Always Looking for that Bridge: A Conversation with Andrew Peterson About the Christian Imagination

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking In Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Andrew Peterson is well-known as a recording artist, a song writer, producer, film maker, publisher, and author. He’s also the founder and the leader of the Rabbit Room, which has published 30 books and seeks to foster Christian community through the arts and a community of those who are Christians committed to the arts. He’s released over 10 albums, including “Resurrection Letters: Volume One”, “The Burning Edge of Dawn”, and “Counting Stars.” He’s known for songs like “Is He Worthy”, “Dancing in the Minefields”, and the “Dark Before The Dawn.” He’s also the author of the Wing Feather Saga, a series of four fantasy adventure novels. The fourth novel, The Warden and the Wolf King, won Children’s Book of the Year in 2015 from World Magazine.

His annual Christmas tour is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season with an all new recording of his album, “Behold The Lamb Of God”, which tells the story of scripture, culminating in the coming of Christ. His newest book is Adorning The Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making. It won The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 Book Award for Arts and Culture. Andrew and his wife, Jamie, live in Nashville, Tennessee. They have three children. Andrew Peterson, welcome to Thinking In Public.

Andrew, most people know you by your music, but behind that music is an entire worldview, a heart, a mind. And it’s not all that often that we get to see the heart, the mind, and the thinking of the artist. So this was an act of a gift to your audience, so to speak. Had this been on your mind for a long time? Or did you just reach a point where you said, “I need to write this book.”

Andrew Peterson: Well, my imagination has been shaped by a few books on creativity and faith, and how those things work together. There’s some really great ones, like The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers, and Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle, and even the Tolkien essay, “On Fairy-Stories”, is a towering exercise in the theology of storytelling. All those things have shaped me, and I’ve thought over the years that, “Oh, it would be fun to write a memoir that kind of, not only was about a theology of creativity, but a story that showed here’s where I screwed up, and here are the things that I learned.”

But then, every time I thought of it, I realized that I didn’t really have enough to say. You know what I mean? It just didn’t feel like I had enough under the belt yet, or something. And so I guess it was about five years ago, I went into the studio, and was about to make another record, and didn’t have enough songs, and was in the middle of that white hot panic of people waiting on you for something. And so I decided, as a way to shake loose the writer’s block, I decided to just journal in real time, exactly what I was feeling, the internal struggle that comes with trying to create something.

And so I just journaled enough to get the car push started, and then I finished the album and forgot about it. And just a few years ago, I looked back at that journal, and thought to myself, “Huh. I don’t remember ever reading a book on the creative process that was as frank about the fear and the voices in your head, that wrestle with what it means to be an image-bearer, who’s trying to create stuff.” So I just decided, maybe it was time to give it a go. All that said, I’ve never been so scared for a book to come out.

Albert Mohler: And you’re scared because it’s an act of exposure.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Very much so. Yeah. It’s like with my song writing, has always been pretty confessional, but I’m still dressing it up in a song. It’s poetry and music. This felt like it was just like, “Well, here are my thoughts, for better or worse.” And I hope … if people hated the book, then it would be harder to distance myself from it.

Albert Mohler: I have never written music, but I have written millions of words. And there’s one anecdote in your book that caught me by surprise, because I identified with it immediately. You had written some words to yourself, and your parents found them years later, and read them. And you said you felt naked. And I think, that’s the exposure of every author or artist. It is that at some point, until you are ready, anyone else seeing this, in the creative process, is an act of exposure.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah, very much so, and it’s scary. It’s this weird battle between … there must be something in us that wants to be seen. You know what I mean? Like I remember seeing Meryl Streep on David Letterman one time, and she was like, “Well, being an actress, most people start because they want to show off.” And there is some brokenness in a person who says, “I’m going to try to write these songs, and tell my story, and sing in the coffee house.” You know, when you’re in college, there’s a shadow side of that where it’s like, “Yeah, I want to sing to help people.” But you’re also going, “I want to sing because I want to prove that I exist.”

And so I think over the course of a long career, the Lord redeems that stuff. He slowly helps you see what art is for. So it moves from being too confessional–I’m sure that you could look back, as I could look back, and see moments 20 years ago, where I was like, “Wow, I kind of overshared right there. I think that was more for me than it was for the listener,” or the audience–And so part of growing up as an artist, or as a writer, is beginning to realize that the gift that you have is not for you, it’s not self-expression, it’s a way of loving.

And so, I guess, that’s the thing. The exposure, the courage that it takes to bare your heart, it can come from either a barreling into the room like a bull in a China shop, and saying, “Well, look at my heart, everybody.” And that’s not courage so much, as a kind of arrogance, I think. But then there’s another kind, where you’re going, “I’m embarrassed by this, but I feel like the Holy Spirit is leading me to share it, and for the edification of the people who might listen.”

Albert Mohler: You used the word “creative” a moment ago, or “create.” You’re using it as a verb. At one point in your book, you protest the use of creative as a noun. That’s becoming more popular in our society. But what is creation to you? When you speak of creativity, what is it you believe you are doing as an artist?

