God’s creativity informs the calling of songwriters, novelists and painters. Does it do the same for pastors, parents, and plumbers? In Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making, musician and award-winning novelist Andrew Peterson explores how believers of all kinds participate in the “great mystery of creativity,” combining anecdotes from his own journey with a nuts-and-bolts look at the work of making songs and stories. W. David O. Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, spoke with Peterson about the art of telling the truth as beautifully as possible.
What can your book offer to artist readers?
I hope they will find a fresh passion for doing whatever creative work they’re called to do. While I was writing, I kept asking myself: Is this encouraging? And I mean that literally, as in, “Will this give someone courage?” I hoped, first, to be as honest as possible about the mental battles I’ve experienced and, second, to offer some practical advice. The idea was to tell people they aren’t crazy if they feel lost in the woods—and then to show them a trail.
What can it offer to non-artist readers?
All of God’s creatures are creative in some way. To use J.R.R. Tolkien’s word, we’re all subcreators made in the image of a Creator. That’s why I object when people refer to themselves as “creatives,” not only because it sets up a sort of “creative class” (which strikes me as presumptuous) but also because implies that non-artists aren’t called to create.
My wife is a prime example. She would never call herself as an artist, but she’s one of the most creative people I know, as evidenced by the care she invests in decorating our home, the way she loves our children, and the way our community is better and brighter because of her presence. My friend, the author Jonathan Rogers, says that the arts make up a smaller slice of the creative pie than, say, friendship or a family dinner. I’ve found that songwriting isn’t all that different from gardening, teaching, or planning a church potluck.
How would you describe your vocation as an artist in one sentence? And how does it connect to the title of your book?
I want to tell the truth as beautifully as I can. That may feel like a small thing. But when I think about the vast emptiness of space and the stars that beautifully adorn that heavenly canvas—that’s what I’m trying to get at with the title. Seemingly small things really do matter, and as Christians we can either be afraid of the darkness or we can scatter stars across it.
You write about how Christian radio stations now only play worship music. What’s lost, to your mind, for listeners who no longer get a chance to hear songs about the whole of the Christian life—good and bad, hard and easy, serious and lighthearted, sacred and ordinary?
I’m grateful for the fact that Christian radio stations have (sometimes) played my songs. I certainly don’t want to burn any bridges there. It’s easy to gripe about things like Christian radio until you meet the people working in it—people who, in many cases, are doing great work within the narrow confines it affords.
That said, I see a gnostic tendency to elevate so-called “worship songs” as holier than songs about the grit of daily life. At the other end of the spectrum there’s a tendency to buck against churchy language and elevate what we call “secular music.” But the Incarnation is the confluence in Christ of the wholly divine and the wholly human.
I love how Rich Mullins wrote about the “winds of heaven” and the “stuff of earth,” which happens to be one of his album titles. As a young man who loved everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Don Henley to Paul Simon, it was a revelation to me that who Jesus is has real-time bearing on things like drives through the mountains, breakups, politics, and family. When I heard Mullins sing lines like, “And the countryside was pocked with all of those mail pouch posters thrown up on rotting sideboards of these run-down stables, like the one that Christ was born in, when the old world started dying, and the new world started coming on,” the birth of Jesus felt more real and relevant—but so did the ramshackle barns of West Virginia.
To what extent should a believer artist strive to offer something both difficult and delightful, both familiar and foreign, both accessible and stretching?
Believing artists are responsible for obeying the Holy Spirit in the outworking of their gifts. Sometimes that means stretching people—feeding them their vegetables, so to speak—and sometimes it means commiseration, comfort, or delight. If you’re trying to tell the truth as beautifully and lovingly as you can, then it’s up to the Spirit to do what he will in the heart of the receiver. Thinking too much or too clinically about your endgame might hobble the horse, if you will, of your work. I have high hopes for what a listener or reader should experience in a song or story, but ultimately it’s not up to me.
What habits have been most helpful in your practice of art-making?
I can’t overstate how important it is to sow the seed of your gifting in the garden of a community of Christians. After that, it’s a matter of mindset: thinking of the cultivation of your gift as a life’s work. That doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your day job; it just means taking seriously the fact that the gospel is true, that it matters, and that the best thing we can do with our time is proclaiming the coming of the New Creation, whatever our gifting is.
What’s one way that artists can show love to the church?
Artists need to show up. Go to church, even if you don’t want to. Humble yourself by rubbing shoulders with people who don’t get your songs. Artists should forgive the church. And they should also remember that the very church they may gripe about is the same one that, through the ages, has produced the finest works of art the world has ever known. The church is a steward of mystery, whether it knows it or not, and mystery is the medium in which artists work best.
What’s one way that the church could show love to artists?
The church can love artists simply by seeing them. There’s a seat for them at the table in God’s kingdom. They’re no more or less important to a community than anyone else, so in the same way local churches might celebrate a good Sunday School teacher, they should celebrate their painters and storytellers.
Artists are typically tenderhearted creatures, and it takes courage to fling their work out into the world. It’s a lonely thing to show up on Sunday and feel like no one cares, or that your work is merely indulged and not shepherded.
Our pastor once commissioned my then-16-year-old son to paint the Trinity for Trinity Sunday. He worked for weeks on a beautiful painting that the pastor placed on an easel beside the lectern. During the sermon he passed it around the congregation as he preached. I sat there crying. I couldn’t stop thinking about what a difference that would have made to me at 16, to have been seen and appreciated, to experience my small gift edifying my community.