“If it’s true that Christ, the source of all beauty and creativity, is infinite, then the well can’t run dry,” Andrew Peterson writes in the introduction to his recent album, Light for the Lost Boy. “It bubbles over and graces us with light and more light, world without end. What a joy it is to plumb those depths.”
I recently sat down with Andrew Peterson at Royal Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio, as he toured with on The Storytellers Tour. We discussed community, the creative process, finding joy in the gospel, and whether he and Eugene Peterson share ancient Viking blood.
At the beginning of your recent album you quote J. R. R. Tolkien—“we all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile”—affirming both the beauty and brokenness of this world. What do you see as a danger of emphasizing only one of these realities in your music and the church in general?
When I was young my intuition told me the world is a screwy place. And so whenever I encountered art that didn’t seem to acknowledge the brokenness of the world, I experienced it as dishonesty. It was short-selling the truth. So I tended not to give it the benefit of the doubt. If it didn’t have some darkness in it, then I would just assume it was shallow.
There was also a time in high school when I was into too much darkness. And there is an old saying, though I can’t remember the source, that “if you look too long into the abyss, the abyss might look back.” There is a danger in dwelling too much on the darkness as well, because it’s not the entire truth either.
I am not sure that I am articulating the danger, except to say that either one is dishonest.
In terms of the church, there is a pastor in Missouri who introduced me to a number of people in his congregation who were victims of abuse, recovering drug addicts, and former gang members. It was a really diverse congregation filled with people with broken pasts, and I wept because they were so full of life and full of Christ.
I asked the pastor how he ended up having these remarkable people in his congregation. And he said, “I was abused as a boy and always kept it a secret. And one day I felt the Holy Spirit convict me that I needed to share with others about my abuse, and I began telling my story from the pulpit.” Soon his church became known as the church you go to when you have a broken past. What a beautiful example of what we are talking about.
And that’s what I mean by acknowledging the brokenness—the kind of darkness this pastor acknowledges is within the context of the triumph of Christ. So as a Christian, I don’t have to be afraid. If I am telling my story in the context of hope and the gospel, there is no darkness we can walk into that the light will not conquer. So that allows me as a songwriter and storyteller to take a deep breath and then plunge in.
In the same introduction, you also highlight the influence of your friends in the creative process. For someone who views art and work as merely self-expression and doesn’t invite others into the creative process, how would you describe the effect of others in shaping and improving your work?
I was recently talking to a friend about communion and how I’ve been craving the weekly celebration. I love going to church and regularly being confronted with the body and blood of Jesus. And my friend commented, “Can’t you just do that at home among your family if you are at a church that doesn’t serve it every Sunday?” And I guess you could, but it’s not as rich of an experience as when you are sitting in the community where you belong.
Christianity was never meant to be experienced in isolation. It requires community and interaction on an intimate level with human beings. Songwriting or art or work can’t be isolated from any other part of my Christian life—like taking communion. It’s all best experienced in community.
And I can’t overstate how much I have been wounded and then healed, how much I’ve experienced God’s pleasure and then God’s discipline, through the community to which I belong. I am not trying to say that you can’t be a great artist and still be a loner; I just don’t want to be one.
What would you say to someone—artist, pastor, or mom—who feels like the well has run dry? How do you stay surprised about the gospel and excited about telling it in creative ways?
On the way to the hotel today, our bass player, James, was looking through the trees, and he could see some dogwoods that were in bloom. And he started talking about how much more beautiful the dogwood tree is in the wild than when it’s in the front yard, because when it’s in the front yard it’s not under the canopy of the older trees. And there is something more fragile about seeing it in the context of a forest. And I had never thought about that before. Then we talked about what a blessing it is to be around people who help you to see better.
So I think community is one of the big answers here too. One of my dear friends, an older gentleman, recently came to me, seeing that I was getting exhausted from the constant demands of work, and said he wanted to enter into a kind of covenant with me for a season to walk together and have liturgies with each other. He said, “I am going to call you every Sunday afternoon, or you call me, and we are going to pray for each other and talk about where we are, and we are going to read the same psalm every day.” So every day I’ll get a text reminding me what psalm to read.
And when this mentor/friend shared this desire with me, I immediately said yes, because I want to shape the minutes of my day around the gospel of Jesus. I don’t want to just do ministry in the broad sense and justify other things because “I do kingdom work.” I can still be a jerk in the middle of day and I can lust, I can have selfish thoughts, and I can say biting things—and I want deal with these things too. I want to be someone guided even in the particulars with the gospel. And when we understand the gospel rightly we are free to experience this kind of discipline as a life-giving thing and not as legalism and death-giving. Whatever creative things God has in store for me must flow out of this first commitment to become more like Jesus.
Next I would tell someone to realize there are going to be seasons where you might not feel like you are making any progress. My son is an illustrator, and one thing that I remember when I was kid about drawing was that I could get so frustrated. The same thing happened to me with learning music. You can feel like you are spinning the wheels and not getting any better. If you are kind of audacious though and don’t quit, and you push and push, then one day without explanation there is a breakthrough and suddenly you can play the run you couldn’t play two weeks ago. I don’t know why it works that way, but I believe our spiritual lives are the same way.
Finally, if you can interact with art in a meaningful and intentional way—that’s what wakes me up. It’s easy to put your iPod on shuffle and clean the kitchen without sitting down and really listening to a song. We lack focus. Stephen King says there is a gnome that lives in his basement and passes him pages up through the floor boards, and he has to feed the gnome well or he stops giving him pages. So I feed the gnome by watching good movies, reading great books, and being with friends.
On a lighter note—a friend of The Rabbit Room, Sally Lloyd-Jones once blogged about often being asked if she is related to the Lloyd-Jones. Has anyone ever asked you if you are related to the Peterson—Eugene Peterson?
That’s funny because I actually did a retreat with Eugene Peterson at Laity Lodge in Texas. I am not on his radar screen (not even U2 was on his radar screen); but it just happened that I was playing the music at this retreat where he was teaching. Anyway, we talked about our mutual Swedish heritage and not much more. Well, at Laity Lodge they have this bookstore with all these great theological books and whoever is speaking usually has their books displayed as well. So Eugene had all his books out on display, and I had my fantasy novels out. The people there were like, “How neat, Eugene’s son Andrew is a fantasy novelist.”
So we had to constantly explain that we weren’t related. And it felt so embarrassing if you can picture it—there’s on one table next to On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness on another one. So that was the only time I’ve been asked, and the answer is no, we’re not related, except maybe to some mutual Viking back in the day.