Andrew Peterson: Well, this is lifted, whole-cloth, from Tolkien. But in his essay “On Fairy-Stories’, he makes the argument that one of the ways that we bear God’s image is that we create. He coins the word “subcreator.” So God is the Creator, with a capital ‘C’. And one of the ways that His children bear His image is that we are little creators. It’s like God spoke the world into being, and then created these people to tend to that world, and said, “Go and do likewise.” And so there’s this human tendency, that I would even say is a calling, to build new worlds. Whether that’s sermons, or decorating your living room, or writing fantasy novels. All of these things are expressions of the image of God spilling over in us. And I think all humans have it. So that’s creativity. It’s not out of nothing, like in the way that God does it. It’s out of God, it’s out of what He has made.

Albert Mohler: Right.

Andrew Peterson: Everything that we make is a rearrangement of something that He made in the first place.

Albert Mohler: Yeah, and I think that’s a very important point. And especially when we consider that fact that in a secular mind creation is more ex nihilo in the minds of the people who are calling themselves creatives. There’s very little acknowledgement of the fact that God, the Creator, made human beings in His image. I love Tolkien’s expression there of being subcreators. But he’s given us all this stuff from which we create, and imagination that, so far as we know, rather confidently, no other animal has. And so it is an act of glory to God to create.

But one of the things you deal with in your writings is imagination. And you really lean into this. It’s not like it’s a separate chapter. It’s throughout the entire book. But Christians have had, I would say, not for irrational reasons, a certain deep concern, through 2000 years, about that imagination. So how do you think about the human imagination, as a believer, and as an artist? What should you set it loose to do, and what do you fear it might do?

Andrew Peterson: Wow, that’s a good question. Well, as far as setting it loose, I think that there’s a redeemed imagination. It makes me think of C.S. Lewis, when he talked about how he was in the train station as a young man, and he read the George MacDonald book, and he said that it baptized his imagination. The imagination–I can speak from experience–it can be polluted with some pretty terrible things, and it’s a muscle, in a sense, that you can exercise, or it can go into atrophy.

And I think, part of what I think the calling of the artist is to try really hard to wake up people’s imagination, or to broaden their imagination. If people’s imagination, thanks to the Zeitgeist, there’s this sleeping giant in everyone, that is this incredible, what is it? I think C.S. Lewis said that the imagination is the organ of meaning. And so there’s this sleeping giant in everybody, that can, if you let it, broaden your imagination, and fill you with wonder. And I think wonder is one of the things that points us to Christ, like really looking at the world for the amazing place that it is.

And so I think that’s the thing, is like imagination, as we all know, can be used for good or evil. But what I hope happens, is that, whether it’s through art or through music, that it’s taking a stick and poking a sleeping bear, and going, “Hey, guess what? There’s this amazing thing in you. The horizon isn’t where you think it is.” You know what I mean? And so, your imagination is one of the ways that we can wake people up to that.

Albert Mohler: I think we have to acknowledge we’re having this conversation in the middle of contemporary English-speaking evangelicalism, which is a subset of Protestantism in the English-speaking world, which is a subset of the Reformation, which was very concerned about the imagination. Because the Roman Catholic tradition, especially medieval speculation and the encounter between the East and the West–I mean, you have been in many places, I know, even from reading your book, where you can see evidence of the imagination among Christians uncontrolled. And so you had in Protestantism a deliberate effort to try to control that imagination. I think it’s been extremely successful. I think we have produced a generation of evangelicals that has a very limited imagination, or thinks it has to have an imaginative life, separate from Christian discipleship. I think that’s a great tragedy. You clearly see it otherwise.

Andrew Peterson: No, I think that is definitely a tragedy that we have divided those things. And honestly, I tell the story in the book, that was one of the problems that I had with Christianity as a young man. Like as a pastor’s kid, growing up in the South, and pretty conservative, evangelical tradition, there was this hard line between all the things that I was drawn to and Christianity.

And so it was as if the church just kind of put up with movies and music, and song writing. They’re kind of like, “Well, those things are nice, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is over here.” And so the slow realization that every molecule in the universe belongs to the Lord, and that there is a seat at the table for the nerdy kid who likes fantasy novels. That was the thing that I didn’t know as a kid. And it was because people were so wary of the imagination. But a redeemed imagination is a powerful thing.

Albert Mohler: Well, and a necessary part of what it means to be the Imago Dei. I mean, eventually, that imagination in my theological anthropology, I think that imagination to kind of misquote Dorothy Sayers, will out. It’s going to come out. The question is, whether it comes out in a healthy way, or an unhealthy way. By the way, one of my favorite anecdotes in your book–because this just makes perfect, perfect sense to me–is the fact that your grandmother was confused about your reading, anyway.

Andrew Peterson: That’s right. Yep. She asked me what kind of books I liked, and I said, “Fantasy novels.” And what she thought I meant was romance novels. So she was very worried about me. But yeah, there was for sure this hard divide. I’ve gone and played in England, and Sweden, and the UK in general a fair bit. And there seems to be, over there, there can be a real wariness to the arts. The arts are seen as like, “Well, okay. That’s great and all. But what we’ve got to do, is we got to preach the gospel, and there can’t be any questions, there’s just got to be this straight thing.” And I get it. I understand, we do need that too. But to err so far on that side that it’s just sucks the color out of what it means to be a Christian, or our ability to exercise that muscle of imagination and wonder, is a sad thing to me. So I kind of want to push back gently, and say, “Hey, we still need songwriters, and artists, and filmmakers, and these things.” It’s one of the ways that God is calling to us.

Albert Mohler: Yeah. I found myself in-

Andrew Peterson: I guess that, go ahead. Go ahead.

