What does grace look like? If it made a movie or wore a dress, how would you describe it, aesthetically?

It might be twee or kitsch, since the Gospel is such a personal message that, in our self-absorption, we often sentimentalize, then mass-produce. It could be sublime, as the drama of salvation involves the darkest Powers of the world. Last year’s Met Gala showed us actual dresses inspired by Jesus (or inspired by the art that was inspired by Jesus), and they were sumptuous, uncanny, even irreverent. This year, the Gala didn’t claim Christian vision, but for that reason it might be even more Christian than before.

The official name is “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” It’s a play on Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which is the main guide for the show. Her essay is a collection of 58 “jottings” dedicated to Oscar Wilde, whose dandyism made him a central figure in the history of camp. Although her brief fragments are meant to match the dynamism of camp sensibility and to evade systematic rigor, she teaches us to recognize camp in its exemplars by noting how we respond to them.

And how do we respond to camp? “‘It’s too much,’ ‘It’s too fantastic,’ ‘It’s not to be believed,’ are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm,” Sontag tell us. It’s too much—too much of itself, because camp is also “the glorification of ‘character,’” of “a state of continual incandescence—a person being one, very intense thing.” No nuance, no subtlety, only extravagance!

Yet this extravagance means that camp people and things are less themselves in reality, because they are caricatures of themselves, evacuated of any essential being. “To perceive Camp in objects and persons,” Sontag writes, “is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” Think RuPaul, early superhero comics, tabloid news, “a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” It’s fabulous, sensational performance.

That means “form” always trumps “content.” As Sontag explains, “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” It is the “love of the unnatural.” In people, that exaggeration and artifice may manifest as either androgyny or oversexualization, as in the decadent illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley or certain Old Hollywood heartthrobs. In decor, it’s “the Paris Métro entrances designed by Hector Guimard in the late 1890s in the shape of cast-iron orchid stalks.”

The unnaturalness of camp leads to its most radical effect: “Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.” In its concern for flair and performance, camp has no need of ethical distinctions, only aesthetic ones. In the words of Wilde: “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”

Which sounds, on the face of it, anti-Christian. But while moral dissolution may oppose religious “Christianities,” it’s right in line with the Gospel. You are not under law but under grace!

Of course, the very next breath of this claim seems to undermine its promise of freedom: Sin was our slaver, but now we have to act like we’re free of it (which sounds more like an inverted Stockholm syndrome—I feel much freer when I get to do what I want than when I have these moral quibbles). But perhaps that’s another example of the campy Gospel. It’s unnatural. A great deal of Christian ethics has focused on discerning “natural law,” which certainly has some value. But we can only know the true “nature” of things through a glass darkly—smudged, cracked, dimmed. So when God acts, it looks unnatural, as when God takes the Gentiles into the Jewish promise of salvation “contrary to nature.”

And when God does that, we all become “things-being-what they-are-not.” We’re called resurrected, even while we remain caged in entropy. We’re called rectified, even while we keep suffering and inflicting crookedness. We’re called “beloved,” even when we’re dirty, peevish, and mean.

But things are getting a little too mawkish here! (That’s the kitsch coming through.) I feel embarrassed to write so softheartedly—I’m an intellectual! I feel things, but not without critical distance!—but that kind of intimacy gets through to me. I seize up when I realize how naive it sounds, but I still want to hear it. This quality of the Gospel, to always move outside sophistication, is how God deconstructs my wisdom with God’s own “foolishness.” Like God’s “unnaturalness,” it’s not really idiotic but is instead the only real Wisdom.

“Camp is playful, anti-serious.” Or better, it can be quite serious, even “excruciating,” but never tragic, never despairing. Because camp is always somewhat detached, a little benevolently bored of the world’s doings. And God’s Wisdom is similar. She’s a strange gal, always throwing a party, from the dawn of time on down. When Jesus shows up, being the aesthete he is, he camps it up as Wisdom and throws his own party, performing as “a glutton and a drunkard,” so he can stick with his friends, the “tax collectors and sinners.” (One of them must have owned “a dress made of three million feathers.”) The world, religious and secular alike, just couldn’t understand.

Now, camp isn’t exhaustively Gospel-y. Lots of its qualities tend more toward nothingness than Love. (For one, that same worldly detachment can easily shift from gracious calm into smug bourgeois ennui.) But like every aesthetic phenomenon—punk’s emancipating force, realism’s gritty honesty, the lighthearted irony of Dada—it’s a facet, or a shard, of the incarnation. Which is to say, it’s a refraction of God’s too-much, not-to-be-believed, excruciating, incandescent dissolution of morality in Christ’s righteousness, which he performs for us, in the most extravagant way.

Photographs: Johnny Dufort / The Metropolitan Museum of Art.