When Jesus was anointed at Bethany (Mark 14:3-9), the disciples complained that the act was wasteful, the expensive perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus affirms the importance of the action as a preparation for his burial. It was a symbolic act, a performance. Jesus even goes as far as to say “she has done a beautiful thing” (vs. 6). Many translations fudge this line, saying it is a “good” thing. But the Greek word is kalon, beautiful. Jesus is affirming the anointment as a symbolic act worth contemplating, an artwork.
Performance art is an artwork where the “object” to be aesthetically contemplated is an action or event experienced by a live audience rather than a painting or some other physical object that can be hung on a museum wall. Originally meant to free art from consumeristic mentality of the gallery system, performances are not objects that can be bought or sold. They are ephemeral; they happen and then they’re gone. They are usually interactive and often site or audience specific and therefore unrepeatable. Eventually museums did begin to “buy” performances, but all that is in the museum is a card explaining what happened.
This year Marina Abramovic got a lot of publicity for her performance work at MOMA, “The Artist is Present”, in which thousands of people lined up around the block for a chance to sit silently across from her for a few minutes each. Other important performance artists include Yoko Ono who famously invited the media to observe her as she spent her honeymoon in bed with John Lennon. John and Yoko turned the TV coverage of their wedding into a “Bed-In for Peace”, an artwork protesting the Vietnam War.
But one of my favorite performance artists is Josef Beuys. Consider two of his artworks. In “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974), he wrapped himself in a blanket and locked himself in a room with a coyote for 8 hours. And in “How to Explain Pictures to Dead Hare” (1965) he hung artworks on a gallery wall, covered himself in honey and gold leaf, and then whispered in the ear of a dead rabbit, apparently explaining the art to it. These are weird actions, to say the least. But they do seem to have some mysterious symbolism about them. They remind me a lot of things the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel did.
In Ezekiel 4:1-8, God tells the prophet to build a model of Jerusalem, then lay in front of it on his left side for 390 days and on his right side for 40 more days. In Ezekiel 4:9-17, God tells him to make bread out of all kinds of unusual ingredients and then to cook it over a fire of burning human excrement. (Ezekiel chickens out over the excrement, and God allows him to use cow dung instead.) These actions – especially the excrement part – sound exactly like the kind of thing contemporary artists do that drive conservative commentators crazy.
What is especially interesting about Ezekiel’s actions is that, while the scripture explains some of the symbolism to us the readers, nowhere does it say Ezekiel explained the actions to the original audience. God simply told Ezekiel to perform these actions and left it up to the Israelites to interpret them on their own. Apparently Ezekiel was so provocative that the elders of the city would hang out around his house just to watch him and see what he might do next (Ezekiel 8:1).
The other Old Testament prophets did similar things. Isaiah walked around the city naked (Isaiah 20:1-6); Jeremiah filled wine jars and then smashed them together (Jeremiah 13:12-14); Hosea married a prostitute and gave their children some crazy names.
N.T. Wright argues that Jesus saw himself in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, licensing us to interpret many of his actions in this symbolic way. When he feeds the multitude or goes out of his way to heal on the Sabbath or casts a legion of demons into a herd of pigs, he is not just helping the oppressed, he is also telling us something about God. There are other ways he could have accomplished the same goals, and thinking about this as a symbolic action helps us explain the particular details. Some of his actions can be understood in no other way: he cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit even though it was out of season!
Take the legion example (Mark 5:1-20). It is no accident that the demons are called “legion”, the name for a unit in the Roman army. And it is no accident that Jesus casts them into a herd of unclean animals and drives them into the sea just as the occupied Palestinians wished they could drive their Roman oppressors into the sea. Here Jesus is symbolically defeating the Romans while simultaneously showing that the real enemy is spiritual/demonic, not racial. (See Ched Myers’s brilliant discussion of this passage in his book Binding the Strong Man.)
In John’s Gospel, the anointing at Bethany takes place the evening before the Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem (see John 12), and as such it marks the beginning of a series of symbolic actions. The Collect for Palm Sunday says:
Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We contemplate the meaning and beauty of Jesus’s actions the way people contemplate art.