Albert Mohler: No, I was going to say, I found myself in one of those moments that became a parable. I was in Dresden, in Germany. And I was with a group of evangelicals. I was actually giving a lecture on the Protestant Reformation and the revolution in art. And so we were in an art museum. After that, we went into a church, and the church had a Madonna, and so I was in a discussion with a few very intelligent evangelicals about why evangelicals have been concerned about Madonna, but at the same time, artistically, it was an incredibly compelling moment. Even just in the history of Western art, knowing what this Madonna meant. And so we were working towards, how are we going to think about this, when another woman came up beside us, and then pulled a veil over her head, and bowed down to it. And then immediately, we saw, okay, this is like a parable.

So you can understand why the Reformation-Puritan tradition recoils at that, and says none of this. And so I think there’s at least a lingering part of that. But some of it began to sneak back in, and I don’t mean in the visual arts and depictions of the Madonna. It began to sneak back in, in imagination, with John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress in the English-speaking world. And so before that, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Protestant exercise in any kind of allegory or imagination. And it’s very restrained. It’s explicitly in biblical categories. But Pilgrim’s Progress became one of the three books that almost every reading, literate family in Britain had. It began to shape the Christian imagination of Britain.

Andrew Peterson: Wow. See, that’s cool. I did not know that. And was Milton after Bunyan? I don’t know the timeline.

Albert Mohler: Well, you can say that, in the flow of western history, they’re basically contemporaneous.

Andrew Peterson: Okay, yeah. Because I would say the same thing about Milton. Was Milton Catholic?

Albert Mohler: Milton was Anglican.

Andrew Peterson: He was Anglican. Yeah, that’s what I thought, yeah. Interesting.

Albert Mohler: And the point there is, by the way, that Milton was read by fewer than Bunyan, but English professors love Milton far more than Bunyan.

Andrew Peterson: I happen to like Milton way more than Bunyan too. I’m no expert, but allegory always makes me fall asleep. It’s funny. Whenever people call the Narnia books an allegory, I always stop them and go, “No, no, no. That’s not allegory. It’s not the same thing.” Just because as soon as feel, well here’s a menu and each of these things is going to represent another thing–the story teller in me snoozes. But I never considered that before. I didn’t know that that was one of the first works of imagination. And it really does work on the imagination. I know that there are plenty of things from Pilgrim’s Progress that have entered the language. Like yeah, that’s fascinating.

Albert Mohler: Well, just so, in the imagination of that book, just think of the fact that the entire point was that Bunyan wanted his readers to see things, to have pictures in their mind, in the characters, and in the stories. And by the way, I think Jesus intended that, for example, with the Parables. He wanted his hearers to see things, and that could be a dangerous power. It obviously calls for Christians to think it through carefully.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. I think so. But not so carefully that you err on the side of just not doing it at all. You know what I mean? I think that’s the scary thing. It’s scarier to me to imagine people going, “Well, the imagination can be used for evil, so let’s just not use it at all.” That feels like a more dangerous position than, “Hey, there’s this thing that is a part of who we are as image bearers. Let’s use it and trust that the Holy Spirit is going to do His work in us.”

Andrew Peterson: Like when I wrote my fantasy novels, what I tried to do is sit down and go, “I don’t want this story to be an allegory. But I do want this story to wake up longing in people for the Kingdom.” Even if they don’t have a word for what that is. What I want it to do is to peak that longing.

And so I sat down to write the very best story that I could write. And I wrote the story that I was like, 12 year old Andrew would want to read this story. Dragons and sword fights and big adventure, and all that kind of stuff, and then it was a daily act of trust that somehow or another, the Holy Spirit is a better author than I am. And so I would allow Him to guide me through this process.

Albert Mohler: You know, it’s very interesting that you mention 12 year old Andrew. And at one point, you mentioned 13 year old Asher, your son, writing a song for him. There is a pattern of early adolescence and the imagination that I think is just really important. Children will listen to just about any story, and their imaginations are vivid, but limited. But a part of what happens in adolescence, with cognitive and complex thinking, analytical thinking, is that there is all of a sudden this massive capacity for imagination. And it’s going to be met by something. Just think of all these kids who are so deeply enmeshed in narratives, whether they’re coming from video games, or whatever. And I think the evangelical Christian church misses an incredible opportunity there to say what’s being awakened within you is an imagination that’s actually calling out to God. It’s calling out to the Triune God. And He has given us an imagination by which to perceive the world through stories, and yes, there’s every reason to go to sword fights, and mountains and valleys, and naming evil and good. Because that is the thing. In the condemnation of God upon Adam and Eve and their sin, He said, “They now know the difference between evil and good.”

Well, a four year old can know something about the difference between evil and good. But a 14 year old knows the distinction between good and evil in a whole new way. I think we need the imagination to flesh that out. I think there are things that must be learned by the imagination that can’t be learned by a didactic exchange.

Andrew Peterson: Absolutely yeah, which it always mystified me when people talk about how, “Well fiction, I don’t read fiction. Why should we read fiction when Jesus used fiction to teach?” And I always wish more pastors read fiction, you know what I mean? I think sometimes pastors-

Albert Mohler:          I wish more pastors read.

Andrew Peterson:     Yeah.

Albert Mohler:          But go ahead.

Andrew Peterson:     Yeah, it’s true. But you know, there is something about theology that is rounded out by an understanding of story too.

Albert Mohler:          Oh, absolutely.

