Lighting up Christ the Redeemer with a Taylor Swift T-shirt isn’t blasphemy. I still don’t like it.
The giant Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro sparked chatter last week when it was fitted with a projected image of a Taylor Swift T-shirt, who launched the Brazil leg of her Eras Tour on Nov. 17. The 124-foot statue of Jesus, with outstretched arms that span 92 feet, can be seen from all over the city and beyond.
The archdiocese has offered the statue and its grounds and sanctuary for events and promotions for many years. The proceeds, including those from the recent Swift-inspired projection, go to charity—and the poor in Brazil are in great need of charity.
These considerations are why I’m still thinking about that T-shirt on Jesus. I don’t like it. (I also don’t like it when Catholic church facades are illuminated with images, a practice that is becoming more and more popular globally.) It disturbs me when we get too casual with sacred images.
When I brought the matter up with some friends, a few of them quickly called it “blasphemy.” This is an image of Jesus, who is God, and he surely loves Taylor Swift the human woman. But he’s not a Swiftie; he’s the Lord.
I don’t think it’s blasphemy. Blasphemy, strictly speaking, entails words that maliciously or carelessly insult God. As far as I know, nobody has paid to light up the statue to look like anything that the church condemns. The sanctuary’s website invites organizations to apply to use the statue for events or displays but reminds that proposals will be evaluated for whether the values expressed are appropriate.
This is an image of Jesus, who is God, and he surely loves Taylor Swift the human woman. But he’s not a Swiftie; he’s the Lord.
During the pandemic, the sanctuary lit it up to make it appear as a doctor and included messages to remain hopeful and stay home. They have lit it up to support efforts against human trafficking. But not all displays are so lofty. They also lit it up to wear a soccer shirt in support of the Flamengo team. They lit it up in honor of the region getting connected to 5G service. They also projected the national colors of various countries during the World Cup, and again during the pandemic, so that at one point, Jesus was red with five yellow stars, wrapped in the Chinese flag.
Does this still seem fine to you?
But it’s for charity, some will say. Surely Jesus can handle being decorated. It’s not really Jesus; it’s just a statue; and anyway, there’s nothing wrong with soccer or pop music, and Jesus loves the poor, and he is the divine physician, and the goal is to bring hope and comfort to people who see it.
It still sets off alarm bells for me. This has been a century of great losses, and one of the greatest has been a loss of the sense of the sacred.
I know it’s a clichéd lament: Is nothing sacred?
But today, we want desperately to behave as if nothing is because then we can do as we wish, with ourselves and with each other. We do not treat sexuality as if it is sacred. We do not treat children, born or unborn, as if they are sacred. And we do not treat the elderly or the infirm or the outcast as if they are sacred. We do not treat our bodies as if they are sacred. And when we lose our sense of the sacred, people get hurt.
I know what I sound like. I sound like Flannery O’Connor’s Sister Perpetua, who advises teenage girls to repel lustful young men by crying out: “Stop, sir! I am a temple of the Holy Ghost!” And two of those girls spend the rest of the week gigglingly calling each other “Temple One and Temple Two.” It’s easy to read people who care about sacred things as uptight and out of touch. And sometimes they are. Sometimes people use care for the sacred as an excuse to be exclusionary, rigid, snobbish or nasty; to, as a priest friend once said, “step over a bleeding body because they’re late for adoration.”
I understand the desire to make Jesus more accessible and to get over the old-fashioned notion that some things simply shouldn’t be done. Catholics in the 21st century persistently work to break down barriers between the sacred and the profane (and by “profane” I mean the workaday and the everyday—not swear words), and we say we’re doing it because we do not want God to be out of reach, something that’s too good for the likes of us. Jesus came to earth and became human. When he was a baby, he fouled his diaper like any baby; when he was a man, he groaned and sweated and wept like any other man who is suffering. There is something to be said for recalling how Jesus himself brought divinity into the realm of everyday life. He is not out of touch; that’s the point. We can touch him; we can eat his body.
We carry the spark of divinity within ourselves, and we need to take care not to smother that spark by piling too many worldly things on top of it.
But when we do these things, we do it at his invitation. We do it in memory of him. When the sacred comes down to touch the profane, it does not change what the sacred is. Instead, it elevates the profane. It reminds us of the ineffable glory of Christ enthroned and recalls that everything he has touched retains some spark of his glory.
Does that happen when Jesus wears a T-shirt? I don’t see it. I see, instead, yet another instance of the world trying to make God bite-sized. To make him manageable, just another guy who is part of our team.
Jesus allows it, yes. He has made himself so radically available to the world that it’s extremely easy to treat him carelessly, whether we’re talking about the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, present in the Eucharist, or images that are indisputably images of Jesus. But carelessness with the sacred, even in the service of charity, is something we should keep ourselves on guard against. Not because we will be annihilated like Uzzah for impiously reaching out to grab the ark but because we are capable of slowly annihilating ourselves from the inside out by not remembering who God is.
We carry the spark of divinity within ourselves, and we need to take care not to smother that spark by piling too many worldly things on top of it. A spark needs oxygen to stay alight, and oxygen means space. There must be some space retained around sacred things. Just a little bit is enough. We can still behold. We can still touch. We can still partake. But we must not tell ourselves it’s just another place to hang our clothes.
Is it a sin to put a Taylor Swift T-shirt (or a soccer shirt or an American flag) on Jesus? I don’t know. I like Taylor Swift, and it did not escape my attention that the shirt in question is the one Swift wears in her music video for “You Belong With Me.” If someone happens to look up and see the statue of Christ, and the words “You belong to me” pop into their head, then that’s a good thing. It is also a good thing that tens of thousands of dollars were raised to feed the crowds during the church’s World Day for the Poor.
But the more I think about it, the more clear-cut the issue becomes.
The reason we owe some form of care and respect for marriage, for children, for the elderly, for the marginalized, for sexuality, for human bodies is because these things are images of God. We owe them some kind of reverence because they are made by God to be good and because the incarnation imbued humanity with the divine.
The statue is perhaps rare in that it is obviously an image of God. We don’t have to use our imaginations and remind ourselves, “This thing that doesn’t look at all like God is actually an image of God.” It’s literally a statue of Jesus. Some things are sacred, and this means they should be treated differently from other things. When we do not bother to observe the distinction, we are robbing ourselves of the very thing that keeps us alive. A loss of the sense of sacred is a loss that no one, rich or poor, can bear.