Over the past few years, the enigmatic Lady Gaga has emerged as the ultimate pop icon. Her outrageous antics (such as arriving at the Grammys in an egg) and avant-garde fashion sense (a recent development seems to be prosthetic protuberances on her forehead) have made her the larger-than-life, symbolic figurehead of the modern cult of celebrity. She somehow embodies both our voracious appetite for images and our perhaps no-less-ardent desire to be confounded by an intriguing mystery. Who is Gaga? What is she “really” like? “Pop culture is my religion,” she has remarked on several occasions, and it is a religious tradition she exegetes with flair; her music and imagery mine the canonical texts of Bowie, Madonna, Elton John and Prince, along with the sacred cultural repositories of sci-fi, glam, horror, high fashion and pop art. (A number of these overlapping influences can be detected in the phantasmagoric video that accompanies “Born This Way.”)

Her new song “Judas,” the video for which has already garnered criticism from the Catholic League, is of particular interest for our purposes as it takes an extreme revisionist approach to Christian (especially Catholic) imagery. Gaga herself takes on the role of a Mary Magdalene character (“I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs”) in love with the unlikely figure of Judas.

On one level, this is an intriguing metaphor for a relationship gone bad, for our stubborn insistence on becoming entangled with things that destroy us (“I wanna love you / But something’s pulling me away from you / Jesus is my virtue, Judas is the demon I cling to”). But the significance of the Judas story is developed even further here, as becomes even more plainly evident in the music video where Jesus, Judas and the rest of the apostles become a leather-clad motorcycle gang. As in the Gospel of Barnabas, where Judas becomes a “double” for Jesus and takes his place on the cross, or in the short story by Borges where the apostles’ act of betrayal is shown to be the true salvific act – Judas must save mankind, but always appear to be the villain in the story – the reviled scapegoat becomes for Gaga a tantalizing figure who brings both sexual and spiritual salvation. “In fact, Judas was not a betrayer, he was just part of the over-arching destiny of the prophecy. Those things in your life that haunt you are just part of what you must go through in order to become great.” Redemption – on a personal and global scale – is about taking on the worst the world can put on you, becoming an outcast or “freak” and thus expiating your sins. If you can love yourself, despite the humiliation that has been poured out on you, then perhaps you are free to love others. Gaga is Mary Magdalene, Judas and Jesus wrapped up into one – the chorus of “Judah-Juda-a-as” becomes a cry of “Gaga” at the end of the video, a moment of identification. She, not just Jesus, becomes the Holy Fool, the “king without a crown” baptized in lipstick and alcohol.
A recent article in The Guardian called Gaga the “Billy Graham of pop,” bringing a simple message of God’s love to the masses:
I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

This is a love inclusive of those who have been labelled “freaks” by society, with a particular emphasis on the LGBT community who have been excluded from one world – the world of organized religion – and have found a new sense of acceptance as Gaga’s “little monsters.” “How many of you have ever felt like a Judas?” she asks the bullied, beleaguered fans at her live shows. Gaga is supremely aware of the religious connotations of her message, calling her movement a kind of “cultural baptism.” The Monster Ball tour itself has been described as a “religious experience,” a church service in the religion of pop culture. “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M.” Heaven and hell also figure largely in her latest single, “Edge of Glory.” Although Gaga has said she does not oppose organized religion, her emphasis is clearly on opening up all institutions to those whose sexual orientation, appearance or background depart from the societal norm.

What do we do with this strange “monstrosity,” whose identity takes up elements of the Christian tradition and re-casts them in a strange new light? Are we willing to see this bizarre, sexualized persona as a prophet, calling the church to open its doors? Do we write her “pop” religion off as another symptom of a superficial society? And perhaps most importantly, would we rather keep the “monsters” and “freaks” in the closet than let them into our lives?