“Stories are the language God wired our hearts to speak.” Singer-songwriter and author Andrew Peterson joins us this week to talk about art and why Christians who don’t consider themselves artists, need artists. Whether or not you think of yourself as someone who is creative (which you are), you’ll benefit from this important conversation.
Who's our guest?
Andrew Peterson is a recording artist, songwriter, producer, filmmaker, publisher and award-winning author of The Wingfeather Saga series. Find Andrew’s music, books, and more at andrew-peterson.com.
With me today is singer-songwriter and author Andrew Peterson. Most recently, Andrew has released the album Resurrection Letters Volume One, which is very good by the way. My wife and I listen to that. Anyways, it’s great to have you on the show today, Andrew.
Thank you for having me.
First of all, what are a few things you could say about yourself, possibly sort of your brief testimony, how you came to faith in Jesus?
Sure. It’s a complicated and a long answer, so it will take a half hour, is that okay?
If you can fit an hour into half an hour, then there we go.
Okay, sure. No. I grew up in the church. My dad is a pastor, which is why it’s such a complicated answer, because I feel like it was a long string of breadcrumbs that led me to Jesus. There were several really salient moments in my youth.
The simplest answer is that I was baptized when I was nine, and I remember that I was sitting in church as a little boy listening to my dad preach like I always did, and for some reason, I don’t know … what I remember about is that I just felt this compulsion, this inner compulsion to answer the call. He would always kind of stand in front of the podium at the end of the sermon and offer an invitation, and we would all sing Just as I Am 10 times. And my 10-year-old explanation for it would be that I knew that I was broken and that I was lost, and that Jesus was my only hope. That hasn’t changed. That’s the same way that I would put it now.
But then, of course, high school, I was a terror and I was an awful person in so many ways, and just didn’t really consider Jesus an important part of my life even though I would have told you I was a Christian.
And then the next big moment that I remember was encountering the music of Rich Mullins. I had been in a rock band for a year post-high school and was just mainly interested in music and girls, and then just had this weird encounter with God through this music.
Rich’s music just caught my attention because it was so honest. I could hear that he was human and imperfect, but also that he talked about God as a person. Like, he seemed to consider the Jesus that he was singing about to be an actual person. I don’t know how to explain it. That seems obvious, but I don’t know, there was something about it. The way he talked about God made me believe that God was actually real in a deeper way.
So, I was 19 years old I think, and I kind of publicly committed my life to the ministry. I remember asking God, “If you can use my own gifts to make somebody else feel the way that Rich’s music made me feel, then that’s what I want to do.”
That’s awesome. That’s so good. Thank you for sharing that. To segue into that, because you started talking about your music, when you consider your, I don’t know, “Creative career” so far in this life, what does that look like? What have you experienced in regards to the different mediums, because I know that you’ve written these books, you’ve written music. What projects have you completed, attempted, things like that?
Well, it started out just music. When I was in college, I ended up, not long after that encounter with Rich Mullins, choosing a Bible college, not for any real noble reasons other than they didn’t have a math requirement. I thought, okay, I can maybe do that. And right away I just felt like I had been, once again, led there, and I loved it.
And it was during college that I quit the band that I was in and started writing my own songs and got married. My wife encouraged me to pursue this thing, and a lot of professors too. I guess they saw a gift in me that they wanted to encourage.
So, by the time I graduated college, I released my first indie record. That would have been in ’96 I think, 22 years ago. And in ’96 an indie record meant a little more than it does now. Pre-internet, pre-garage band. It wasn’t like I could make it on my computer. It was just like I had to actually take a Greyhound to Nashville and borrow money from grandma and that whole thing.
So, it was very much a calling. I moved to Nashville, and then got a record deal and about three albums in through my music career I read the Narnia books to my kids. And it was kind of this … I’d always loved reading and still a big reader, and I wanted to be an author before I ever wanted to be a musician. Reading those books to my kids reminded me of that desire.
