Art: Painting Inside The Lines

From time to time I read comments or blog posts alluding to the skilled craftsmen God commissioned to build the tabernacle and all its accouterments (see for example Stephen Burnett’s article today at Speculative Faith).

The consensus is that extrapolating from visual art to written art is an appropriate way of looking at the verses surrounding the mention of these men. Hence, we conclude such things as God loves beautiful writing, God gave wordsmiths their skill, and artistic expression is a part of worship.

I’ve heard other conclusions that stretch the text (the most common one being, art is not utilitarian but for beauty alone). The interesting thing that grabbed my attention this time as I read Exodus 31, however, was this phrase: that they may make all that I have commanded you.

Not only did God give the size of the table, the ark, the altar, the individual curtains that made up the tabernacle, and those that served as an outer covering, He specified their designs and those on the priestly garments. He detailed the lamp and the incense and the laver and the utensils.

Beyond commanding this construction, though, God showed Moses exactly what it was supposed to look like:

According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it.

See that you make them after the pattern for them, which was shown to you on the mountain.

– Exodus 25:9, 40

So here’s the point. God wanted skilled craftsmen, but He gave them, in story terms, the premise, even outlined the plot and described the characters. The skilled craftsmen were not to create surprise twists or add unexpected characters. In fact, they were warned not to create a new and different incense to burn before the LORD, a command two of Aaron’s sons ignored and paid for with their lives.

If God gave the craftsmen the exact pattern, was what they produced truly artistic? Weren’t they merely coloring within the lines?

I tend to think their work was indeed creative or God would not have singled out Bezalel and Oholiab by name as men who He filled with the “Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship,” nor would He have specified that “in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill.”

Clearly, not any old Joseph would do when it came to making this house of God, even though the craftsmen didn’t bring originality to their work, at least not in the way we normally think of originality.

But wasn’t their pattern much like a writer’s basic five story patterns from which he must choose (man in conflict with man, self, nature, society, or God)? The real art, then, isn’t in trying to come up with a new and improved pattern but in producing quality work within the lines.

I think about this in particular when it comes to a Christian telling the old, old story in fiction. The gospel message is familiar, so some writers want to write from a different pattern, some want to color outside the lines.

On the other hand, some may be coloring too softly or too evenly, not showing any depth perception through shadow and shading. Their work seems flat, monochromatic, dull.

Perhaps we Christian writers need to focus more on the execution of our skill within the lines and less on trying to make up new patterns.

Published in: on September 16, 2010 at 5:19 pm  Comments (3)  
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