If you missed it, an annual fundraiser for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art called the Met Gala made a surprising decision to use a Catholic-inspired theme for its fashion show; treating sacred icons with less than reverence, to say the least. This has rightly caused some controversy of people of various Christian traditions, and rightly so. But while Hollywood and New York will be Holywood and New York, the more appalling fact is the approval from the highest rank of ecclesial authority in New York; the archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The Cardinal attended and attempted to defend Rome’s participation in the mockery of millenia-old iconography that included:
- A beaded mitre (bishops hat)
- Leather bondage mask draped in rosary beads
- Jeweled bustier inspired by cardinals’ robes with a neckline that left its mannequin’s breasts mostly exposed
- A crown of thorns on Gucci’s Jesus
- A gay pride cloak
- Some sort of strange angel-like thing
Here’s a summary:
Now I’m not a Roman Catholic, but the mockery crosses denominational boundaries. The Roman church’s participation leaves me asking: is anything sacred anymore?
Don’t’ get me wrong, I love a good Babylon Bee article, which pokes fun at curious Christian habits, but mostly deals with church-ianity. But the crown of thorns? Rosary beads? Mixed with sexual imagery such as a bondage mask and exposed breasts? Not to mention these religious symbols being paraded by the most immodest individuals of our culture.
That this did not cross the line in the mind of the New York Cardinal makes me wonder; is there even a line to cross?
If not this, than what? Are we so pathetically desperate to have people like our religion that we are willing to put up with Hollywood’s mockery of the symbols of our faith?
Cardinal Dolan’s defense of Rome’s participation was this:
You may be asking what is the church doing, why is the church part of all of this?
Think about it just for a moment. It’s because the church and the Catholic imagination — the theme of this exhibit — are all about three things: truth, goodness and beauty. That’s why we’re into things such as art, culture, music, literature and, yes, even fashion,”
Is this how we get people interested in churchy stuff? By slapping our most prized symbols on the body of the latest Hollywood deity? By mingling Rihanna’s “goodness” and “beauty” (I’m laying down the sarcasm pretty thick here) with the goodness and beauty of a life devoted to the service of the Church? By mixing up kinky sex with praying the Rosary? (Rod Dreher records how much more the Cardinal gushes like a school-girl about Rhianna’s participation with these religious symbols)
For those of us in non-Catholic and non-Liturgical Christian traditions, its easy to say something like “we shouldn’t care so much about symbols and icons anyways”. I guess that’s why we accept the mockery of turning our time of worship into God’s Great Dance Floor. Protestant Christianity has a tendency to be much more intellectual about its faith. I say that as a criticism. In other words it is easy for the Protestant believer to say “as long as I have faith in Jesus, nothing else matters”. Or, as long as I “believe” the right things, my sensory and experiential activity doesn’t matter all that much. We ignore the fact that the Christian faith is as much a story as it is a set of propositions.
And without meaningful pointers to the story, we have a difficult time maintaining our faith in it. This is why many traditionally non-liturgical churches and denominations are turning to liturgy. I wrote something to a similar effect about the importance of the religion of Christianity. Anecdotally, most people come to the faith, not by being convinced of a set of propositions, but by coming face to face with the Christian story, and the God of that story, through the embodiment of that story in the life of the believer.
These icons are dead without faith. But for those of the faith, these icons are alive with story-telling power. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has been critical of Protestant Christianity’s individualistic devotion to the Bible. We have made ourselves the center of Biblical interpretation (“this is what this verse means to me”) and simultaneously not allowed any community of believers to pass down the story of Christianity. He says that American Christians, “feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read.”1. In essence, a critique of Protestant Christianity is that, in practice, we rarely hold anything sacred outside of our own minds.
Religious symbols and activity are the tools of the Christian story. If the Christian story is not held as sacred as its propositions, we won’t want to continue believing either one.