their sense of propriety.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.