A City's Soul in the Balance
Witnessing the Show in New York's Own Colosseum
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By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, JAN. 19, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On a recent trip to New York City, I was struck once again by the intense and dramatic contrasts that live side by side in this cosmopolitan mecca. The juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane that one witnesses there brings to mind some of the most dramatic moments in history.
Sometimes I can glimpse what it must have been like to be in Rome during the first years of legalized Christianity, when the pagans were desperately fighting the oncoming tide of conversion (a win for the Christians,) or in Paris during the Enlightenment when the secularists were mounting the offense against an established Church (things went badly for the Church on that one). Today it feels like another epic battle is raging over the soul of yet another city, and, as in the case of Paris and Rome, the result will have implications for the world.
The New York skirmishes and victories range from the sublime to the ridiculous. And while the political arena may seem to be the best place to watch the battle for America's soul, I was actually more struck by stories from the contemporary Colosseum: the entertainment world. Amid the theaters and sound stages of New York, I saw innocents thrown to the lions of dance and music, the emergence of a new Ben Hur, and a quiet witness that has prayerfully watched the comings and goings for decades.
Lady Gaga gags the Gospel
Last Thanksgiving, while Americans were thanking God (or some unspecified, unseen benefactor) for their blessings, pop singer Lady Gaga, baptized Stephanie Germanotta, was offering thanks to herself for the gift of herself at her former high school, the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Manhattan.
Sacred Heart School was founded in 1881 by the French congregation of the Society of the Sacred Heart, and is the oldest private school for girls in New York. Ms. Germanotta filmed her "holiday" special at the school reflecting on the events and experiences of her 29 years.
Granted, Sacred Heart isn't known for producing Nobel prize winners -- most of the celebrity alumnae are actresses -- but one wonders what alumna Eunice Kennedy-Shriver would have made of Ms. Germanotta crooning her hit "Born This Way" (the tired genetic excuse for unbridled sexual license) after Kennedy-Shriver's lifetime crusade to help people born with disabilities to lead a life of dignity.
Ms. Germanotta is less known for her formidable singing talent than for her provocative get-ups and tawdry music videos, which are usually one step shy of pornography. Taking a page from her predecessor Madonna, Gaga has a penchant for using Christian imagery in her exhibitions, from wearing an upside down cross over her genitals to donning a parody of a religious habit in red latex and eating rosary beads. With this in mind one wonders whether she is truly the best role model for a K-12 audience in a "Catholic" school. As Catholics, do we honor anyone who achieves notoriety, or those who provide a model of Christian virtue?
More pointedly still, Ms. Germanotta is an active supporter of contraceptive and abortion providers, and a very determined proponent of gay "marriage." Curious that this gave no pause to school leaders and parents who permitted 8-year-olds in their Catholic school uniforms to sing her anthems before a television camera.
This situation bears more than a passing resemblance to Notre Dame University's 2009 decision to confer an honorary degree on the openly pro-abortion President Barack Obama. If we are going to offer platforms to those who denigrate our teaching, how can we be surprised if the faithful are confused?
But what is most striking to me, in the present climate of sex abuse and scandal, is that no one questioned Ms. Germanotta's performance of her song "Bad Romance" in front of the high school students singing into a phallic-shaped microphone. Were a priest or a religious sister to do something of the sort, the law suits would (rightly) accumulate faster than Lady Gaga's costume changes. As it stands, parents, children and teaching faculty proudly stood by and applauded. The New York notion of protecting youth and setting a good example for young women seems oddly contradictory.
This is not the first time Ms. Germanotta has returned to her old school. In 2010, she attended her sister's graduation wearing a transparent lace bodysuit and black veiled hat, eclipsing the achievement of the graduates by drawing attention to herself. Even media sympathetic to the singer recognized that she was "getting even" with a school where she had felt "bullied." Not unlike Lord Voldemort and Hogwart's, Lady Gaga too got her revenge, unfortunately with the full support of the director of Sacred Heart School.
Book of Mormon vs. The Joy of Sex
Lady Gaga's adolescent antics are minor compared to the expletive extravaganza set to music in the Broadway musical, "Book of Mormon," which I saw together with a Mormon friend. Written by the authors of "South Park," it opened in March 2011 to constantly sold out audiences. Critics heaped praise and awards on the musical, while detractors mutter that the teachings of the Church of the Latter Day Saints have been taken out of context. Yet most commentators suggest that it's all fun and games set to catchy music.
