Stephen Roberts explores the theology of Lady Gaga, and what her music has to do with monstrosity and the Bible.
It’s a sad truth: Lady Gaga is not a hymnwriter. I’ve no doubt she would write great worship songs, sure to get my hands in the air. But she hasn’t done; so what’s she doing here? Well, she may not be a hymnwriter, but she has written some great anthems, some of which are heavily freighted theologically, even if more suitable for places where they dance than ‘quires and places where they sing.’ So she is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a musical public theologian. This is particularly the case on the Born This Way album, which remains both her most political and her most theological work to date.
On that album, and especially on the title track, Gaga is upfront in her support of LGBTQIA+ rights as she celebrates the rich diversity of human life:
No matter gay, straight, or bi’, lesbian, transgender life
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to survive …
I’m beautiful in my way ’cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.
The reference to God making no mistakes provides a theological underpinning for the commitment to diversity. But this theological grounding is not without its problems—rather serious problems, in fact. If you are ‘born this way’ and created as such by a God who ‘makes no mistakes’, then your identity is effectively circumscribed by a biological and theological determinism. Of course, what Gaga is doing here is offering a strident ad hominem response to those who argue – whether on the basis of Bible or natural law – that God would not have caused you to be born certain ways. But to base this response on such an essentialism seems like a big price to pay, at least for those who subscribe to some version of queer theory and post-essentialist understandings of gender and sexuality.
But are we in reality asked to pay that price? Not if we watch the music video and the ‘Manifesto of Mother Monster’ that precedes the song itself. Here we find a creation myth that makes Genesis 1–3 seem like hermeneutical child’s play. If you haven’t watched it before, then allow yourself to be taken on a whistlestop tour of ‘the mitosis of the future… the beginning of the new race … within the race of humanity, a race that bears no prejudice, no judgement, but boundless freedom.’ And as you watch, notice the music that is playing as the story unfolds. Do you recognise it? It’s the theme music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film in which a central theme is the possibility of assuming a different identity. And then notice the various visual references to multiple births, further undermining the apparent essentialism of the song’s lyrics.
There are many other ways in which Lady Gaga queers our understanding of gender and sexuality and challenges binaries as, for example, in Telephone, her duet with Beyoncé that J. Jack Halberstam discusses in his book Gaga Feminism. This book, with its own gaga manifesto, welcomes the ‘end of normal’ (as the subtitle has it), and the coming ‘gagapocalypse’ which promises to put a stop to ‘business as usual’ in gender and sexuality. And, yes, there is a certain violence about the language: it is not a gentle process of change that is envisaged and ‘Gaga feminism leads the way to an ‘anarchist project of cultural riot’, the ‘gaga spirit of anarchy that … courses through Lady Gaga’s music and forms the spine of a liberatory anthem.’
What has all this got to do with the Bible and violence? After announcing the birth of the new, non-judgemental race, the manifesto of mother monster, tells of ‘the birth of evil’ and of ‘two ultimate forces’ and all that follows after ‘the pendulum of choice began its dance’. It concludes with her wondering: ‘How can I protect something so perfect without evil?’ This disquieting question is accompanied by guns blazing.
This creation myth, produced by the wonderfully creative ‘Haus of Gaga’, leaves me wondering whether, perhaps, the non-binary understanding is not just concerned with gender and sexuality but goes all the way down to touch the very nature of reality, including the relationship between good and evil, violence and peace. It invites us to consider what lines we draw and where we draw them. This is seen also in ‘Judas’, where Jesus and Judas are held in creative tension: ‘Jesus is my virtue / And Judas is the demon I cling to.’ When prefaced by ‘I wanna love you / But something’s pulling me away from you’, this might initially seem like a classic Romans 7 inspired doctrine of sin. But the way in which Judas and Jesus are both embraced within the video and the lyrics suggests rather a recognition that we need to embrace the monstrous, which invites us to reflect theologically on the monstrosity of the Bible.
In doing this, however, it is important to recognise that the monstrosity of the Bible is complex and cannot simply be equated with the monstrosity of the little monsters to whom Lady Gaga is mother. In the case of the latter, the language of monstrosity is an example of taking a word that is part of the hostile othering of those who are different and embracing it as an affirmation of difference in recognising and celebrating the otherness of the other. The monstrosity of the Bible is different, and multifaceted. As well as much good it has inspired, it is a book that has profoundly shaped the cultural hegemony of Christendom in a way that has contributed significantly to the othering of those exhibiting difference from societal norms perceived as Christian. In this sense the Bible is monstrous in its impact. Its pages too, are populated with monsters from leviathan to the dragon of Revelation. It is also monstrous in the violence that it contains. This is very different from the monstrosity of the little monsters. But might they be related?
In his study of monstrosity and religion, Timothy Beal describes monsters as ‘epiphanies of unknowability’ which ‘reveal the edges of secure knowledge… and… the limits of religious security and stability’. He explores the complex ways in which the monstrous and the sacred are interrelated, and argues for the significance of biblical monsters, whether as potential messengers of the divine (Otto) or as the ‘return of the repressed’ (Freud). Monstrosity in the Bible, as in Lady Gaga, invites us to explore this difficult territory, questioning the lines we draw and the binaries we hold.
This theme of monstrosity as played out both in the Bible and Lady Gaga, then, is complex territory and I have only scratched the surface in opening this dialogue. But this is fertile ground for further exploration and that is why I think Lady Gaga would be a such good hymn writer, going gaga in turning the monstrous Bible into song.
Revd Dr Stephen B Roberts is Tutor in Practical Theology at Cardiff Baptist College, Honorary Lecturer in Theology at Cardiff University, and Assistant Priest at St John the Baptist, Cardiff (Church in Wales). His research has explored chaplaincy, and inter-faith relations, and is increasingly focused on thinking theologically with popular music. He is a member of the Cardiff-based community band Wonderbrass.
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.
 This is the language used in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England to indicate where an anthem might be sung.
 Stephen B. Roberts (2017). ‘Beyond the classic: Lady Gaga and theology in the wild public sphere’. International Journal of Public Theology, 11(2), 163-187. https://doi.org/10.1163/15697320-12341481
 J. Jack Halberstam Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012), pp.61-64.
 Ibid., p.132.
 Ibid., p.137.
 There are lots of discussions of this phenomenon, but for a specific focus on monstrosity, see Karen E. Macfarlane, ‘The Monstrous House of Gaga’, in Justin Edwards and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, The Gothic in Contemporary Literature and Popular Culture: Pop Goth (Routledge, 2012), pp.114-134.
 ‘Judas’ is also on Born This Way.
 See Macfarlane, ‘The Monstrous House of Gaga’ (pp.114ff) for a discussion of the contemporary cultural trend ‘to “de-monster” the monster.’
 Timothy Beal, Religion and Its Monsters, 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2022), pp. 3-4.
 For a full discussion of the significance of ‘going gaga’, see Halberstam, Gaga Feminism, pp.xi-xxv.