Madonna's Challenge to Her Church: From May 13, 1989
I am not sure whether a discussion of the serious implications of the Madonna rock music video "Like a Prayer" is possible in the contemporary climate of discourse in American Catholicism. Nonetheless, I propose to try. I will discuss the religious theme of "Like a Prayer," Madonna's critique of her religious heritage and the more general issue of the relationship between sexuality and religious imagination.
Some preliminary comments about the audio and video tapes of "Like a Prayer":
1 ) Virtually all the rock music critics agree that technically the music and singing of "Like a Prayer" are the best that Madonna has ever done. Rolling Stone says that it is "as close to art as pop music gets... proof not only that Madonna should be taken seriously as an artist but that hers is one of the most compelling voices of the eighties."
2) The lyrics of the album run from harmless to devout. In the title song, God's voice calls the singer's name, and it feels like home. That "Like a Prayer" is in fact a prayer is evident from the lyrics themselves, from the singer's interpretation of them, and from the critical reaction. In the words of Edna Gundersen in USA Today, "Lyrically 'Prayer' is a confessional feast, with Madonna's Catholic upbringing as the main course. Songs are rife with religious overtones, spiritual and hymnal arrangements and a host of references to joy, faith, sin and power."
The Arizona Daily Star notes that "it is largely a story of renewal and self-determination and it speaks with authority. You can dance, if you want to, but this time there's a heart and a brain behind the beat."
Only those who come to the music and lyrics with a grim determination to find prurience and blasphemy can miss—and then with considerable effort—the God hunger that animates them.
3) The music video is utterly harmless, a PG-13 at the worst, and, by the standards of rock video, charming and chaste. More than that, it is patently a morality play. In the singer's own words it is "a song of a passionate young girl so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life."
The girl in the story witnesses a crime; she sees a black man falsely accused of it; she flees from the criminals and hides in a church; she prays to a black saint (Martin de Porres, one presumes) and falls asleep. She dreams that the saint comes alive and represents God as her lover. She awakens from the dream and realizes that in the power of God's love she can run the risk of doing right. In Madonna's words, "She knows that nothing's going to happen to her if she does what she believes is right." She goes to the police station and obtains the release of the innocent man.
To emphasize the religious themes of the album, it comes steeped in the smell of sandalwood, recalling the church incense of the past and implicitly (if unintentionall) the sandalwood themes of The Song of Songs.
That this is the meaning of the video is clear from its obvious sense, from the testimony of the singer and from the virtually unanimous reaction of the young people who have watched it. (In my sociology of religion class of 150 students, before any comment from me, 30 percent rated the video "PG." 68 percent rated it "PG-13," and 2 percent rated it "R" or "X.")
This is blasphemy? Only for the prurient and the sick who come to the video determined to read their own twisted sexual hang-ups into it. Only for those who think that it is blasphemous to use religious imagery in popular music. Only for those who think that sexual passion is an inappropriate metaphor for divine passion (and thus are pretty hard on Hosea, Jesus, St. Paul, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Teresa of Avila). Only for those whose subconscious racism is offended at the image of a black saint revealing God's love.
The line between blasphemy (the abuse of the divine) and sacramentality (the search for the Creator in the created) may sometimes be thin. One person's blasphemy may be another person's sacramentality—a May crowning is blasphemous for a fundamentalist and sacramental for a Catholic. Fundamentalists may well believe that the use of sexual passion as a metaphor for God's passion, especially in a work of popular art, is blasphemous. Catholics, dedicated as they are to a search for the Creator in creation, can hardly think so.
Even the most ridig fundamentalist or Catholic Jansenist must search desperately to fmd prurience in "Like a Prayer." Madonna's low-cut dress (or slip)? The tender kiss of the (black) saint (God)? The brief image of sensual satisfaction on the face of the woman in the dream as she's caught up in God's love? These would be an "occasion of sin" for young people?
Someone has to be kidding!
An immensely popular, and now critically acclaimed, singer tells a morality story filled with Catholic imagery, and some Christians respond to it with threats of boycotts against Pepsi-Cola (for whom she has made ads and which has lost $5 million because of its cancellation of the ads). Such a response tells more about those who respond than it does about the work of art itself.
In her interviews about "Like a Prayer" and previous songs. Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone has repeatedly described the importance of Catholicism in her childhood and the remnants of Catholic guilt that continue to haunt her life: "If you enjoy something, it must be wrong." In the rock video when the girl grabs a knife and cuts herself, causing stigmata-like wounds on her hands, the wounds represent guilt, Madonna tells us. However, it is not guilt but love that leads the girl to do what she knows is right. Madonna seems to be saying that the guilt that obsessed her Catholic childhood is not enough to produce virtue.
