Tag Archives: Van Gogh

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.”

The Prophet and the Sower

the sower full

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of the Lord!'”
Ezekiel 13:1-2 (NIV)

I do not believe that we who live in a post-enlightenment age can possibly fathom the religious climate of Ezekiel’s day. A person living in Jerusalem in that day would be familiar with various temples and religious centers catering to a giant web of Canaanite deities. A person living in the time of Ezekiel would be very familiar with mediums, prophets, fortune tellers, and soothsayers. It was a central part of daily life and the economy in the ancient world.

As I read of the prophetic performances God asked Ezekiel and his contemporaries to produce, it is easy to think that they stood out like sore thumbs. However, when I stop to consider the loud cacophony of prophets who catered to popular gods like Baal, Asherah, Dagon, Molech, Lotan, and Chemosh on the streets of Jerusalem, I wonder if Ezekiel’s prophetic performance art caused any more of a stir than a man dressed like Barney the dinosaur would cause in Times Square today.

In today’s chapter God tells Ezekiel to prophesy against false prophets and those sons and daughters of Israel who were profiting from telling people what they wanted to hear and who appear to have mixed themselves and their faith with the practice of other religions. The question I ask myself is whether Ezekiel’s voice could even be heard above the din of the idolatrous crowd.

Today, I find myself mulling over how our culture (even in out post-enlightenment age) both parallels and contrasts the religious atmosphere of Ezekiel’s day. The internet has raised, to unprecedented levels, the cacophony of voices saying anything and everything to anyone and everyone. I am very aware that the voice of my squeaky little posts are lost in the din of information, advertisement, entertainment, opinion, and conjecture. Did Ezekiel feel the same way?

This morning I’m reminded of Van Gogh’s many drawings and paintings of the sower. The sower does not always know where his seed may fall, nor how they might take root, grow, or bear fruit. The sowers job is to cast his seed into the field. The prophets job is to sow his message into the din of contemporary voices.

“He Who Has Ears to Hear…”

A self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh with a ban...
A self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh with a bandaged ear. On display in the Courtauld Gallery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I haven’t been posting much lately other than my chapter a day. I’ve kind of dropped off Facebook and Twitter as well. It’s not necessarily intentional.

It’s been a busy spring. Wendy and I were busy with USP’s spring production. I’m in a busy season of work, the busiest I’ve experienced in many years which has included a hectic business travel schedule. At the same time, we’ve been through a large home project in which the foundation of our house was shored up and the basement completely waterproofed. Now we have a basement piled with all our “stuff” covered in a thick layer of fine cement dust which has to be sorted, cleaned, organized and put away. It all feels pretty mundane and overwhelming at the same time.

In addition, my tinnitus has had periods of being markedly worse this spring. (Side note: There is one school of thought that Vincent Van Gogh went crazy, in part, because of tinnitus and he cut off his ear to rid himself of the incessant ringing. If so, I sympathize with him.) Because of the difficulty I have hearing in places with a lot of ambient noise, I’ve found myself struggling with large social situations and public places. I hate having to ask people to repeat themselves two or three times, or just sitting there hearing the din of conversation but not being able to make out what people are saying. I finally went to the ENT doc to get things checked out only to find that the hearing in my “good” ear has declined rapidly in the past year. The doc suggested I give up caffeine and get fitted for a hearing aid in that ear as well. [sigh] Going through caffeine withdrawal on top of everything else was a barrel of fun.

I’m whining. I know, and I beg your forgiveness. I’m blessed that technology and available resources mean I can get what I need to help me hear. Nevertheless, I admit that the reality of my auditory decline has left me feeling a little sad even as I prepare to celebrate my 46th birthday on Monday. Wendy and I will, however, be at the (blessedly quiet) lake with my folks, Taylor, and Clayton. I’m really looking forward to being there, even if it is only for a day or two.