“The glory of God is man fully alive.” -Irenaeus
I don’t know the last time I was so fixated on a Super Bowl half time show. Actually I can state with complete confidence that I’ve never been so fixated on one. From beginning to end, Lady Gaga’s performance at Super Bowl LI was one for the record books. It was glorious in the best sense of the word.
No doubt Gaga’s performance will inspire a sea of words on the interwebs in the next 24 to 48 hours. I hesitate to add the pile of prose. But something caught my eye that is so wrong because it’s almost right. (Karl Barth said this about socialism, it was so dangerous because it was so close to the truth.) In a piece for the Washington Post written before last night’s epic performance Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons remarks:
Her prayer is the same as countless progressive Christians who recoil at the hypocritical judgment of fundamentalism yet still seek to follow Jesus. She prays to an affirming God with expansive love, not a narrow-minded magician in the sky who damns nonbelievers to eternal conscious torment… Lady Gaga’s faith confounds a popular narrative of religion in America. She is considered both a practicing Christian and a passionate advocate for progressive values. She simply doesn’t fit in the controlling narrative, endorsed by both the secular left and the religious right, that relegates religion be the sole domain of social conservatism.
Lady Gaga does transcend many popular and shallow religious narratives that inhabit our cultural landscape. But not for the reasons Graves-FItzsimmons points out. If anything, his insights seem to reinforce the sort of narratives he claims Lady Gaga deconstructs simply by virtue of being who she is. The Achilles Heel of much conservative American Christianity is certainly a tendency toward narrow-minded judgmentalism, while its progressive religious counterpart can be suffocating with its self-righteous inclusivism and shaming. Lady Gaga certainly doesn’t fit into the former camp, but Graves-Fitzsimmons seems to try to shoe horn her into the latter.
In a response to a piece that condemned “celebrity faith” as shallow and vapid Lady Gaga posted the following on Instagram:
Dear, Becky Roach Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Christ and was protected and loved by him. A prostitute. Someone society shames as if she and her body are a man’s trash can. He loved her and did not judge. He let her cry over him and dry his feet with the hair of a harlot. We are not just “celebrities” we are humans and sinners, children, and our lives are not void of values because we struggle. We are as equally forgiven as our neighbor. God is never a trend no matter who the believer.
Lady Gaga points out that a tragic understanding of human sin is the occasion for the realization of the love of God, not a barrier to it.
Many people no doubt expected a politicized performance last night. She did choose to open with a protest song, “This Land Is Your Land”. Woody Guthrie wrote it in response to God Bless America, which he loathed. Lady Gaga chose however to omit the angrier verses that come later in the song. I couldn’t help but think of Jesus reading of the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus stops just short of the verses that oppressed Palestinians in the shadow of Empire probably wanted to hear:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
Jesus was not well received in this visit to his hometown congregation. What many found hard to hear and accept (and many still do to this day) is that Jesus came not bring divine judgment but to bear it. The story of the Gospels is the story of the one true Judge judged in our place.
Indignation is far from an unnatural human feeling. But it is seldom a righteous one, unless self-righteous counts.
A Vanity Fair piece from 2004 describes Guthrie’s increasing politicization as the reason for his demise as an artist:
Guthrie’s inchoate socialist leanings grew into a deep commitment to the labor movement and to the social and political adventurism of the American Communist Party. (Guthrie never joined the Party—his independence was such that he “was not affiliated with anything,” according to his sister Mary Jo; he did follow the Party line, however, down to belittling Roosevelt as a warmonger during the period of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, and he wrote a column called “Woody Sez,” in hillbilly dialect, for the C.P.U.S.A. organs People’s World and Daily Worker.) The first of Guthrie’s three wives, Mary, lamented his politicization as “his downfall as an entertainer,” and she had a point: the more he focused on rousing the masses, the less he pleased the crowd. Guthrie’s modest popular following diminished; at the same time, through politics, he found his voice.
Lady Gaga is a consummate performer. Last night she chose to be more of a person than a prophet or a politico, and we’re all better for it. Irenaeus said the life of man is the vision of God. If that’s the case, then Lady Gaga must have caught a glimpse of that vision last night at Super Bowl LI, and we were blessed to get a glimpse of her at the same time.