I remember it felt a lot like it felt that night that I encountered Rich’s music. Reading C.S. Lewis was like, I just wept, and I felt this tug in my heart and I was like, Lord, if I can make somebody else feel this way through writing a story, that’s what I want to do. So, started writing the book series. For the next 10 years or so I’d put out a record followed by a book, followed by a record, followed by a book. And then in the middle of that, started a ministry called The Rabbit Room, which is a non-profit ministry that seek to nurture art and community and spiritual formation, so kind of a gathering point for authors and musicians, basically anybody who’s moved by the arts, which I think is everybody.
And then, about two years ago, we started the journey of turning the book series into a film. We released an animated short about around Christmastime this year, and we’re in talks with studios to make a full-on movie.
That’s awesome. That’s so good. You know, this is a really big question, the next one, but if you can try to summarize it in maybe one sentence. If I asked you why have you done all these creative things, what would you say? If I just said, why have you written and recorded all these records, all these books, and started this ministry, why have you done it?
Well, the way that I articulate my calling the best as I understand it, is that I want to tell the truth as beautifully as I can. That encompasses books and music, and the ministry, kind of the whole thing as a person who is an artist. I think that’s what the artist is called to if he’s a Christian, is tell the truth and make it as beautiful and appealing and convicting as possible.
So that’s part of it. The less holy answer is that a lot of it is born out of brokenness. A lot of it is maybe an ambitious … it’s God redeeming my broken desire to try to matter. Our motives are always going to be a little bit silly by sin and our own brokenness. I remember there being a moment a couple years ago when somebody came up to me after a show and they were like, “Man, I’ve been wanting to meet you. I just don’t understand how you can spin all the plates that you spin, or how do you do the books and the movie and music …” and blah blah blah. And when he said that, I felt proud of it, and it was really scary. I remember it was like the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear, “Be careful.”
And it was the beginning of this realization, when I look back at my career, how much of it is me trying to just … you know, this huge mixture of wanting to be obedient, and wanting to use my gifts for the kingdom, and also operating, sometimes out of a real brokenness and a fear of insignificance, or broken desire to try to prove myself.
The fascinating thing is to look back and see all the ways the Lord has winnowed me through that process. He’s always used broken people. So, there’s a part of me that’s like, yes, on my good days I want to tell the truth as beautiful as I can, and the rest of the time God is just making good out of my mess.
Yeah. That’s awesome. That’s good. Speaking in really, really, really general terms, so I hope you catch that, really general terms, I think most would agree that there are people that maybe are more prone to just these creative endeavors, or as you say, telling the truth as beautiful as possible, and then people that are less prone to those specific creative endeavors. Would you sort of agree with that?
Sort of. I sort of agree with it. I don’t know if it’s a loaded question because you’ve heard my rant about … Oh, wow, it was a beautiful hummingbird that just flew right outside my window. First hummingbird of the season. Awesome. Sorry. That was delightful. Sorry to distract you.
No, it’s good.
Here’s the thing. Now, I don’t know if you’ve watched or read my … I wrote a blog post for The Rabbit Room called Everyone’s a Creative.
Okay. No, I haven’t.
Yeah. Check it out when you get a chance. It was kind of written in response to this new terminology that showed up about a few years ago, where people nouned the word “Creative.” Creative is an adjective, not a noun, so when people start to say, “I am a creative,” instead of, “I am creative,” I think what it did, it’s not a helpful term.
And the reason I feel so strongly about it is because I think that one of the chief ways that we reflect the image of God in us is that we all are creative, we all are called to, and without even meaning to, scatter light wherever we go. Part of it is that my wife, she would tell you she’s one of the least artistic people in the world. Like she is just like, she hates poetry unless it’s a poem I’ve written about her, for her. And she goes to Zumba and she likes dance music. There’s no way she would even know who I was if we weren’t married. I wouldn’t be on her radar.
So, I get defensive though, because when that language about being a creative showed up, it drew this hard line between people who are called to the arts and everybody else. It made it so that it kind of established a class of creative people, and I don’t want to be like … no, no, no, no, no, that is not the story Scripture tells us. Scripture tells us that God made men in his image, and he told Adam and Eve to go and name things and tend the garden. And that gardening is one of the most creative things a person can do.