Andrew Peterson: And I think that’s part of why I gravitate to people like C.S. Lewis, or Walter Walker Jr., or whatever. Whether or not you align perfectly with the finer points of their theology, there’s something about the way they are able to communicate the Gospel that is different than someone who is just systematic. And I think I might have said this in the book, but I really think that just like there are things that mathematicians know about the mind of God that I will never know, when they wade inside the wonder of some incredibly complex equation, and they go, “Oh my goodness, the mind of God is so fascinating,” I feel the same way from a story standpoint.

When you fight your way through a novel, and you write ‘The End’, and you sit there and you go, “Wow, this whole thing just happened in my imagination, and somehow I was able to shepherd the characters from one place to another and help them to change, and also give them some free, weird, mysterious agency in the process. There’s this way of knowing that story gives us, that you can’t know any other way. So yeah, I do think that the more we can correct that wariness that I think the church can have sometimes about the imagination is better.

Andrew Peterson:     And the thing is, I was talking to somebody, a few years ago. I’m not Catholic at all. But somebody asked me what I was reading, and I said, “Oh, I’m reading Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and Flannery O’Connor, and Merton, and there were five people, I forget who they were. And it didn’t occur to me until I listed them that they were all Catholic. And I was like, “Whoa, that’s weird.”

Albert Mohler:          They’re all very Catholic.

Andrew Peterson:     Yeah, very Catholic. And the person laughed, and they were like, “Oh, that’s because you’re an artist.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He was like, “Well, one of the things that the Catholic Church has been good at is mystery, and this realization that the imagination is one of the ways, not just that we call out to God, but that He speaks to us.”

Albert Mohler: But that’s a part of that Reformation divide. So one of the fun forms of reading that I allow myself is the classical murder mystery.

Andrew Peterson: Oh, me too.

Albert Mohler: And I love those by the “Murder Club”, the English-speaking writers. And you mentioned so many of them in your book. And there actually was a “Murder Club” with Dorothy Sayers and all these people sitting around sharing their murder mystery stories. And there’s a professor at the University of Notre Dame, now dead, he was a philosopher and a very insightful intellectual. His name was Ralph McInerny. And Ralph McInerny wrote a book one time on why only Catholics can write good murder mysteries. And I was kind of offended by that, as an evangelical, but he persuaded me in his book.

And he said it is because, in the Catholic sacramental world, we can deal more deeply in an evil mind, and then go to confessional. Whereas the Protestants have this reluctance to enter into the mind of the evil characters. But the other point is very useful for us, because McInerny said, “The person who can’t write a good murder mystery is a secular mind.” Because there are no fixed categories of good and evil, and this only works if murder is really horribly evil, and if the evildoer needs to be caught.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. Yep, that’s good. I feel like Dorothy Sayers wrote about the murder mystery, and how it’s one of the most Christian forms of story telling, because it’s about the search for truth. Good and evil are pretty apparent. You know what I mean? And it’s only satisfying when the truth triumphs at the end. So once again, exercising the imagination, within reason, obviously. But there is something that happens in me, when I see that moment in the movie or whatever, when the good guy says, “No, this is how it happened.” And the truth is exposed. I think that’s a way of waking up longing in us for that in the world. It’s a longing for justice, for the world to be made right. And so again, it all circles back to the fact that the imagination is a real gift the Lord has given us, to teach us about who He is.

Albert Mohler: Well let’s face it. It’s not that often that Christians have the opportunity to talk about British murder mysteries and the use of the imagination, and sword fights, and fantasy novels. But that’s exactly why I’ve been looking forward to this conversation with Andrew Peterson. And it’s exactly why you’re listening to it right now.

Albert Mohler: You know, I was–years ago now–my wife asked me to watch a television program with her. It was the last episode of a long drama on television. This is back before the digital age and all its options. This is one of those old network series. It was called “St. Elsewhere.”

Andrew Peterson: Oh, I remember that show.

Albert Mohler: It was about an urban hospital. It had all these finely drawn characters. It was actually very well written, by the standards of the day. It went on for years, and all these moral dilemmas, and all these … And the structure of the story was the fact that there was this one doctor who was a widower, and he had a little boy who was about 10 or 12 years old, who was severely autistic. And so the boy was often in the background, and then when they’d have a family scene, he’d be there, but he was disconnected from the family. Cute kid, but just profoundly autistic. And the series’ final episode was well advertised. Everybody knew this was going to be the end of the story.

Albert Mohler: And so my wife and I sat down to watch it, and we got to the very end of the story. And it had always opened up with the hospital in a snowstorm in Boston. And that’s what it closes with. And it’s one of the most unexpected emotional moments of my life engaging culture, I would say. When all of a sudden, it turns into a snowball, one of those things you shake and it falls. And the hospital is a building inside this snow dome. And all of a sudden you see the autistic boy holding it. And the entire series had been in his mind, when it appeared that he was disconnected from it.

Andrew Peterson: Wow, that is crazy. How did I never, I’ve never heard that. That’s amazing.

Albert Mohler: Well you just need to watch the last few seconds. And I realized, it really had a powerful impact on me, I mean I don’t quote anything from television, but here I am. And it’s because I realize there isn’t a person around us who isn’t fueled by that imagination. That imagination will out. It’s there.

In your book, there are two huge questions that you deal with. I don’t think you answer either one of them to my satisfaction. So that’s why I looked forward to this conversation. This is the fun thing. No author can say everything in the book, so I get to ask you what you meant.

