Lady Gaga

A version of this post was published (scroll down to the third review) as an album review by the Alban Institute in their Fall 2011 edition of Congregations Magazine.

If there was a soundtrack to Summer 2011 in my car it was Lady Gaga’s new album, Born this Way.  My daughter and her friends are a Gaga-devotees, known in Gaga-world as a “Little Monsters.”   Lady Gaga calls herself, “Mother Monster.”  I broke down and bought the CD for my daughter.  It was played incessantly all summer.  I began to really like the album, fell in love with the beat and mix of music.  My daughter and I crank up the music in the car sometimes and sing along at the top of our lungs.  There is pure fun in this album, something we all need.   It was then I realized that I was becoming a “little monster” too.

Some of the lyrics in the album can be raw and offend.  Yet there is a theological undergirding to the album.  Sprinkled throughout are questions about our relationship to God and specifically to Jesus.   After the release of the album this spring, some religious leaders panned it—offended in part by the lyrics of the song Judas.  As I listened to the Judas song I heard something else, an age-old theological discussion set to a new tune about good vs. evil.   Gaga sings:

I’m in love with Judas/When he calls me I am ready/Even after three times he betrays me/Oh baby it’s so cruel but/I’m still in love with Judas baby/In the most biblical sense I am beyond repentance/I wanna love you/But something’s pulling me away from you/Jesus is my virtue/And Judas is the demon I cling to/I cling to—I’m a holy fool

Hidden in the controversial lyrics of the song are nuggets of truth.  We want to be good; we want Jesus or God as our virtue in life.  Yet, we cling to the demons or the Judas’ in our lives.   We are human.

On a Sunday in mid-July this summer I put a quote from the Judas song:  Jesus is my virtue, and Judas is the demon I cling to in our Sunday bulletin.  I wondered how my congregation, demographically representative of most mainline congregations, would react.  In my sermon I drew attention to the quote and Gaga, using them to weave a sermon about the issues of good vs. evil that we all grapple with in life.   The theological conversation in worship received positive reactions.  The youth and children paid attention.  Even our music search committee talked about Gaga with candidates we were interviewed later that afternoon!   I worried (a bit!) about the potential risk of an example in a sermon that some listening could dismiss as “offensive” or “having no place” in Christian worship. Just the opposite occurred.   Using Gaga as the hook to hang a sermon and discussion about a difficult theological concept seemed to work just right.

Other serious theological issues find their home in the album.   Gaga struggles throughout in an open and honest way with her own fears and insecurities that mirror the ones so many of her “Little Monsters” have.   No song deals with these issues more overtly than the cover Born this Way.   In the memorable litany of this song Gaga lists “categories” that cause harsh judgment of people, when in fact they were born this way.

Mi amore vole fe yah (love needs faith)/Subway kids, rejoice your truth/In the religion of the insecure/I must be myself, respect by youth/Don’t be a drag, just be a queen/Whether you’re broke or evergreen/You’re black, white, beige, chola decent/You’re Lebanese, your orient/Whether life’s disabilities/Left you outcast, bullied or teased/Rejoice and love yourself today/Cause baby, you were born this way

For congregational use, I intend to pair this song with an episode of the hit TV show Glee. In it the music teacher at the fictitious McKinley High School is horrified by a conversation he overhears between his students.  One young girl has broken her nose and is being pressured by her doctor to use it as an opportunity to “fix” her nose which the doctor deems “ugly”.   Confused and upset, the young girl solicits advice from friends, leading into a conversation around the insecurities all the students have.  Self-hate is evident in all the youth.  The teacher attempts to dissuade the students from the negative self images they have admitted to:  “The thing you’d most like to change about yourself if the most interesting part of you…”   He’s quickly put in his place by one of the students: “Maybe [you are right], but at this school the thing that makes you different is the thing that people use to crush your spirit.”

There it is.   The answer we know to be true for the youth in our congregations and communities.   As leaders in congregations we have words of faith to help and heal.  But we need new language to help  the communication.

The teacher in Glee does just this.  He uses Gaga’s Born this Way.  The episode ends with the youth (and adults) singing and dancing to Born this Way.  They open up their cardigan sweaters to reveal t-shirts imprinted with their “vices” as a way of embracing and coming out to who they are as individuals and a group.

Likes Boys…Butt Chin…Four Eyes…Brown Eyes (not blue!)…Loose Caboose…OCD…Bad Attitude…Lesbian…Big Nose…No Weave…Can’t sing…  

A possible use for a congregation could be the pairing of Gaga’s song and the Glee episode for a theological conversation around what it means to be made in the image of God.  The Glee episode says nothing of faith, but Gaga does.

I’m beautiful in my own way because God makes no mistakes.

How might using the album in this way open up new and innovative conversations in your congregation?

For some, a music artist such as Gaga is the last resource that would come to mind for congregational life.   Maybe we should think of her in another way.   She has over 13 million Twitter followers, and over 43 million Facebook friends.  I’d hazard a guess that quite a few “little monsters” are not part of the life of our congregations.   I’m convinced they are still hungry for a word from us, eager for acceptance and a way to figure out how to relate to God.  Like those already in our congregations, they too have a deep longing for their questions about life and faith, even when the questions feel “unmentionable” in polite conversation, to be answered.  It might just be that using someone as non-traditional and maybe even a little profane like the Mother Monster could be the tool that we seek in these times.

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