For that matter, childbirth is, according to J.R.R. Tolkien, the very pinnacle of men’s creativity. And my wife who would tell you she’s not an artist, is truly one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. Part of what I mean by that is that in the same breath that she’ll say that she’s not artistic, she’ll be rearranging the furniture in our house for the 18th time that week. Like, trying to find a way, how do we make our home beautiful and welcoming to people. If you walked into our house right now, it would smell good because she’s always burning candles and always caring for the place. And that is deep, deep creativity.
So that’s part of why I have this, from an etymological argument, I don’t like that terminology. So, part of it came from an essay by J.R.R. Tolkien called On Fairy-Stories. Anybody out there who wants to be an author, or any kind of artist, should go read this essay. It’s wonderful. He delivered it before he ever published The Lord of the Rings. It was in the ’30s I think. His theology of creativity and of storytelling. And it’s really beautiful.
One of the words he points in there is, “Sub-creator.” He makes this case that God is the Creator, with a capital C, and that his people, all humans, are little creators, we’re all sub-creators. So, we speak words into being, we speak light into being. One of the things that marks the passage in Genesis is God’s delight in what he has made. So, after every day of creation, he looks at it, he beholds it and he says, “It’s good.”
And anybody out there who’s listening, who’s ever written a poem, or a song, or a story, you know what I’m talking about. A lot of what we make is garbage. I know for myself. A lot of the songs I write are terrible, but every now and then you write a good one and you look back and you say, “It is good.”
I know the next morning after I’ve written a song that I don’t hate, I wake up and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll listen to the voice memo immediately and go, “I made that. I can’t believe I got to make that.” So, I think that that’s the image of God burring itself out in us, that we are all creative, we are all sub-creators. And I think it changes the way we think about our calling, if you’re a mom, or a banker, or someone who doesn’t think of themselves as an artist, I would say, you may not be an artist, but you’re definitely creative.
Okay. That last point you just made, I want to get to that. So, if we can all agree that everyone is creative, and I think you made that point clear, and that’s good, and I like that, would you say that only some then are artists? Because if an artist is not an adjective, and artist is a title of someone, how do you define artist? Would you say that, “My wife isn’t an artist” then?
Yes. Depending on the conversation I was having. It’s nuanced. But yeah, I would say there is a difference between … calling someone an artist is like they actually are making art, and art has … we could talk for hours. I haven’t really figured how to articulate what that means, but I think we all know what that means. It means that you’re called to tell the truth as beautifully as you can, called to put something beautiful in the world that could be considered art. I think it’s a different kind of a calling, but that doesn’t mean that I’m more creative than my mom.
Okay. Yeah. Okay. I guess what I’m trying to do is to slowly draw us to this question of why do Christians who don’t consider themselves artists, and who aren’t artists necessarily, need Christian artists and their creations. And I’m interested to read your article because I think there has been this battle that’s kind of been going on that’s not very loud, but I think it’s just subtle, where artists don’t feel very appreciated in the church and things like that.
I guess the question is, yeah, why do Christians who don’t see themselves as artists need Christian artists and their creations?
Well, one of my favourite quotes in the movie Shadowlandsabout C.S. Lewis’ marriage, somebody says in the movie, “We read to know that we’re not alone.” I think that’s one of the highest kinds of art, at least when it comes to song-writing, and maybe poetry … well, a lot of art … is that the artist gives expression to things, to kind of the mysteries of the heart that other people aren’t able to articulate. Like when somebody comes up to me after a show and says, “Man, you said that thing in that song and you put to words something that I’ve always felt but didn’t know how to say.” Or, “I thought I was the only one.” And that’s what I love about song-writing. I love doing a concert where I can sing about … like, a season of desolation in my own life, that it’s a means of avenue of comfort and connection for the people sitting in the audience.
So, people who are gifted at mathematics may not be able to express or articulate the pain of the heart in a way that an artist can. So, they need language for that, and I think that that’s what artists have to offer.
Right. Yeah. And I guess, when we consider the Bible and church history, I was thinking where have we seen examples of this, and I think of the Psalms, I think hundreds of years later to John Bunyan writing The Pilgrim’s Progress, different things like that, in which these artists have done poetry, and songs, and these novels, to help say things that maybe others have been trying to say.