So one of them is, I really appreciate the distinction you make between Christian art, and art by Christians. But I think you’re amazingly honest. I mean, it’s not an elitist dismissal. I mean, you have some moments of that. And thankfully so, I would say. But when you talk about the difference between Christian art and Christians who are artists, is that an absolute distinction? I know, in your work, you want your work to be judged by the standards of music, but most of the people who listen to you are Christians. How does that work?

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Well, I think what I was going for in that description, was confessing the fact that when I first moved to Nashville, 22 or 23 years ago, or whenever it was, I think it was cool to say, “I’m not a Christian artist. I’m an artist who is a Christian.” Like I’m a plumber who is a Christian. There’s no Christian plumbing. So it was that kind of oversimplified way of looking at it. And I think that was what never set right with me, was I was kind of like, “Yeah. But I am actually singing about Jesus most of the time.” There is a difference. There is a difference in calling. There’s a difference in execution. If you’re loving your audience wel,l then you have them in mind. So I have a listener in mind when I’m writing a song.

And I began to notice it a few years ago when I go to church with people who have mainstream music careers, go and play country music or bluegrass, or pop music, or whatever it may be, who are faithful members of their church, and serve in beautiful ways, but their music isn’t necessarily explicitly about the Gospel. And I think that’s okay, if that is what God has called you to do. But I never felt that way. I always felt like, “Well no, I don’t try to write about Jesus. This is just a story that I cannot not talk about.” And I think that’s just because that’s the peculiar calling that God has given me.

So that made me feel a little disingenuous, when I would say, “Well, I’m not a Christian artist. I’m an artist who’s a Christian.” But I’m kind of like, “Yeah, but I am playing in churches. And I am trying to tell the Gospel story in the most creative way that I can.” And so anyway, I think it was a combination of going and seeing, we were in France a few years ago, and I saw Notre Dame, before it burned, and listening to Bach and things like that. And I began to realize there’s nothing wrong with Christian art. In that dichotomy between I’m not a Christian artist, I’m an artist who’s a Christian, there’s some snootiness in it, whereas Christian art is lower somehow.

And man, I just don’t think that anymore. I think that the church is responsible for some of the greatest works of art the world has ever known. So there’s no reason whatsoever for a Christian to be embarrassed about the art that the church has produced. I think that contemporary art deserves some of the criticism that it gets. But if you look at the church as a whole, it’s like, “No, the Lord has used the church to bless the world and the arts in many ways.” So it changed my thinking. It made me go, “I am an artist who is a Christian, who is usually trying to make Christian art,” is the way that I landed on it. It’s a combination of the two things.

Albert Mohler: And there’s a part of art history here that is really important, because throughout the history of Western art, most art was produced by patronage. And that patronage was explicitly Christian.And not just the Popes; it was also the nobility, the aristocracy, that had the money to commission art in a deeply Catholic world, in particular, they would often do this, because it was believed to be an issue of merit. And also of supporting the church and Christianity. So Christianity, in one form or another, poured untold trillions of dollars into art. Christianity doesn’t do that anymore.

Andrew Peterson: Right.

Albert Mohler: There’s been this split. And so there is no massive overwhelming patronage of the arts in the Christian world. And so now we’re in a consumer art world. That’s a very different thing.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. On the other hand though, what people think of as Christian novels are, Amish romances, that kind of thing. But it’s too easy to leave the Tolkien and the Lewises out of that conversation, or the Frederick Buechner’s out, or Marilynne Robinson.

Andrew Peterson: So even now, even without patronage, there are so many Christians doing incredible work, that even the mainstream world looks at it and says, “Yes. Gilead is an incredible novel. We’re going to give it the Pulitzer Prize.” And so there are believers out there I think seasoning culture, even now. It’s just, when people say they don’t like Christian music, because they don’t like what’s on the radio, I’m just like, “Well, you’re listening to the wrong stuff.” There is so much the church is still producing, wonderful song writers, wonderful novels. It’s just, it’s not the stuff you’re going to find on the Christian shelf necessarily.

Andrew Peterson: There are Christian who are just writing straight up literature that are, I think, telling the truth of the Gospel in ways that are sneaking past people’s watchful dragons. And it’s there. It’s just not what people … Like when I’m on an airplane and somebody says, what kind of music do you do? It’s a very complicated answer, because I know if I say Christian music, what they think of is going to be different from what I do. And I think Christians are in the same boat. They tend to go, “Oh, Christian music.” You mean like, fill in the blank radio station, or popular whatever.

And it’s like man, there’s just countless genres underneath it. There are artists. Just because you haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean they’re not doing good work, which reminds me that when there was a video came out a few years ago, I mention this in the book, but Bono and Eugene Peterson were having this conversation about Psalms. And the video was fascinating. And I like both those guys. And I know the film-maker and the producer, they’re great. And there are a lot of good things about it. But when Bono says, “Look how honest the Psalms are. Why aren’t Christians being honest about their divorce? Why aren’t Christians writing songs about their doubts?” I just sat there in my chair, I wanted to wave my hands and say, “We are.”

Albert Mohler: Right.

Andrew Peterson: There are so many Christians writing songs about the real devastating pain in their lives, and telling their stories in beautiful ways. It’s just it’s never going to get played on the radio. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. So I do think that the church is still responsible for some of the best art that’s out there.

