Andrew Peterson is an award-winning musician and author, as well as a member of Church of the Redeemer Anglican in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to a successful solo career, Andrew pulls together a variety of musicians each year for a collaborative Advent tour, called “Behold the Lamb.” Recently I had the opportunity to ask Andrew some questions about faith, art, and friendship.
You are an artist who gathers other artists. The Behold the Lamb tour and the Rabbit Room are both unique collaborative projects. What lessons have you learned about bringing people together? What has worked and what are some mistakes that you’ve made, that others could learn from?
Art seems to work best in community. Over the years in Nashville, it’s become clear to me that there’s a symbiotic relationship at work, which is to say that art made in community seems to feed those relationships, and those relationships in turn shape the nature (and perhaps the quality) of the work. I don’t mean that songwriters or novelists or painters sit around living this dreamy, storybook life together; in fact, I sometimes feel like I never see my friends. We’re all really busy these days, which is mostly good. What I mean is that while we’re whittling away at a song or a story, it’s easy to get discouraged, easy to find reasons to quit. I think that’s exactly what the Enemy wants us to do. So I jump at every chance I get to lock arms with other writers or performers, to remind and to be reminded that our gifts are valuable in the Kingdom of God. For whatever reason, probably because I’m afraid of being alone, I get excited about projects that are team efforts. I like seeing what happens when this author meets this painter meets this songwriter. I like seeing a friendship born, and it thrills me to see new light-bearing works of art come into the world as a result of those friendships.
What advice would you give to young artists who are just starting out?
I would suggest that they seek counsel from older and wiser people in their lives, believers who they trust. Michael Card once said that your community defines your calling. Part of what I think he means is that I’m not necessarily the best judge of my gifting; I’m standing too close to the painting to see what it is. We need other people to help us discern our vocation—and I think it’s time the church reclaimed that word. I’m at a place in my music career—twenty years now—where I’m pretty tired of the travel, tired of the way my heart can get beat up on a tour or during a record release. Sometimes when I’m walking through the airport with my guitar I find myself wondering what in the world I’m doing. I just want to go home. Then I remember that twenty years ago I asked God for this. Good people in my life affirmed my calling, and I felt with as much certainty as a 19-year-old kid can feel that God had given me a certain gift, and I wanted to give it back to Him for the building of the Kingdom. When I remember that this isn’t just a job, but a calling, I find the stamina to keep at it. My compass recalibrates. Once again, community is crucial. Back to the original question: I’d tell the young artist to find mentors to help him/her to determine if this is a calling or not, and to be prepared to work hard.
Your vocation takes you on the road more than many. How do you balance work, travel, and family life?
I don’t know. I’m always asking that question. Jamie, my wife of twenty years, has been a tremendous encouragement along the way. She toured with me for the first five years or so, which taught her early on that traveling for music—while it can be wonderful—is hard work. I don’t want to make it sound like this life is all toil and trouble. It really is an amazing job in so many ways. But Jamie and the kids know that as much as I enjoy it, I’d always, always rather be home. It’s important that they know that work is never an escape.
How would you describe Rich Mullins’ influence on you as an artist?
I could write a book about this (and one day I might do just that), so I’ll have to work to keep this short. Rich’s music helped me to believe that God loves me. It helped me to believe that God is a person—a knowable person with whom I can have a friendship. That might sound weird, but the first time I saw Rich in concert I remember being struck by the feeling that the God he was talking about was someone he actually knew, not in a distant, theoretical way, but an intimate, conversational way. I remember Rich saying once that it didn’t do to argue with God because God would always win. “He’s like the kid who bloodies your nose and then gives you a ride home on his bike.” How could you say that about God unless you were friends with him? Before Rich, I don’t think I’d ever thought of God that way, nor had I really believed that Jesus actually loved me. It was (and is) easy for me to believe that he’s disappointed in me. But Jesus’ affection, the affection Rich seemed to have experienced, was a revelation. Add to that the fact that Rich was a true poet, that he loved the Bible, and that he was willing to sing about his loneliness, his confusion, his sin. He helped me to believe that I wasn’t alone. I’ll cut myself off there or I’ll keep writing for days.