For those who might have the mindset of they could sort of … I don’t know, they think I could care less about Christian art, but when it comes to Christian singer-songwriters, and Christian novelists and things like that, they just think, “You know what? I’d rather just read a theology book and my Bible.” How would you sort of challenge them as a Christian artist, to open their eyes a bit more?
I would say pay attention to the fact that Jesus was a storyteller, that he used stories to convey truth. So, it feels kind of absurd to me that his people would be cut off from emulating the way that he told stories, the way that he conveyed truth.
And for that matter, it’s arguable that the Bible as a whole, and history, which is to say creation as a whole, is a story. Stories are the language God wired our hearts to speak. Like, we can understand things in a story that you can’t understand in any other way.
Somebody really famously asked Flannery O’Connor what her story meant, and she said, “Well, if I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have had to write the story.” It’s kind of a snarky answer, but it’s true.
Yesterday, my wife and I were reading together a book that mentions a poem by John Donne, who’s an old guy from I think the 1600s. Anyway, it was pretty archaic language, and it’s one of my very favourite poems, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” I forget the name of the poem but it’s gorgeous. And she hated it. I was like, “Hey, let’s slow down. Let’s actually take it line by line and think about what he’s saying.” We were laughing about it the next day, and I was giving her a hard time about it, and she said, “Well, why can’t you just say it?” And I was like, “Okay …” So, there’s a song I wrote called Be Kind to Yourself, for my daughter. I was like, “Do you think she would have listened to me more if I just told her in passing, ‘Be kind to yourself,’ or would it mean more that I put it into a song?” And she had to admit that yes, it did, my daughter paid attention to it in a way that she wouldn’t have otherwise.
So, I just think … I forgot even what the original question was.
You’re answering it.
Yeah. Art can say things that other things can’t, so why would we assume that God and his people, and for that matter all humanity made in his image, wouldn’t have something good to say through the arts?
So yeah, I don’t know. I have a hard time not rolling my eyes when I encounter people who say, “All I read is the Bible and theology.” I just want to be like, “Oh my goodness.” Like, “Where is your imagination? These are God-given faculties.” The proof is in the insane amount of money in the movie business. People are starving for stories. Like, Netflix, the whole thing. They’re always wanting to be told stories. The more Christians that are telling stories that tell the truth beautifully, the better.
Yeah. That’s so good. As we wrap up, Andrew, I’m wondering, and maybe it’s a few points that you’ve already said in this conversation, but what’s a word of encouragement to Christian artists that you could give them as someone that’s been making Christian art for many years now?
I would say read your Bible and go to church.
I was teaching a class at a college, like a guest lecture or whatever, and somebody asked me about my fantasy novels. A lot of writers like Tolkien loved the Norse myths. So, you can see a lot of Norse mythology that shows up in Lord of the Rings.Him and Lewis and all the guys, they loved the classics. There’s hints of the Odysseyand all of these great old pieces of literature in their books.
And they were like, “What old literature was your book based on?” And I’m like, “Well, I didn’t have classical education. I went to Bible college. So, I would spend four years of my studies on reading a piece of ancient literature. And every good and beautiful thing that shows up in any kind of book, I really think the Bible got there first.”
The more we seek to emulate the way the Lord tells stories, the way the Lord pays attention to the mystery of the heart, like the Psalms are dripping with it, Job is dripping with it, things like in the Gospels. My favourite moment in the Gospels is at the resurrection when Mary sees what she thinks is the gardener, and Jesus speaks her name. There are all these profoundly moving moments that Scripture … you know, they call it the greatest story ever told for a reason.
I really think that the more you pay attention to the way God tells stories, the richer your own stories will be. And I think that’s probably true whether you’re a Christian or not. I’ve talked to friends who have done graduate work and learned from professors who weren’t even Christians who said, “In order to understand Western literature, you have to know how to read your Bible.”
So, I would just say, dig in the Scripture, pay attention to what’s going on at church, dig in to your community, and all of these things are just going to water the garden of your own work.
That’s so good. Thank you so much, Andrew, for your time and your wisdom today.
If you want to learn more about Andrew, the work he’s done, the recent album he’s put out, or his book series, just head to Andrew–Peterson.com. And I’ll put that link on our episode podcast page as well. But anyways, thank you so much, Andrew. I hope to talk to you again.
Thank you, man. See you later.