Albert Mohler: In one of your chapters, you talk about discernment, which by the way, isn’t just a good principle for Christians, it’s a biblical mandate. We’re called to be discerning. And at one point, in reading your book, Adorning The Dark, I actually wrote at the top the word “criteria” and question mark. Where are the criteria for discernment?

In your book as a whole, I found them in different places. For example, on page 86, you write, “Where we go wrong is when we tilt the scales away from grace or beauty or excellence, as if truth were all that mattered. So you put all that together though, you’ve got grace, beauty, excellence and truth.” Later in the book, as a matter of fact, in your close, you write about honesty, truth and beauty as the “trifecta” of good Christian art. So when you’re talking about good art versus bad art, you’re not just talking about your personal aesthetic judgment, you’re talking about enduring principles of discernment.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah, I think so. And I think, honesty, truth and beauty thing was an attempt to get to the bottom of why certain people’s work got to me, and it was Rich Mullins in particular. But I think that that principle applies to the hymns that I love the best. I think it applies to the novels that I love the most. And do you want me to get into the ‘honesty, truth and beauty thing?’

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Andrew Peterson: I mean, I can explain it. But when I thought about what so captivated me about Rich Mullins’ music when I was 18 I think, maybe 19 years old, and was a nominal Christian and believed in God, but just didn’t realize how much He loved me. I heard Rich’s music and it just completely changed my life. And so I’ve spent the last 22 years trying to figure out what was it about this music that got me. And what I landed on, was that it was Rich’s  gritty earthiness, his honesty, the fact that he was willing to sing about his own doubts and his own sin. But he didn’t stop there. It wasn’t just Rich going, “Oh, is there a God?” It was a wrestling. It was more like Jacob and the angel. Those questions, Rich’s doubts were always aimed at God Himself. It wasn’t just like, “I’m flinging my doubts into the world.”

And as my friend, a pastor in Nashville say, “There’s faithful doubting, and there’s unfaithful doubting.” And faithful doubt is the kind where you go, “God, I don’t know, but “I believe, help my unbelief.” That’s faithful doubting. And so it was this willingness to be completely honest with where he was, with relationships. He would throw the name of a town or a city into the story, which would suddenly ground it, and oh, there’s a timeline here. Rich isn’t just being poetic, he’s actually talking about his real life.

And so there was an honesty there that got my attention. And then it was beauty, because he was a craftsman. And he was a student of good songwriting. And he had this crazy good gift. He had a Chestertonian wit coupled with this real ability for poetry, high poetry when he wanted to. And so he was like a craftsman when it came to songwriting. But then it was not just that, it was that he was also a student of scripture. And so Rich knew the Bible really, really well, and scripture shows up in his songs, time and time again.

So if you’ve got, in one song, somebody singing about Kansas and their own struggle with doubt, and it’s written as well as a James Taylor or Paul Simon song, and you can tell the guy’s been reading his Bible, I think that there’s just something about that, those three things together, that if you take just one of them away, if you take the scripture part out, what you’ve got is good pop music. It’s like Paul Simon, who does write with beauty and he’s very honest, but there’s no really grounding truth of scripture in there.

Or if you take out the honesty and you’ve got truth and beauty, what you’ve got is a lot of the old hymns, which are really fine, but I think that they’re losing, the ones that really get you is when you hear about how the guy that wrote “It Is Well With My Soul” wrote the song after his family died. You get this groundedness in these songs that is really amazing. Or you can sense whenever you sing the line, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the Lord I love,” that that guy knows what that feels like.

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Andrew Peterson: And so there’s this honesty that’s really there in some hymns that is powerful. And then, if you take out the excellence or the beauty, and you’ve got honest songs that are scriptural, then you’ve got kind of so-so Christian art. You got the stuff that we think of when we roll our eyes at some stuff.

Albert Mohler: Can I offer a theological perspective on this?

Andrew Peterson: Please.

Albert Mohler: I lecture on this a lot. Because I think the modern Christian mind, especially the evangelical mind, is very fractured thinking about these criteria. And what I try to remind Christians of is this. If you go to the ancient world, the ancient world could identify the universal virtues. The ancient world could identify goodness as one of those virtues, beauty as one of those virtues, and truth as one of those virtues. But in the ancient world, that fit within the context of polytheism. And so, then there’s a god of beauty, beauty comes from that god. There’s a god of goodness. Goodness comes from that god. And so you ended up with the division between these virtues. And so a lot of Greek tragedies, and when you read these ancient Greek works, they are brilliant. Aristophanes, you can go back, they’re brilliant, but there’s no resolution.

But what Christianity brought was theism. Monotheism and there aren’t three different gods. These aren’t isolated virtues. The good, the beautiful, and the true are actually united in God, which means that they are indivisible, because God’s indivisible. So nothing can be true that isn’t beautiful, nothing can be beautiful that isn’t true. Nothing can be beautiful or true that isn’t good. And so the Christian task is to hold the universals together.

And so I think that’s very consistent with what you’re arguing here. But I think that, when you’re looking at Christian kitsch, you’re looking at, if it’s not really beautiful, it’s also not really true. Portraying Jesus as cute is probably not a good theological idea, anymore than it’s also not a good.

Andrew Peterson: Aesthetic.

Albert Mohler: Artistic idea.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah, sure. That’s so true. I don’t know what to say, except right on!

