Yes, yes, Lady Gaga’s new Judas video is very catchy. But what does it all mean? The wave tank, the lipstick gun, the glitzy crown of thorns — none of it is particularly subtle, but those of us raised outside of a church might be left scratching our heads over the significance.
MTV attempted a half-hearted decoding of the symbols, but they barely scratched the surface. So we turned to our friend Brian King, whose Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cambridge and many years in the Roman Catholic church make him eminently qualified to explain pop cultural reference to us. Here’s what he had to say about what Judas might actually mean:
There are some interesting narratives in it, I have to say. At the surface, of course, it’s the girlfriend of a good man who still wants a bad boy and ultimately betrays her man for him. (*yawn*) But she uses the imagery of Christ’s betrayal as a backdrop, which throws up some interesting themes.
People have been saying, including I think Gaga herself, that she plays Mary Magdalene. It’s very common to conflate three or four women in the Bible into one composite person and call her the Magdalene. So let’s just leave that question to one side, since the important facts about what Mary Magdalene did are all to do with the crucifixion and resurrection and not with the events leading up to His betrayal.
Anyway, instead of trying to reconstruct a narrative, here are what seem to me to be the salient theological points:
Jesus and the Twelve — Jesus’ closest friends and disciples were called ‘the Twelve’ (at least, until Judas hanged himself after betraying Jesus). Also known as the Apostles.
‘I’ll wash his feet with my hair’ — an unnamed woman (often supposed to be Mary Magdalene) washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Jesus says of this woman, ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she has loved much.’ In a slightly different account, Mary of Bethany (no relation) does the same and then annoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, which Judas objects to as a waste of money.
‘Even after three times he betrays me’ — Judas was the betrayer, in that he sold Jesus out to the authorities; but Peter, the leader of the Twelve, also denied knowing Christ three times that night.
‘A king with no crown’ — Jesus said to Pilate, when asked if He was a king, something to the effect of ‘”King” is your word, but if you like, I am a king, just not in the way this world understands kingship.’
‘Holy fool’ — a running theme in Christianity is the thought that we must be willing to embrace what seems like folly in order to follow Christ, that we must be ‘holy fools’ for Him.
‘Love is like a brick, you can build a house or sink a dead body’ — Gaga says this line while pointing at Peter. Christ gave him that name — which means ‘rock’ — and said that he would be the rock on which he would build his Church. Peter is also the one who went out to Christ when He was walking on the water. Peter managed to walk on water himself for a few moments before being overtaken by fear, when he began to sink like the proverbial stone.
Cross jewelry, glitzy crown of thorns, and jeweled mace: all of the bling worn by the Jesus character is fashioned on the Instruments of the Passion, the tools by which he was tortured and killed. The mace Gaga is holding suggests the scourge with which Jesus was beaten. Christianity makes a tradition of transforming these evil devices into symbols of Christ’s glory, the cross itself being the greatest example.
Golden gun: Peter defends Jesus with a sword when Judas comes to finally betray Jesus — and Peter earns a rebuke from Jesus for doing so. Judas’ last act of betrayal is a kiss: Gaga seems to be defending Jesus but then, at the last moment, by applying lipstick she becomes complicit in the fateful kiss of betrayal.
Drowning: immersion in water (baptism) is a symbolic dying and a symbolic burial with Christ. Water is a symbol of purification, but also of destruction and death: e.g. Noah’s flood and the Red Sea drowning the Egyptians.
The final scene: here Gaga seems to be that woman who is caught in flagrante delicto. The law said that such a woman (and, indeed, the man) was to be stoned to death. When Jesus was brought such a woman, he said ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ It seems that with Jesus betrayed, there’s no one to speak up for Gaga.