Tag Archives: Performance Art

Prophets, Poets and a Touch of Madness

“Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the Lord has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath.”
Jeremiah 7:29 (NIV)

There was a fascinating story on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday talking about the connection between creativity and mental illness. There is no doubt that there is a disproportionate number of genius artists, writers, and musicians who struggled with some form of mental condition. Observations of the connection between genius and madness date back to Aristotle, though it’s only been in recent years that the connection has been seriously studied.

As we watched the story Wendy wondered aloud if there isn’t also a disproportionate number of creatives who would be considered Type Four on the enneagram. I would bet that she is right. Creativity often springs from the inherent individuality and expression  natural to Fours.

These thoughts were swimming in my head as I read this morning’s chapter. It begins the transcription of a message God gave to Jeremiah in order that he stand at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem and proclaim the message. The ancient prophets were often standing in the crowds shouting messages from God.

Amidst the message Jeremiah reports God telling him to shave off his hair and take up the wailing songs and prayers of lament on the “barren heights.” This was another mark of the ancient prophets: acts that today we would call “performance art” (some simple and others quite complex) that God regularly prescribed the prophets to act out in public.

I find that most modern believers approach the prophets with a certain amount of reverence that translates into a white-washed perception of them. Just as Van Gogh sold just one painting in his lifetime, so the prophets were not particularly well received in their day. Only in 20/20 hindsight have their words and reputations been scrubbed clean by institutional religion. As I said before, they were an odd lot. They were often despised and marginalized. They were the sketchy characters from whom parents likely shielded their children:

Mommy? Who’s that strange man over there walking naked and tied to an ox yoke?

Pay no attention, sweetie. Stay away from him. He’s just a crazy old man.”

The prophets were hated, especially by the political-religious class who were commonly the targets of their public, prophetic tirades. The prophets were targeted for assassination and killed by the power brokers of their day. Even Jesus testified to this truth when He confronted the political-religious leaders of His day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you….”

This morning I’m thinking about creativity and its connection to oddity. I’m thinking about God’s use of those odd, strange, mad individuals among us who see what the mainstream doesn’t and express what the mainstream can’t, won’t, and/or doesn’t desire to hear. Prophets, artists, and poets stand as reminders what God said through the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.”

God’s Nude, Performance Art Prophet

…at that time the Lord spoke through Isaiah son of Amoz. He said to him, “Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet.” And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot.
Isaiah 20:2 (NIV)

I am taking a step back this morning and thinking long and hard on this little fact from this morning’s rather short chapter: God told Isaiah to strip and walk around naked as a living word picture and performance art piece that foretold what the Egyptians were going to experience under Assyrian captivity.

I heard the voices of many an uptight grandmother, legalistic preacher, and fundamentalist friend explaining  that something must surely be lost in translation and God would never ask His servant to do something so shameful and improper. “Perhaps Isaiah just stripped down to his boxers or something,” I hear the voices say.

Yet just the next verse God makes the message very clear:

“so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared—to Egypt’s shame.” Isaiah 20:4 [emphasis added]

Bare-assed shame was the crux of the message. God was not pulling any punches.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways I let social and societal mores mold the way I see God. The further I get in my life journey the more I’m aware that I sometimes like to put God in the box of my own design, constrained by my own social, cultural, political, and religious preconceptions. The more willing I am to let God out of my own mental and spiritual box, the more deep and full my understanding and appreciation of God becomes, and the more transformative that knowledge becomes in my own life.

chapter a day banner 2015

“YOU’RE GOING TO PEE YOUR PANTS!”

source: neratama via Flickr
source: neratama via Flickr

And when they ask you, ‘Why are you groaning?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that is coming. Every heart will melt with fear and every hand go limp; every spirit will become faint and every leg will be wet with urine.’ It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Ezekiel 21:7 (NIV)

The prophets had to have been a strange lot. They were prone to do strange things and act out obscure (what we would, today, call “performance art”) productions in public places. Their personal lives were often metaphors for the messy spiritual condition of the culture. Their steady stream of public messages were not known for their tact or their propriety.

Take today’s chapter, for example. God tells Ezekiel to stand out in the public square and groan. Not just a little “I think the cream cheese on that bagel didn’t agree with me” groan. GROAN like your beloved mother just died. GROAN like a husband who just found out his wife was sleeping with his best friend. GROAN like you feel a hideous creature ready to burst out of your insides as in the movie Alien. Make a public spectacle of yourself so that people will circle around you in wonder and mothers shoo their young children away from you in fear.

Then, when people start asking Zeke what’s wrong, God tells him to say, “When I tell you YOU’RE GOING TO PEE YOUR PANTS!”

While I’m not sure they would make the most enjoyable dinner guests, there are times when I find the old prophets really refreshing. They remind me that, while there is a time for propriety, there are also times in life for saying things in a way that would make your Aunt Nita blush and shrink back in shame. There are moments for communication that smacks of brash, in-your-face impropriety.

Of course, wisdom is required in choosing the right moments. The key part is knowing when to speak and when to keep silent.

“The Play’s the Thing”

David Tennant as Hamlet
David Tennant as Hamlet

“Now, son of man, take a block of clay, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: Erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face toward it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the people of Israel.”
Ezekiel 4:1-3 (NIV)

In the play Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark is faced with a dilemma. His father died and his mother was quickly married to his uncle, the brother of his father. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, tells the prince he was murdered by his brother, and tasks Hamlet with revenge. Hamlet is haunted by the vision, the accusation, and his task. He must find a way to verify that the story his father’s ghost told was true.

The idea Hamlet comes up with is to have a visiting troupe of actors write and produce a play that tells the very story his father described: a king murdered by his brother in order that he might marry his brother’s wife. Hamlet knows that if his uncle is guilty of murdering his father, then the uncle will be convicted by the play and Hamlet will know for sure that what his father’s ghost said is true. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet says, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of a king.”

In today’s chapter it is God who is saying to Ezekiel, “The play’s the thing.” He commands Ezekiel to do very much what Hamlet did. Ezekiel is going to get out the ancient equivalent of his Legos and erector set and play out the siege of Jerusalem in a marathon performance art piece which will last for well over an entire year. Ezekiel’s public performance was intended to visualize for his people what they were in for if they didn’t turn their hearts around, and to convict them to repent.

In the class I’ve been teaching on Wednesday nights we’ve been exploring metaphor, how it is the foundational way in which God expresses Himself, and the powerful ways we use it to communicate. Today’s chapter serves as a powerful example. He didn’t tell Ezekiel to preach from the street corner. He told Ezekiel to act it out.

source: Michael Buesking (prophetasartist.com)
source: Michael Buesking (prophetasartist.com)