Albert Mohler: Well, I think your work’s consistent. I think your argument is consistent with that.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Well I hope so. And I think too, and you’re way smarter than me, but there’s a gnostic thing too that can happen, where there’s something about, the title of one of Rich’s records was “Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth.” And when I think of his music, I think of the fact that there wasn’t a hard divide between earthy, gritty things. Matter mattered in Rich’s songs. You know what I mean? And so something about the groundedness-

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Andrew Peterson: It’s who Jesus was. The fact that He took on flesh and dwelt among us, means that flesh matters. And trees matter. And the world and all of its beauty matters. And what we’re headed for is this new creation that matters. And so there can be this tendency in some Christian art to shake off the husk of this earthly coil, and only sing about these cerebral things, these ideas, without ever really grounding them in, “Oh, this thing happened to me the other day at the Post Office.”

And I noticed that, even as a boy, listening to my Dad preach, I could zone out when he was digging into some scripture. But if Dad had an anecdote, if he was ready to tell a story about something that happened at the feed store, you could feel the air in the room change. Because we all know instinctively, we need these ideas to be grounded. We need them to matter in the feed store just as much as they matter in church on Sunday morning, as they do in the new creation.

So to have Jesus completely embody all of those three things, truth, goodness, beauty, and the grittiness of real life, like walking through Galilee, getting dirt between His toes, that kind of thing is just, there’s nothing else like it. There’s no other religion that can wrap those things up in a person in that way. And so we have this wonderful model of how to also try our best to incarnate the works that we do.

The sermons that we write, the paintings that we paint, we have this permission, so to speak, to shoot for all of those things in the work that we do, and trust that God is going to use them for His glory.

Albert Mohler: When I read your book, I associated with so much of it. But when I read your work here, in this particular book, Adorning The Dark, and I look at it, and I realize Andrew Peterson and I have been reading the same books. We’ve been looking at the same art. We’ve been excited by the same stories. But the stories come out of Andrew Peterson. They don’t come out of me in the same sense. God’s given you a gift for all of this to be translated into new stories that are telling the old story, and that gives me great joy.

But what causes me horrible concern, I guess I’m speaking here mostly to Christians and Christian parents through this conversation, I see all these kids who don’t read anything like this. And I think of the young Andrew Peterson going to Gainesville, and heading right for the Science Fiction section of the bookstore. And I know exactly what you’re talking about there. I just don’t see many kids heading for any section in the bookstore. It causes me real grief. I think it’s an evangelistic problem in that I think they’re not even thinking some of the big stories, and asking some of the big questions that Christianity answers.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. I do agree with that to a point. I know that, I talk to quite a few people who tell me that they didn’t start reading until they were 25. And one day, they just fell in love with it and read for forever. Have you ever heard of a guy named James Rebanks? He’s a shepherd in the Lake District of England, who wrote a book called The Shepherd’s Life. And it’s this very Wendell Berry-ish book about community. And it’s his memoir about his story. 500 years he’s been shepherding in this part of England, and he said that as a kid, he looked down his nose at anybody who read books. He just didn’t; people who read books are the people who leave our community, and go to Oxford, or whatever.

And then he got mono, I think it was mono, his senior year. He didn’t have anything to do but read. And he fell in love with reading, and ended up at Oxford, and then came back. And so I do think that it can feel like, “Oh, these kids, they’re not reading anything.” And I think there is a lot of truth to that. But I’m a little hopeful that there is, it is a dead end. The social media stuff, if they survive the craziness of high school with social media, there will come a day where they’ll be like, “What are these books that everybody’s always talking about?” Or, “You mean there was a book that inspired Star Wars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, that was a hundred years old?”

I just do think that books aren’t going anywhere, and I think that we are creatures that are hungry for good stories, and when we don’t find them elsewhere, I think that eventually you’re going to land on a book, not necessarily everybody. But I know, for myself, my three kids, my middle son was the one son who didn’t read a ton. And I just one day had to be okay with it. I had to be, “You know what? You may not love reading like I do, but you can build an Adirondack chair out of cedar, and I can’t.”

And so more than just encouraging kids to read, as if that’s the only thing, I think really the thing is, in a world that is so screen-oriented, is just getting them outside, is getting them in contact with the dirt, and with trees.

There’s this great book by a guy named Arthur Boers, I don’t know if you know him, but he wrote a book called Living Into Focus. And I think I mentioned this in the book, that where he talks about focal practices, this idea that if you were a person who spends a lot of time in front of a screen because of your job, then it is just crucial as a human, as an embodied creature, to put into practice things in your life that are going to connect you with creation, and with wonder.

Whether it’s hiking, or biking, or gardening, or beekeeping. Whatever the thing may be. Don’t forget, as good as stories are, those stories are a part of this larger creation, that sometimes I think we forget about, because we have Disney Plus. So we forget that we also have forests.

Albert Mohler:          And you have Netflix.

Andrew Peterson:     Yeah.

Albert Mohler:          You’re very honest. I appreciate that. Because I think again, we want to dichotomize people into saying, “Well that person, he’s Mr. Rabbit Hole, and that’s all he does.” And I appreciate the fact that you say no, you’re a normal human being too.

Andrew Peterson: Oh yeah. One of my favorite things in the world is when my wife says, “Can we watch one more episode?” And I’m like, “Yes, it’s going to be fun night. We’re going to sit here and veg for a while.” But I also, we go days in our home without watching Netflix. It’s just one of the many things that’s around. It’s not something we center our lives on.

