1000 Words: Jacob Wrestling with God, by Jack Baumgartner

Jack Baumgartner, Jacob Wrestling with God, 2012, used by permission

Our bulletin on Sunday will feature this contemporary art by Jack Baumgartner, a multi-talented artist/woodworker/farmer/photographer/banjo player/puppeteer  in Rose Hill, KS.  As I originally found the piece to be particularly engaging while looking on Google Image search, I looked at the blog that was hosting the painting, and was delighted to see an artist who not only had an obvious passion for Biblical subjects and something of a mystical, nuanced eye, but who also engaged his audience in a way that I always find refreshing.  When interpreing the symbolism in his own piece, he remarked 

“When I make a painting, there is always a tension between intent and intuition.  In the painting of Jacob, there is meaning that I intended to place there and there is meaning that emerges as I work, often pointed out by an outside observer.  Both are placed there in faith, and both are discovered again in faith.  I receive requests to reproduce the image of Jacob Wrestling with God regularly.  Whatever other arrangements are made, I always beg the insight of the requestor, because I want to know what has been placed in my work by God, which is hidden to me, but perhaps not to them.”

So, when I emailed Jack to request permission for using the work on our bulletin, I offered a bit of my own perceptions of his work.  Namely, that

I found it interesting that Jack’s intent in creating the hands pulling back the curtains on the scene were meant to portray intimacy—and that this wrestling with God is perhaps the most sacred and private acts of faith.  Jack saw the curtains as being those sectioning off the “Holy of Holies,” the ones that are torn as Jesus is being crucified.  Without reading his interpretation though, my first impression was of the curtains being pulled back on a circus tent, with this action happening in the center ring.  Perhaps this too, is a true “reading” of the icon—as our own struggle with God—how we interact with God and the challenges we face, are part of the public square.  And as we grapple with the truth that our own God is, in Charles Wesley’s words, “a universal love,” our God may be made more and more real to those observing the spectacular spectacle.

But, I really like Baumgartner’s original intent with the hands drawing back the curtains too, and perhaps the book I read this summer gave me a sublimenal push toward seeing the painting as I did without excluding the artist’s original intent.  Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a tale about two powerful magicians who pitch a contest between their proteges in which the “battleground” is a mysterious circus which seemingly portrays the deepest hopes and fancies of the visitors.  In this way, the circus is simultaneously public art and subconscious desire and struggle–and ultimately a symbol of the power of story.

As one of Jack’s friends noted of this painting, God grips Jacob by the heel—harkening back to Jacob’s birth, his namesake as one who grasps onto opportunity and will not let it go.  In authentically acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of our heritage, God renames us and creates us anew.  IN the painting, it seems as though God is beginning to twist Jacob’s leg out of socket by the heel, and perhaps this reminder of “who he was” will give Jacob the humility and courage to limp forward “as he is” to reconciliation with a brother, thus taking hold of the true destiny, “as he will become,” the father of the nation which bears his new name.   This transition into our becoming is always a struggle—it is always a wrestling match.

And who is this God who is so mysteriously, compellingly, fluidly rendered by Baumgartner?  In my correspondance with him, I recognized  the swirling robes as being indicitive of the God who speaks “out of the whirlwind” to Job, another man locked in a struggle with God.  Baumgartner points out that Jacob is naked–thus depicting the truth that nothing is hidden from God.  I would also add that while Jacob’s muscles are pronounced and tensed, the figure of God is wrapped in the swirling robes and the face is hidden from the observer’s view.  Both indicators of God’s utter mysteriousness.  But, the arms are seeming to both pin and embrace Jacob.  The left arm is seemingly defying the limits of flexibility and is reaching up to, what?  steady the right arm and thrust the leg out of socket?  Perhaps, but it also looks as though the arm is moving to cradle this child.  Though God is ineffible, God is also compassionate and interested in the lives of human beings.

And that embracing struggle, that ”

Frederick Buechner  calls The Magnificent Defeat, and Walter Brueggemann suggests as an alternative “The Crippling Victory” is a harmonious duality.  So, it is no wonder that I also see a hint of the Chinese symbol of this principle, the Yin-Yang, in the circular struggle of the two figures.

It certainly is a beautiful painting, and one I’m glad to be able to share.


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