No devil in the details

April 26, 2010

Learning to read isn’t finished by the time you’re eight and you know
how to sound out the words on the page. It’s a practice that grows along
with the years. It turns around the old adage from “seeing is
believing” to “believing is seeing”: it’s hard to see something in a
written text if you aren’t, on some level, already prepared to believe
it.

Over the years of reading the Bible, what I’ve seen—what I’ve
been even capable of noticing—has changed. In early youth I zeroed in
on the weird things: nephilim in Genesis, baptism for the dead in 1
Corinthians. Later it was wisdom for living, especially at the end of
the epistles. Then it was how the real Bible was different from the
Sunday school versions I’d heard. Next was narrative flow and literary
structure. (You can tell the last two came to the fore while I was in
seminary.) Then it was the startling juxtaposition between radical grace
and the hardening of hearts. (Parish ministry.) And on it goes.

When
I can read the Bible for what it wants to tell me, rather than what I
want it to tell me, a theme keeps floating to the surface, one I would
never seek out on my own: the love of things. I noticed it first in reading 1 Kings, which records
in loving detail all the flares and fancies of God’s new dwelling
place: “The cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and
open flowers.” “In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of
olivewood, each ten cubits high.” “There were lattices of checker work
with wreaths of chain work for the capitals on the tops of the pillars.”
This love of things is all over Exodus, too, describing priestly
garments and the ark of the covenant. It even spills over into
Revelation.

Assuming we will be bored by the tedium of lists of things, the lectionary omits Revelation’s loving detail
that describes the new heaven and the new earth descending from heaven,
with the new Jerusalem dressed up like a bride. But what bride isn’t
utterly fascinated by all the details of her wedding attire? The
specific beauty of the new city is part and parcel of its message:

The
wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass.
The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of
jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the
fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh
chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase,
the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were
twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street
of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.

Even though
the old things will have passed away, the new world will not be soberly
drab. It will be sparkling and colorful. Eternity will not be dull, for
the Lord is not dull. When God is with us, forever and for good, the
colors of this world will not pass away into nothingness but will
finally be able serve their original and ultimate purpose of glorifying
God. Not just people but even things have their place in the divine
economy. God is in the details.

Additional lectionary
columns by Wilson appear in the April 20 issue of the Century—click
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