“That calling, as I understand it, is to use whatever gifts I’ve been given to tell the truth as beautifully as I can.” – Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark
I cry sometimes.
I cry at the standard weep-worthy events of life. I’ve been known to dampen a tissue or two at a wedding or funeral. And I’m not afraid to admit I sometimes cry at a good movie. In fact, my wife likes to tell people that I cried at The Muppet Movie (I did, but she shouldn’t be telling people that). I am sure, however, that I had never cried reading a book on writing—at least until I picked up Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson.
Andrew Peterson is a Christian singer-songwriter out of Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve been a big fan of his music since the first time I heard him. His lyrics are the kind of deep that seems to go deeper with each listen.
So, when I heard that Andrew Peterson was releasing a book with his “thoughts on community, calling, and the mystery of making” I was intrigued, but also a bit hesitant. That sub-title sounded a little woo-woo to me (musicians, you know?). But from the moment I picked the book up, I was drawn in and I couldn’t put it down. Something in this book resonated with something deep within me.
A Book on Writing
“Being a writer doesn’t mean writing. It means finishing.”
– Andrew Peterson
Ultimately, Adorning the Dark is a book about writing told through Peterson’s own journey. The insights are genuinely helpful and the style is endlessly engaging. He offers six principles for the writing life:
- Serving the work
- Serving the audience
He develops each of these over the course of the book and he shows that these principles are helpful not only for Christian writers and artists but for anyone who desires to live to God through their vocation. His aim, as the back cover puts it, is to “provide encouragement to others stumbling along in pursuit of a calling to adorn the dark with the light of Christ.”
So, it’s a book on writing, but it’s a lot more than just a book on writing.
“I was born homesick. Maybe we all were.” (49)
Much of Peterson’s music is flavored with the theme of longing, that ache for a home we have not yet known. It’s that same longing of Abraham that drew him from Ur at the promise of God. “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10). I think it’s that theme of homesickness that makes his music resonate so much with me. And through Adorning the Dark Peterson argues that good art is at its best when it acts as a drop of water on the tongue of a weary pilgrim. It reminds us of the promise, that we aren’t there yet, and compels us to get back on our feet and continue the trek homeward.
I think that’s why I cried at The Muppet Movie that one time. Not that I feel like my home is in Jim Henson’s puppet trunk. But there was this scene where the whole town was signing together. Something about the joy and the unity of the moment struck a chord in my heart. It was a hint of something I long for in the depths of my soul. Without being able to put it into words at the time, I saw in the same a glimpse of the promise of heaven, and I wept because it just reminded me that this world still ain’t it.
Peterson put his finger on something that I think we’ve all felt at times but perhaps did not know what to call it. And he goes on to show how that longing has a uniquely Christian character, it gives credence to the place and value of the work of Christian creatives.
Peterson also demonstrates how that ache for our heavenly home is intertwined with the creative process. He calls it “the mystery of making” because it’s this struggle every time. Anyone who has tried to bring something from their mind’s eye into reality will understand. You catch of glimpse of something in your imagination—clarity, inspiration, it all fits together—and for a moment you have it then the next it’s gone.
Every sermon or article I’ve written has been a war. Does this make any sense? Is this true? Will people understand? Is it any good or should I scrap it and start over? Always desperate, always struggling for the words. But Peterson shows that we aren’t alone in this struggle—others have faced it too and more importantly, God is with you. Much of his advice in the book addresses how believers can respond to this endemic uncertainty of art. I especially appreciated this piece of counsel:
“You can think and plan and think some more, but none of that is half as important as doing something, however imperfect or incomplete it is . . . . All you really have is your willingness to fail, coupled with the mountain of evidence that the Maker has never left nor forsaken you.”
– Adorning the Dark, 32.
I was speaking with a friend recently about how sometimes Christian artists or musicians can act snobbishly in the way they talk about the relative importance of their calling compared to other vocations. And it’s true, Christian “creatives” often come across as self-important. This attitude is of course more than just off-putting. Self-aggrandizing is glory-theft. That’s a high crime again the Sovereign to whom all glory rightly belongs. That attitude, therefore, has no place in the heart of any Christian regardless of vocation. You might hold a paintbrush instead of a mop, but you’re just another tool in the hand of the great Creator.
Peterson confesses to having fallen into that hubris at times himself. But he wants Christian creators to be reminded that whatever they make isn’t about them, it’s about glorifying God. But any believer who has embarked in a creative endeavor with the intent to glorify God has run up against a paradox at precisely this point. Peterson elaborates:
“As I’ve said, art shouldn’t be about self-expression or self-indulgence. Art shouldn’t be about self. The paradox is that art is necessarily created by a Self, and will necessarily draw some measure of attention or consideration to the artist. But the aim ought to be for the thing to draw attention, ultimately, to something other than the Self. For a Christian, that means accepting this paradox in the knowledge, or at least in the hope, that my expression, even if it is of the most intimate chambers of my heart, can lead the audience beyond me and to the Ultimate Self, the Word that made the world. In that grand chamber alone will art find it’s best end, as an avenue to lead the audience Home.” (44–45).
Whatever you have been called to do, your aim must be above all the glory of God. The message of the book is if you’ve been called to create things, you’ve been called to draw arrows pointing heavenward, to adorn a dark world with the light of Jesus Christ.
I’m sure that the author and I have differences theologically, and there were a few points that were a bit too woo-woo for my taste, but my total impression was overwhelmingly positive. I’ll just say this: Life is too short to re-read every book, but this is one I know I will read again.
At a time when so many popular Christian books are just rehashings of rehashings, it’s refreshing to read a book that is so genuinely original. The insights Peterson brings out in Adorning the Dark are clearly the result of a creative mind fueled by much experience and long contemplation. Whether you are a writer, musician, or just someone who wants to glorify God in your work, I think you’ll find a perspective in this book that will help you in that quest, even if you’re not the type to cry at Muppets.
Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making is available on Amazon or wherever you get books.