Madonna's Cross Raises Thorny Questions

On her current tour, Madonna sings "Live to Tell" while hanging from a mirrored cross and wearing a crown of thorns. Prosecutors in Germany, where she performs this weekend, say the pose might break laws that prevent insulting religious beliefs. Donna Freitas, a professor of religion at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., wonders if she is the only Christian on the planet who admires Madonna's pose.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Madonna is stirring up controversy on her summer concert tour. Okay, that doesn't sound like news, but in her current show, Madonna sings the song Live To Tell while she is on a giant mirrored cross with a crown of thorns on her head. Music critics and theologians have called it blasphemy, and prosecutors in Germany are keeping a close eye on her concert there this weekend. They say it might break laws that prevent insulting religious beliefs.

Commentator Donna Freitas wonders if she is the only Christian on the planet who likes what Madonna's doing.

DONNA FREITAS reporting:

It may not seem like it, but Madonna is doing Christians a favor. She is performing a woman's right to stand in Jesus's place. It seems like I'm the only who likes what she's doing. The Church of England has accused her of abusing religious imagery, and the Catholic League denounced her for Christ-bashing. Even the Village Voice says it's a combination of blasphemy, absurdity, melodrama and one hilariously offensive religious image. This is what theologian Sandra Schneider has called a paralysis of the religious imagination.

As a professor of religion, I often wondered how to address this resistance to feminine images of God. So several years ago, I began conducting an exercise in my courses. I asked students to close their eyes and imagine Jesus on the cross. Then I asked them to envision Jesus as a black man, then a Hispanic man, then an Asian man and so on. This exercise is difficult for some but still doable.

But when I ask my students to picture a woman, they laugh out loud or they get mad. Some students even say that the suggestion itself is blasphemy. What I am asking goes against everything they have been taught about the nature of the divine.

This summer, Madonna is doing what I have been trying to get my students to imagine for years. As a Christian, I know that one of the most important spiritual tasks asked of me is to learn to see the crucified Jesus in each and every person I encounter. If this is true, then Madonna is doing the work of the church. And if, as both the Catholic Church and Church of England have insisted, it is offensive, it offends only because our imaginations are so impoverished.

Madonna told reporters I don't think Jesus would be mad at me in the message I'm trying to send. I don't think Jesus would be mad, either. In fact, I am clipping each and every image of Madonna on the cross I can find. This fall, after I ask my students to close their eyes and imagine a woman on the cross and their hearts and minds once again refuse to go there, I'll be able to say for the first time open your eyes, look up at the board. Before you is Madonna on the cross. Let's talk about her.

BLOCK: Donna Freitas teaches at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont. She's author of the book Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise.

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