I admit, I was an erstwhile fan of South Park and its equal opportunity satire, but Book of Mormon seemed less democratic in its jabs. The story is ostensibly about two young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to share their scripture. The villagers are uninterested as their lives are consumed by poverty, famine and AIDS. When the local warlord plots to mutilate the women of the village, however, the villagers decide to feign conversion so as to flee. When they go for instruction from the Mormons they encounter an especially ignorant missionary who makes up his own revelation from snippets of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. When the ruse is discovered, all conclude that religion is better when taken as a metaphor instead of literally.
My first red flag went up with the portrayal of the Ugandans, seen as virtually illiterate, and enslaved by their sexual instincts. I don't know what a Ugandan would make of being presented as almost bestial in his desires and with a vocabulary limited to profanity. (In the show, all but one of the 75 instances of foul language are uttered by the Ugandans.)
Furthermore, the story presumes that female genital mutilation is a normal practice despite the fact that Uganda outlawed the practice in 2009, blazing the trail for other African nations. And although the plot supposes that the overwhelming majority of Ugandans are infected with the AIDS virus, Uganda has been the most successful battleground against AIDS with its "ABC" policy, of Abstinence, "Be faithful," and Condoms, with the latter seen as a last resort. Thanks to this program HIV has declined dramatically in Uganda, and between 1991 and 2007, HIV infection rates dropped by more than 50%.
Frankly, the AIDS question made me realize this was not merely a satire of what Mormons believe, but also an attack on any religion that teaches morals, especially sexual morals. From that moment on, I saw every joke about the Mormon angel Moroni as if it were about Gabriel and the Virgin Birth, and the show became less funny.
The next, very catchy, number was called "turn it off," about leaving painful experiences behind and forging onward. If these were Catholic missionaries, it would be called "offer it up." After a few desultory lyrics about authentic family tragedies, the song gets to its real point: homosexuality. At this point the missionaries are transformed into a pink-sequined kick-line of sexually repressed young men.
That's when I started to do a little math. Proposition 8, the California amendment banning gay marriage, was passed in November 2008, largely with the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who provided a great deal of the funding and the door-to-door canvassing to pass the legislation. The Mormons were very hard hit in the backlash from gay activists with everything from protests, to vandalism, to threats of violence.
"Book of Mormon," like Lady Gaga's return to high school, smacks of revenge served with music and lyrics. The authors claim to have a long-standing interest in Mormons, but I suspect that the rewrites between 2008 and 2010 underscored the homosexual angle.
Again, it seems that by slapping the LDS, the writers were really after any church that stands by its teachings. As a Catholic watching Broadway bully the Mormons, I kept thinking, why don't you pick on someone your own size?
"Book of Mormon" is weakened further by its relentless obscenity. Even The New York Times review of the play admitted that the musical was "more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak."
A friend and fellow art historian had perhaps the most reasoned criticism of the show, "So much expense, so much work and so much talent … for this?" The sexual humor and profanity soon become tired gags.
Engaging the camera
While the dark clouds of sex and satire obscuring stage and screen may suggest a bleak forecast, I also witnessed a great force for the year of evangelization, in the newly nominated Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York.
The morning of Jan. 6, I went to morning Mass in the cathedral (silly me, I thought Epiphany was a holy day of obligation) and saw Cardinal Dolan just hours after the nomination, as TV cameras and reporters were piling into the church. Archbishop Dolan met the cameras with ease, explaining his new duties and his commitment to his present responsibilities with a clarity, confidence and joy that was more engaging than any show tune.
He then walked across the street to the set of the Today show, and, pre-empting politics and entertainment, used his new status for a few instants of morning evangelization.
My most memorable New York moment, however, was walking out of the "Book of Mormon" theater, relativist mantras still resounding in my head, and seeing a little chapel directly across the street. It was the Actor's Chapel dedicated to St. Malachy, which has been quietly sitting on 49th Street since 1902. The prayerful space holds chapels to St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors and St. Cecelia, the patroness of music. Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, Bob Hope and Ricardo Montalban prayed here, and Jimmy Durante served at Mass.
The tabernacle with its little red Eucharistic lamp reminds us that Christ sees all. He has been mocked before, far more severely than any musical taunt could, and he has triumphed.