Divine Details: finding God in “just-so”

Elmslie Wharton, “Still Life Poinsettias”

Elmslie Wharton, “Still Life Poinsettias”

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts…so that they may make all that I have commanded.’” Exodus 31: 2-7

This past week a friend and I were hanging art for the Art Loop in the lobby at the Grace Church campus. As a musician, it is rare that I get such insight into the process of visual artists from their own perspective. As we hung the work, I got to hold (very carefully) each of the beautiful oil paintings. I was enthralled by their texture and detail up close. I could see the individual brush strokes, the minute details of color and shading. In one work, I had sensed the location of the source of light, but as I looked closer I noticed it was a tiny bit of white paint in the figure’s hair that was creating this affect.

As we hung them, my friend (a museum curator) was explaining to me how some artists stretch their own canvases. I had so many questions— how does that work? Why do artists do it? What are the pros and cons of buying the canvas pre-stretched? Apparently stretching your own is all about controlling the feel of the brush against the tightness of the canvas. Suddenly it all made sense to me. Painters, just like oboists, have to have things “just so.” Little details matter….of course they do!

I can’t tell you why all my reeds need to be tied in blue thread—they just do. I always write better if I use a specific pen in a specific type of notebook. I have string player friends who wear their wedding rings on their right hand, because they don’t like how it feels on the fingerboard side. This “just so-ness” in artists isn’t always applauded by our friends and family. At first glance it might seem over-the-top—why stretch your own canvas? Why make your own reeds, when you can buy them? These seemingly inconsequential things, with all their idiosyncrasies, are elevated for us as we try to make beautiful things.

You’ve heard the phrase “The devil is in the details.” I’ve been reflecting on that and have decided: for me, it isn’t the devil, but the divine. This way of seeing the world, of caring deeply about aesthetics, is an attitude I feel we share with our great Creator (just catch a sunrise and you immediately sense that whoever designed this world had an affinity for the beautiful). Anyone in the business of making beautiful things knows that these effects come from the choreography of many minute details. The way you hold the instrument matters, the way your hands come in contact with the keys, whether or not you stretch your own canvas—it all matters: all these little aesthetic choices are not just because artists are particular, but because something magical happens when they come together perfectly. In a mystical and miraculous act of creation, the human and the spiritual meet, “just so.”

Bezalel would have likely agreed. (He’s a new Bible person I learned about recently.) He was the man mentioned in the Exodus passage above, where God describes the “how-to” of building the Tabernacle to Moses. The Tabernacle is meant to symbolize the place on earth that God planned to inhabit. Escaping from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are given a new way of living, all the details of which are described “just-so.” The Tabernacle will be center piece of this new life. Bezalel is the artisan who gets the gig.

There are many things I love about this story: I love that God wants to make the Tabernacle beautiful, explaining to Bezalel to use scarlet and blue tapestry, precious jewels, and special furniture, all designed with the finest craftsmanship. It isn’t solely a utilitarian structure like a voting booth or a work cubicle; it is performance art. It feels decadent and extravagant. The Tabernacle was very important to the Israelites because it was the symbolic and “incarnate” place where the holy met the earthly, where God dwelled. Even in its design and creation, God’s Wisdom and Spirit dwelled among them and in them, giving life to their artistic prowess and skill.

I love too, that God is deeply in the details of the creation of the Tabernacle. I feel a kindred spirit with God in that—I can completely understand wanting this structure “just-so.” What a relief to know that God gave wisdom, understanding, and talent to the artists for that project (and offers us the same in every project we set about to accomplish.) We can rest as we create, knowing that there are gifts to be gotten from the Source of creative power, each time I sit down at the desk or music stand. I am not alone when I am creating; on the contrary, each time I do so, I collaborate with God.

Just like the source of light is made clear through key details in a painting, God paints God’s Self right into our canvases (pre-stretched or not.) In the Gospel of John, it says of Jesus: “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) The Greek word used for dwelling was the same word for the Tabernacle. In other words, The Word became incarnate and “tabernacled” among us. The work of art that God had instructed the people to build with their skill and artistry—to hold the Holiest of Holies—was now embodied by this man Jesus.

Jesus is God’s finest work of art. The good news is: instead of destroying the Tabernacle, he embodied it that we, too, can be living tabernacles, living artworks, of God. Through Jesus, we are again reminded of God’s commitment to our flourishing, and not just a basic run-of-the-mill existence, but one of artisanal, creative, and beautiful joy.

So to all the artists out there who get flack for needing things to be a certain way, what you do and how you do it matters: the way your pen feels on the paper, which direction your desk is facing in your writing room, the brand of rosin you use on your bow, the temperature of the water for your reeds. We know, from Bezalel’s work on the Tabernacle, that God is in the details, that God trusts artists enough to collaborate with us, that our work matters.

Here’s the best part: God still calls us artists to the “just-so,” meeting us in our moments of beauty, details and all.