Clergy vs. Madonna


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) -Tuesday August 8 was yet another triumph for Madonna.

The star will have her first-ever concert in Russia on September 11, and tickets went on sale yesterday. Young Muscovites started queuing as early as Monday night, and four thousand tickets were sold within a few hours.

Madonna will sing at Vorobyevy Hills, one of the city's most picturesque spots, known to all sightseers who come to Moscow. The event will require 250 metric tons of sophisticated equipment, which will come by 57 huge trucks.

The upcoming pop spectacle has come up against fierce resistance from the Church, and religion unexpectedly proved to have none of the formidable public impact ascribed to it-or else the concert would be banned.

The Church's leaders have been busy for the last several weeks shouting invectives more embittered than those they might use against the Antichrist. Calls on the flock to boycott the concert descended from the pulpits. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, second in command of the Moscow Patriarchate external church relations department, came down on the singer for the Christian symbolism which abounds in her shows. Father Vsevolod says she uses it to quench her sinful passions, and says that Madonna would be better off giving her confession to a priest.

All Christian denominations, and other religions for that matter, bear grudges against the star. Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, for one, accuses her of blasphemy, while a group of distinguished rabbis fulminate against her cabbalistic hobby. The Russian Mufti Council went even farther, saying a woman ought not to appear on stage in outrageous attire-meaning her trademark black tights plus crown of thorns. While wearing all that, Madonna was raised high on a crucifix at each of her European concerts to advertise Confessions on a Dance Floor, her latest CD. Muscovites will certainly see the sacrilegious stunt on September 11.

Meanwhile, boys and girls in Russia and Western Europe joyfully extol their idol, never mind the clergy, showing that something is wrong with the Church's attitudes towards the younger flock. Madonna's triumphs indicate that the piety sweeping the Old and New Worlds alike is not so profound as theologians may assume.

The latter point is especially true of Russia. Religion went through several appalling decades of Communist rule here, with houses of prayer turned into stables and pigsties. Now is the time of religious renaissance-yet that turns out to lie only on the surface. Churches may be chock-full of worshippers on Sundays, and Christmas may have become a national red-letter day, with the president and other VIPs in the congregation. Statistics may be right when they say the number of people who consider themselves religious has grown more than threefold since the late 1980s: 16% of the population in 1986 did so, as opposed to the 50-80% offered by the latest opinion polls.

Be all that as it may, the percentage of true practicing Christians-people who regularly go to confession and communion-remains the same scanty 1.5-2% it was before Mikhail Gorbachev launched his perestroika. In fact, the rediscovered Christianity of an overwhelming majority is no more than a social whim compensating for our recent godless past.

Church attacks on Madonna come to us Russians as deja vu. Communist reprisals against cultural figures and events are fresh in our memory-suffice it to recall an avant-garde art show bulldozed in Moscow, or a cruel campaign against Boris Pasternak after he dared to publish his Doctor Zhivago abroad. Paradoxically, the Church has now adopted secular authorities' ways to strangle free artistic expression. Many see the Madonna story as an alarming sign that the clergy is trying to rule the public mind in a country whose Constitution has freedom of conscience among its pivotal guarantees.

The crazy laser effects in Madonna's concerts spotlight the weak points of current religious life. The generation raised on mobile phones and the World Wide Web regards the Church as something archaic. Rock, pop and rap are far closer to the young soul than sermons. Many Russian Orthodox Church leaders are aware of that. For instance, Metropolitan Cyril often has lively discussions with rock-music crowd.

Meanwhile, clerical wrath will only serve to give Madonna some free advertising.

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