And part of that is by forcing my own hand, with these focal practices. If you have a dog, I was talking to my friend Ben about this the other day. He said his prayer life changed when he got a dog, because he had to walk it every morning. And that he would get out of his house, and go on a mile long walk with his dog, and that would be the time that he would pray. And so he put into his life something that forced him to have a focal practice.

And so when I started keeping bees, it was like, I didn’t do that thinking this is going to be this avenue to a greater wonder, the Lord’s creation. It was like, I was sitting next to guy at a dinner at somebody’s house who was a beekeeper, and I was like, “That sounds cool. I want to try that.” And so my curiosity led there, and the side effect was that I ended up having this wonderful, worshipful little corner of my life.

And so if you have chickens or you keep bees, or you have a garden, or you’re in a community of people who hike regularly, then it forces Netflix to live in its own little corner of your life, instead of being the thing.

Albert Mohler: And two more points, as the time is coming to a close. One of them is, the fact that you really talk honestly about the hard work of creating, and I appreciate that. I mean, you actually dwell on this repeatedly in the book, and intensely, where basically going back to a misquote of Margaret Thatcher here, “A writer’s one who writes, and one who isn’t writing isn’t a writer, no matter what you call him.”

Andrew Peterson: Yeah, I think so. I say somewhere in the book that a writer is not even someone who writes, it someone who finishes. Because until you know what it’s like to actually complete the thing you started out with, and then you can go back and rework it, that is the larger part of the writing process to me, is just the simple endurance to cross the finish line. Because you could write parts of stories for your whole life, and I don’t know if that would make you a writer. Because you haven’t experienced what it’s like to refine, to edit, to look at the story from a birds-eye view, to deal with all of the dips that come in the writing process.

Yeah, maybe it’s just me, but it is a difficult thing for me. I have so much more pleasure in having finished something than the actual work of doing it. And so whenever I hear people say, “I write because I have to,” I always feel guilty, because I’m like, “No, that ain’t me.” I write because I got a mortgage to pay, and because I made some promises to people that I would turn the thing in by a certain time. And there are moments when it’s really fun. But for me, the real satisfaction is when I’m finished with it, and I can hand it to somebody. Or I talk to somebody about what it’s meant to them. It’s the end game’s my favorite part.

Albert Mohler: The other issue I really appreciated, and hadn’t thought a lot about before honestly, was the moral obligation of an artist to the audience. And I was really moved by those passages in the book, where you talk about the fact that you are there in one sense, to serve an audience. You also give some good advice as to how an audience can well serve a singer, or for that matter, a preacher. And I just want to tell you, I appreciated that very much. You have thought deeply about what it is that you do, in a way that I think would help us all frankly.

Andrew Peterson: Well thank you. I know that, it’s funny. I hadn’t thought about that from a preaching standpoint. But I think what you’re talking about is where I gently say to the audience, “If you want to see your favorite artist perform at their very best, then let them know that they’re doing a good job.” You know what I mean? Feed them.

Andrew Peterson: And there have been times I’ve been like, “How does Bruce Springsteen still do four hour concerts when he’s 70,000 years old?” He’s so old. But he will play these rock concerts that are four hours long, and how does he do it? And then when I think about it, I’m like, “Oh, well it’s because they all love you. As soon as you walk out on the stage, you get this overwhelming tidal wave of appreciation and love.”

And so as a Christian musician, sometimes when you go to churches and play, the audience, they don’t know that they have permission to be effusive. They can be very reserved, and it’s like the rules are different, because you’re not in a theater, you’re in a church. And so it can be really, it can take an hour to get the audience to clap, to actually applaud at the end of a song.

And sometimes there’s that thing where you play the last chord, and there’s a split second of silence before someone has the courage to start the clapping. And in that split second, the artist dies a thousand deaths. You fill that little half second gap with all of the self hatred you can possibly imagine like, “Oh no, they hated me.” And then they start clapping, and you go, “Oh no, they actually like me.” But that doesn’t happen whenever I’m playing at a theater show. Or if the audience is really engaged, it is jus–I get to love them, and they’re loving the people that are on the stage, and you end up with this really sweet experience.

And from a pastor’s standpoint, I remember my dad spoke at Homecoming, or maybe, no, it was the Baccalaureate service when I graduated high school. So we had, my little town in Florida, which was fairly segregated like most of the churches were either black or white, but they were all together at the Baccalaureate service. I never heard him preach like he did that day, because we had, the Pentecostals were in the audience, and the black churches were in the audience. And it was just a lot of Amens and my dad was so on fire. I was like, “I have never seen him do this.” And it was because we work best when we know that we’re loved. And I think that the days that I really believe that God loves me, I think those are the days when I feel like I’m most who I’m meant to be. And so if you want to see your pastor or your favorite musicians at their best, then make sure that you know they’re loved.

Albert Mohler: So in keeping with that, let me tell you that I have been deeply moved by, and encouraged by, your music and your artistry for a very long time.

Andrew Peterson: Thank you.

Albert Mohler: And that has created for me the great anticipation of having this conversation with you today. And I just want to thank you for the generosity of spirit by which you wrote the book, and by which we’ve engaged this conversation. It’s been a real privilege.

Andrew Peterson: Thank you. Thank you so much. It was great to talk to you. I appreciate your kindness.

Albert Mohler: Well, I’m going to let that be the conclusion today for Thinking In Public. It has been a great joy to think along with Andrew Peterson.

Albert Mohler: If you enjoyed this episode of Thinking In Public, you’ll find more than 100 of these conversations at under Thinking In Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.