Guest writer, Stephen Hale is wrapping up a MA in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and volunteers with undergraduate commuters at Biola University. He blogs at pushofpikes.wordpress.com. Sooner or later, he will start a program in International Security and Economic Policy at the University of Maryland.
Lady Gaga’s “Judas” is a surprising statement of faith. You may be skeptical, since Gaga has a reputation for scandal. Many assume that any mention she makes of religion must be slanderous. I understand that view; many of her videos are hardly models of Christian virtue. However, if Gaga is given the benefit of the doubt, the video to “Judas” is not at all offensive It’s less than orthodox Christianity, but it’s not at all disrespectful, and the values it does advocate include the rejection of evil.
The song itself attracted attention because of Gaga’s use of religious imagery. In actuality, “Judas” is about a dysfunctional romantic relationship. However, religious imagery was more even more fundamental to the video. In the end, Gaga and the director, Laurieann Gibson selected a narrative for the video that describes a falling away from and return to Jesus, much like the apostle Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed. Gaga’s character returns wholeheartedly to Jesus in the end.
In the video, Gaga uses romantic relationships with members of a biker gang to talk about her faith. Many have noted that the break in the middle of the video (in which the music stops and is replaced by the sounds of the ocean that engulfs Gaga) features a scene reminiscent of Botticcelli’s The Birth of Venus. According to most interpreters, this painting conflates sexuality with divine love. This conflation is fundamental to understanding the entire video.
The video does not tell the same story as the song. The most important shift occurs in a silent break in the middle of the bridge. Before the break (the scene echoing Botticelli, pictured above) there are a number of themes worth highlighting. Gaga stays committed to Jesus. At least twice, Judas approaches her and is rebuffed. This section of the video contrasts sharply with the song: in the song, Gaga clings to Judas, but when the video actually talks about Jesus and Judas, she chooses Jesus. Her faithfulness to Jesus is clear, so when she takes a gun to Judas she expects to assassinate him. However, when she pulls the trigger, she is as surprised as everyone else to find herself kissing him. This scene resonates with bridge lyric on top of it, which hints at being a traitor:In the most Biblical sense/I am beyond repentance/ Fame hooker, prostitute wench, vomits her mind
In the end, Gaga repents, returning to Jesus. After the break, there is a relationship between the lyric and the video, but they are almost opposite in meaning. When the lyric repeats her preference for Judas, the video depicts a return to Jesus. Note the action in the baptismal after the music returns. The lyrics describe her struggle to choose what is right, eventually choosing Judas. In the video, she returns to, and the song climaxes in celebration. When she sings “Jesus is my virtue, and Judas is the demon I cling to, I cling to!” she clings to Jesus, only half enacting the lyric.
Gaga turns from Judas and collapses at Jesus’ feet in sorrowful tears in repentance for having betrayed Him. From this point forward, she is wholly devoted to the Jesus character. Back in the baptismal, Gaga turns her back to Judas, prays, and bows to Jesus! Gaga pushes Judas away, throwing water in his face. It is clear she rejects Judas to embrace Christ, and the standard climax of the pop song behind it explodes in celebration.
However, “Judas” is not a statement of orthodox Christian faith. The narrative is not the message, but a metaphor. Gaga has said the video is a cultural statement, not a religious one. She may be using Jesus to represent good and Judas to represent bad, so that the whole video simply means “embrace the good, even if you formerly embraced the bad.” One is not bound by poor choices or bad situations. This may not be a direct representation of the Christian faith, but it is a message Christianity and the secular culture around us would both celebrate.
The contextualized Jesus presented in her videos is used to make a point smaller than who He is. This is part of the truth, but not all of it. The video is not in opposition to who Christ is, as most of Gaga’s critics would portay it. Here, Gaga is no worse than any common example of pop music. In fact, she’s saying something positive. Because of this, video hardly deserves the response it has received from many Christian critics.