The two most obvious symbolic actions of Jesus’s last week are the cleansing of the Temple and the Last Supper. In these two actions Jesus is symbolically destroying the Temple, enacting God’s judgment on the corrupt Jewish sacrificial system, and replacing that system with himself as the new focal point for worship of God. (N.T. Wright has a great discussion of these events in Jesus and the Victory of God, chapter 9. For a nice summary of the argument, see also p. 42-52 of Wright’s debate with Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.)
What are the lessons of this approach to understanding Jesus’s life? As with Jesus’s use of parables (symbolic stories), we can learn something about human embodiment. Why does Jesus teach in stories and not just lectures? He himself says it is to conceal the truth (Matthew 13:10-17), presumably to allow him to teach his disciples openly but to prevent the religious leaders from understanding the truly radical nature of his teaching and killing him before he was ready. (Compare Matthew 7:6 on not casting your pearls of wisdom before swine, lest they turn on you.)
But that can’t be the whole purpose of the parables. If it were, then why pass down the parables to the next generation? Why not just pass down the literal explanation if the original purpose for the parables (protecting Jesus’s ability to teach) had become moot?
Jesus knows that we are not simply intellectual beings. We are physical, emotional, embodied beings. And symbols speak to us in our embodiment. They draw connections with our everyday lives, they move our emotions, they stick in our memories, they reform our imaginations.
But perhaps more importantly, symbols are multivalent – they have more than one meaning. Initially it might sound controversial to say that Jesus’s parables and actions have multiple interpretations. Evangelicals are usually taught to look for “the one right interpretation” of any passage. But even the most conservative Christian would agree that there is always another sermon to be preached about every passage. We’re never “finished” understanding the Bible. There is always more meaning to be found in the Scriptures. The Scripture itself is more fundamental than any explanation. We can never so perfectly “extract the meaning” out of the Bible such that we would no longer need to read the original text. This is true of any artwork. No explanation or description of a painting or poem or performance could ever replace the object or event itself. There is always more than one meaning to be given to any symbol.
In a way I am arguing for an allegorical reading of Scripture. But rather than looking for a meaning behind the literal text like medieval theologians did, in pointing to Jesus’s actions as performance art I am suggesting that the literal events themselves should be taken symbolically. Hence taking the actions symbolically doesn’t mean thinking they didn’t really happen. Jesus literally died on a Roman cross, but if the whole point of the crucifixion is simply substitutionary atonement, then he could have died in any way: stoning, fed to lions, hanging, beheading, electric chair.
But what if we take a stronger view of Providence? God came to earth in the time and place he did, because there is something symbolically important about crucifixion. This particular death was an enacted allegory, a performance artwork. John 3:14 connects the crucifixion to the serpent that was lifted up on a pole in Numbers 21. Likewise Galatians 3:13 suggests that it is important that Jesus hangs on a tree. Moreover, the whole idea of substitutionary atonement itself depends on the symbolism of sacrifice, killing one thing in place of something else. Maybe we can extend the idea of performance art back into the Old Testament sacrificial system. God doesn’t need the blood of animals (Psalm 50:8-13), so why does his Law require shedding blood for forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22)? Perhaps there is important symbolism here. The important point, however, is to remember that any explanation we give is only ever partial.
Connecting these two themes (embodiment and multivalence), we can say that symbols point us toward practices as primary and doctrines as secondary. What God wants is us to tell the story of Christ, not necessarily to understand the story. He wants us to do something, not just to believe something: faith without works is dead. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is to go and make disciples, people who can obey Christ’s commandment to love one another, not just intellectually affirm that Jesus died for our sins (1 John 2:3-4, 3:23).
Finally the weekly Eucharistic liturgy is a performance artwork, one in which we are simultaneously the artists and the artworks. We perform the symbolic actions of eating the bread and wine, but God performs the action of transforming us into the body of Christ. And since this is an artwork, we shouldn’t feel like there must be a final literal explanation of what’s happening and how. Is the bread transubstantiated into Christ’s literal body or is it a symbolic occasion for our remembrance or something in between? We don’t need to decide once and for all. There are many ways of interpreting the Eucharist-artwork. As N.T. Wright has said, at the Last Supper Jesus didn’t give us a theory, he gave us a meal. Our faithful performance is primary, not our intellectual understanding and explanation of it.