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The Talia Concept concept

A well-proportioned naked woman kneels at the edge of a raised open-air platform. Sombrely, she contemplates a scattering of onlookers reclined on picnic blankets, whilst two young girls arrayed as cherubs shroud her head with a transpicuous white veil. The girls depart; the woman rises slowly -- to display some rather unexpected (ahem) 'lady topiary' picturing, in vivid red, the communist insignia. Standing tall -- sinews stiffened, blood summoned, terrible aspect duly lent unto her eye -- she forms her full-lipped lipsticked mouth beneath the veil and fills her lungs and issues forth a fervid bellow: "io non ti amo!" She turns, and strikes the posture of an athlete at the blocks. A pause, to let her audience appreciate the moment of the moment. Then, she sprints: with unconstrained determination down the full length of the platform -- which, it happens, has been given the appearance of a road and ends abruptly with a wall -- and it is at this wall the woman ends her brief and rapid passage with a violent, bloody headbutt and collapses in a heap. Another pause, and then -- applause.

This delightfully absurd vignette, from Paolo Sorrentino's exquisite cinematic ode to Rome "The Great Beauty", riffs on the stereotype of the ever-so-earnest artist, fervently aspiring to avant-garde extremes of bodily discomfort and indignity to serve her weighty calling. "It's the price one pays for one's art", and all that. Amusingly, when later interviewed by the protagonist Jep (a writer), Talia Concept -- referring to herself in the third person and trying desperately to maintain an enigmatic and profound persona -- is forced to confess that her stock reply "my work is guided by vibrations which can't be expressed in words" makes little more sense to her than it does to anybody else. In short, if there is method in her madness, she herself has not discerned it.

Not so with Ezekiel -- Old Testament prophet and, to all appearances, performance artist (of sorts):
“And you, son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. And put siege works against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a mound against it. Set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all round. And you, take an iron griddle, and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; and set your face towards it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel. 
“Then lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it. For the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their punishment. For I assign to you a number of days, 390 days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment. So long shall you bear the punishment of the house of Israel. And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah. Forty days I assign you, a day for each year. And you shall set your face towards the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city. And behold, I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege. 
“And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and emmer, and put them into a single vessel and make your bread from them. During the number of days that you lie on your side, 390 days, you shall eat it. And your food that you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from day to day you shall eat it. And water you shall drink by measure, the sixth part of a hin; from day to day you shall drink. And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.” And the Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations where I will drive them.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I have never defiled myself. From my youth up till now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has tainted meat come into my mouth.” Then he said to me, “See, I assign to you cow's dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.” Moreover, he said to me, “Son of man, behold, I will break the supply of bread in Jerusalem. They shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay. I will do this that they may lack bread and water, and look at one another in dismay, and rot away because of their punishment." (Ezekiel 4)
And so, he does! And it doesn't end there: in chapter 5 he's told to shave his head and face with a sword, and do all sorts of strange things with the off-cuts; in chapter 12 he's told to enact his own exile from the city -- pack up his possessions and dig through a wall and depart with his baggage on his shoulder; in chapter 24 he is told to publicly symbolically refrain from mourning the very non-symbolic death of his wife -- to quite literally hold back the tears. When the people ask him for an explanation -- “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting thus?” (Ezekiel 24:19b) -- he is (by contrast with Talia Concept and some, at least, of the real-life contemporary artists she is modelled on) immediately ready with an answer; quite a disparaging and unsettling one it must be said (see v20-24). His strange demonstrations aren't the product of arbitrary self-expression and artistic ambition; he has had numerous powerful encounters with the presence of God (e.g., in chapter 1), revealing His plans and purposes in heavenly visual imagery (e.g., in chapter 37) and charging Ezekiel to warn and exhort the rest of Israel (and surrounding peoples) accordingly (e.g. chapter 6, chapter 34) -- in words, sometimes, but also in very physical, earthly pictures.

Two things strike me about this element of lived-out metaphor in Ezekiel's ministry. Firstly, God's use of 'shock tactics' to catch the attention of His people -- "You shall go like an exile from your place to another place in their sight. Perhaps they will understand, though they are a rebellious house", He says of Israel (Ezekiel 24:3b). He knows, and uses, the power of visual and physical media to act on us more deeply than words; He knows the significance of truth embodied and lived out. Nowhere is this more fully realised than in the Incarnation -- Jesus, "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15), "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). "The way, the truth and the life" was not transmitted to us in a series of explanations but introduced to us as a person (John 14:6), whose radically gracious, servant-hearted, mercy-filled, miracle-working, expectation-overturning, humble, obedient, sacrificial, death-enduring (what more shocking picture than the cross itself?), and ultimately death-defying life is, I believe, the transformational message of what God has done and is doing, as well as the ultimate example of what it is to live in His Kingdom: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23).

Secondly, in Ezekiel we see a man who (even before the message, accomplishment, and example of Jesus) was faithful and obedient to God to the point of self-denial and the abandonment of his body to his calling. Personally, I recoil at the thought of being told what to do with my body. I've got it all worked out: the exercise I need, the sleep, the quantity and type and timing of the food I eat, the clothes which I find comfortable and to my taste, the scheduling of my day to rightly balance work and relaxation, the music volume I prefer, the chairs which best support my back, the right light level on my laptop screen. Now, I maintain that it is good to aim for order and routine and health where possible; I've had my share of chaos and unhealthy choices and am grateful that God gave me the resources and the prompting to make substantial changes. But I know that any habit is only good to the extent that it is surrendered to the bigger picture of God's sovereignty and Lordship in my life. I get this wrong a lot. It makes me anxious just to think about it sometimes 'cause I don't like the idea that God might ask me to do something I don't want to do. Imagine being presented with the exacting and uncomfortable itinerary of Ezekiel 4! "Must I?", I'd be tempted to reply, "Surely not! Why can't I just tell them? I could write a book; I've always wanted to do that. Or, I mean, I'm not so great with the old public speaking, but I'd be willing to get up there and give it my best shot. Anything but this! All that lying around -- it would play havoc with my back, and positively destroy my muscle tone. And barley cakes? You know, I find I've far more energy when I hold back on the carbs. Plus everyone would think I'm crazy! It might put them off becoming Christians..." (Ohh, the many-layered folly of trying to emotionally blackmail God!)

As far as my understanding goes, the call to specific symbolic self-detrimental physical behaviour is rather the exception than the rule: most of the bodily instruction in the Bible and in Christian discipleship seems to be quite obviously and rationally for our individual benefit, to help us be whole and healthy (although, some of the instructions in the Old Testament have to do with Israel being separate and distinct from the nations around them, and these can seem a little stranger). But the general principle of self-surrender -- and the acceptance of any associated personal discomfort, damage or loss -- is central, I believe, to following Jesus. Ezekiel's readiness to surrender his physical best-interests to the will of God prompts me to look into my own heart...and I see resistance. I see a quickness to defend my needs, my preferences, my comfort -- when the reality is (some part of me reluctantly acknowledges) that I let go of my right to do what I want with me when I first said "Jesus is Lord" and really meant it:
"Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)