In addition to the Bible, what book(s) have most influenced your spiritual life and why?
There are quite a few books that seemed to find me at the right time. I’ll start with the obvious. I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when I was a kid, and I sort of loved the old animated version. (I have to say this: the Aslan in that version blew Liam Neeson’s out of the water.) When I read it again to my children I bawled my eyes out. I think the Narnia books are best experienced not as a child, but as a parent reading to a child. Like I said about Rich Mullins, C. S. Lewis seemed to actually know Jesus, and I’m always hungry to believe that that’s possible. The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, That Hideous Strength, and others seemed to arrive exactly when I needed them, too.
Later, after reading quote after quote about Frederick Buechner (as well as his appearance in Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany), I finally decided to read one of his books (The Eyes of the Heart), and it was profoundly comforting. Buechner helped me to see that there was such a thing as “faithful doubting,” to borrow a phrase from Fr. Thomas Mackenzie. It’s not that doubt is an ideal state, but that doubt is inevitable. His New England frankness about what troubles him about Christianity was fairly scandalous to me when I first read his stuff, but the fact that even with his questions, his discomfort with the trappings of Christianity as I knew it, he still found himself unable to deny the fact that the Gospel was true, that our lives are illuminated (and not darkened) by a great Mystery—whose name, it turns out, is Jesus.
Walt Wangerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow and Ragman were like thunderclaps. Wangerin’s voice is like no other’s, vulnerable and wise and passionate, and his readiness to paint himself the fool in his own memoirs is humbling. Too few pastors are willing to admit their own weakness.
N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope was a big one for me, too. Having grown up in a church that didn’t talk much about the New Creation, reading that book was a long series of happy sighs and affirmations of things I wanted to be true without even knowing it. Three cheers for Tom Wright. I hope the whole church reads that one.
I keep thinking of other books. Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water shaped my understanding of my role as a Christian in the arts. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead found me at a time when I needed to understand my preacher father better. Then of course came Wendell Berry. I read Jayber Crow first, and it’s the main reason we moved to the Warren, our little patch of land near Nashville. His poetry and fiction help me to take a long view of my faith and my life, reminding me of Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Then there’s Tolkien, and George MacDonald, and Chesterton, and Dillard, and—once again, I need to cut myself off.
How did you find your way to an Anglican church? What do you appreciate about Anglicanism?
I grew up in a nondenominational Christian church that was very Bible-focused, which was good, but was unintentionally legalistic, which was not so good. Years later, when my wife and I entered into a very difficult season in our marriage we felt lost and broken and disconnected from the church, so in desperation we chose to attend the church many of our close friends attended even though it was outside of our tradition. It was Presbyterian (PCA) and the theology was robust and relentlessly focused on God’s grace, which was exactly what we needed at the time, in light of our great need to be convinced of God’s love. It was as if my years as a legalist had primed me for the theology of grace and loving kindness that our wonderful pastor preached every Sunday.
After eight years of growth at that church I began to miss weekly communion. I’m no mathematician, but I know that if a church offers communion once a month, that means you get it twelve times a year. If you’re a traveling musician you might be gone on many of those first Sundays of the month, which means I might experience this central form of Christian worship three or four times a year. That felt wrong to me. A mentor of mine gave me Desiring the Kingdom by James K. Smith, in which he talks about the way beauty and liturgy calibrate our desires, re-aim our hearts because our brokenness has ruined our ability to love the right things in the right ways. It was as if my years in that wonderful PCA church had primed me for liturgy, for something more than just a good sermon.
At first I attended Church of the Redeemer because of the communion service. I ached for that mystery every Sunday. Now it’s the whole of the liturgy, including the church calendar, the richness of the words, the centrality of the Gospel to the service, the story that’s enacted every Sunday, the fact that I can’t get out of there without reckoning with the cross, with God’s forgiveness, with the feeling that I’m a part of a story that God is telling. I can’t speak for Anglicanism as a whole, but Church of the Redeemer and St. Mary of Bethany Parish (both in Nashville), are wonderful, Christ-centered churches through which God has blessed me and my family.