She has been less explicit about the love imagery and the sense of sacramentality she has also carried with her from her Catholic childhood. Perhaps she is unaware of this second part of her inheritance. Nonetheless it permeates her work. She says she is not sure whether she is a Catholic or whether she would raise a child as Catholic. That is her own personal problem. In fact she sings "like a Catholic" (especially in "Like a Prayer"), and for our purposes in this article that is what counts.
Perceive the paradox: Catholicism in its present formulation passes on to its children both obsessive and imprisoning guilt and a liberating sense of God's love as sacramentalized tn creation and especially in human love. It is a paradox struggling to become a contradiction.
Anyone who listens to the laity knows how bitter are the revulsions of many against their guilt-dominated Catholic childhood and how many of them claim, like Madonna, that they were taught to believe that anything one enjoys must be wrong. Not all Catholics were educated this way; but if we are honest, we must admit that guilt and anger about guilt is widespread among Catholics. That most of them cling to their Catholicism (like Madonna) one way or another is evidence that the appeal of Catholic imagery is stronger than the ugliness of Catholic guilt.
Guilt is the central theme of contemporary Catholicism; the sacramental imagination is transmitted (in 15 countries that fellow sociologist Michael Hout and I have studied recently) either unintentionally or with the sense that, compared to guilt, it is unimportant. Christian leadership often concentrates on what is peripheral and the result of accidental historical circumstances and ignores what is essential and timeless. And organizes boycotts against those who sometimes have a better sense of the sacramental—the lurking presence of God—than they do.
In my sociology of religion class, the division of reaction to "Like a Prayer" was between fundamentalist Protestants, who were uneasy about the "shock" of the juxtaposition of womanly eroticism and the sacred, and Catholics, who were not disturbed by the blending of the two. "Catholics are more sensual," commented a mainline Protestant student. Surely the sacramental imagination ought to make them so; if they are in this era, however, the reason is that they are able to resist the Jansenism that still perdures.
In the present climate within the Catholic Church, the Irish monks would not have dared to convert an Indo-European intercourse symbol into the Celtic cross representing Jesus and Mary and the union of male and female in God. If she wanted to keep clergy and hierarchy happy, St. Teresa would not have dared use the powerful erotic imagery of her mystical writings, nor would St. Bernard have dared to write his commentary on the "Song of Songs" the way he did.
The builders of Romanesque churches would not have (as my colleague at the University of Arizona, Donna Swaim, has told me) used pagan fertility symbols on their altars as signs of vitality to ward off morbidity Fourth-century Roman liturgists would not have incorporated into the Easter Vigil service a pagan fertility ritual that used a candle and water.
Madonna must be denounced and Pepsi-Cola threatened with boycott because she is a sexually attractive woman who dares to link her sexuality with God and re- ligious images; That, gentle per- sons, is the heart ofthe matter.
The link between vitaiity and fertility between life and sex, has been so obvious that, until the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, humankind had no doubts about the pervasive religious imagery of sex and the pervasive sexual imagery of religion. The Irish until the last century used to make love in the fields outside the house where a wake was in process to defy death: Life, continued by sexual union—they told death—is stronger than you are.
It is no accident that Jesus rose from the dead at the time of the Jewish spring fertility festival.
Too often our contemporary Catholic leadership rejects this human experience out of hand. Sex may be necessary for the continuation of the species, but please, lay folk, don't talk about it, don't let its influence seep into your life outside of your bedrooms, don't enjoy it too much, don't let it into your artistic works (especially if they happen to be religious) and don't suggest that the allure of a woman's body in a rock video staged in church can hint at the allure of God.
The novelist Bruce Marshal observed four decades ago that Jansenism is the odd notion that God made an artistic mistake in ordaining the mechanics of human procreation.
The matter is not subject for discussion, as I have learned to my dismay. History, theology, art, archeology, exege- sis—all are simply dismissed as irrelevant when they challenge the deep-seated antipathy toward sexuality that permeates Catholic leadership elites. The laity will be shocked, they tell you, refusing to listen to any other idea. In fact,
they are projecting their own reactions into the laity, the vast majority of whom are not shocked.
Those lay folk who suspect, despite the heirs of Cornelius Jansen, that sexual passion may be revelatory will receive little encouragement or enlightenment from their leaders on the subject. They will have to turn to popular artists who manage to grasp the essential Catholic truth that, in the power of God's passionate love, enjoyment does not necessarily make an action sinful and that "nothing will happen to you if you do what you know is right."