Every year on the first Monday in May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute holds a gala to celebrate the opening of their spring exhibition. This year’s exhibition is “Camp: Notes of Fashion”, inspired by a 1964 essay by the writer and social critic Susan Sontag entitled “Notes on Camp.” Like past years, the attendees to the exclusive social and fashion event were asked to dress to reflect the theme of the exhibition. From Billy Porter, dressed entirely in gold and held aloft on a golden platform carried in by anonymous gold-clad men, to Tiffany Haddish’s homage to the zoot suit style of Cab Calloway to Lady Gaga who “performed” four outfit changes during her entrance to the gala, guests brought their own interpretation of camp aesthetic for display. Following the event, I began to ask: How can camp contribute new ways of thinking and talking about God and theology? How can we interpret scripture through the lens of camp? What does camp have to say to those who have suffered greatly or who lack spiritual direction? I believe the ironic reverence, joy and humor of camp speak to our lives as theologians and pastoral leaders.
The Oxford Dictionary defines camp as “deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style.” Sontag states that “the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration . . . of things-being-what they-are-not.” As a child of the seventies, my camp icons were Cher, John Waters films (Divine!) and David Bowie – luscious makeup, tongue-in-cheek, over the top performances and visual treats that questioned dominant standards of politics, class, sex, gender, taste, fashion and behavior. These people saw the hypocrisy of the “normal.” What drew me to camp as a kid and continues to excite me is the expression of the self through art and fashion that transcends traditional expectations. Growing up I loved sneaking into the bathroom, applying the most dramatic eye-shadow and lipstick combinations, and admiring myself in the mirror. My camp icons helped me not take myself so seriously, because they didn’t take themselves seriously and they looked like they were having fun! Camp has an element of humor, irreverence, even an ironic reverence. Camp loves history and tradition but does not make an idol of either.
Camp exaggerates the past by injecting it with a particular artifice – feathered, bouffanted, hair-sprayed, sequined, draped – while keeping it recognizable and relatable. It’s the outsiders’ version of tradition that makes the world look at culture in a new way – like performing a task with your opposite hand or picturing Moses in a big-shouldered pant suit. Camp creates new meaning from the “old” in creative and outrageous interpretations of shared historical references. We are in on the joke and cultural context.
In her essay, Sontag writes that “camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes indignation, sponsors playfulness.” I would add that camp can be a way to question moral codes that have excluded the experiences of those outside normative Western white male culture. Camp is a way of telling the story of one’s experience of history, playfully commenting on politics, power, society, ideas and values.
Camp helps us to re-evaluate and recreate new spiritual and theological stories for our time. I think camp is a way to hold the importance of tradition more lightly -- to not make an idol of scripture, or to critique normative ideas about Jesus or his disciples. Last month United alum Rev. Craig Lemming preached a sermon, “Drag Queens, Mary, and Jesus: Lavish, Outrageous, and Extravagant Love,” at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. For Lemming, drag queens are marginalized people who respond to oppression with “a lavish, outrageous, extravagant display of joy that is ‘burnished by the fire of adversity, oppression and struggle.’” For Lemming both the Biblical Bethany and modern drag queens reflect the lavishness in the image of God, teaching us “ how to outrageously, unashamedly and unapologetically love ourselves and each other [...] and God as extravagantly, lavishly and outrageously as God loves all of us!”
Camp is a way of breaking open new ideas about how we image embodiment, God, faith and scripture. If Ziggy Stardust is made in the image of God, what does that say about divinity? The pitfalls of life can make me feel completely alienated from the world around me, but Ziggy, the literal alien pop star, helps me see myself as a beloved part of creation. Imagine stories from scripture being performed in a Real Housewives format showing us conflict, jealousy, pain, beauty, forgiveness, disconnection and reconciliation so that we see how Biblical texts still speak to us today! The possibilities are endless. When we hold humor and irony in paradoxical relationship with reverence, we reveal faces of the sacred that have otherwise been hidden. Camp is revelation!