Book Review

Telling the truth beautifully

3 insights from "Adorning the Dark" by Andrew Peterson

December 6, 2019

Andrew Peterson was a young musician when he posted a message board comment to one of his favorite bands, Cademon’s Call, with a link to his lyrics. This spontaneous act set off a long spiral of events that have shaped him and led him to his vocation as a musician. His story has been anything but linear, but as he understands it, could not have unfolded any other way. 

Over the last 20 years, Peterson has performed thousands of concerts, published four novels, released 10 albums, taught college and seminary classes on writing, founded a nonprofit ministry for Christians in the arts, and served as an executive producer for a film. This lifelong work of creating has taught Peterson lessons about vocation and storytelling that he intertwines with his own story in his new book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making, which was named The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 Book of the Year in Arts and Culture.

Though there are an abundance of books on creativity, Peterson’s stands out as he writes with the wisdom of an expert but the humility of a servant. A spiritual memoir and artist’s manual all in one, Peterson’s beautiful language combines with his Christian theology to shepherd his readers toward a vision of how Christians can grace the world with their gifts. With wit, wisdom, and honesty, Peterson invites all Christians—not just “professional creatives”—into the act of creating as a way of being more fully human. 

Early in the book, Peterson is refreshingly honest, allowing readers into the internal war that rages inside him as he seeks to be faithful to his calling as an artist while persistently fighting to keep the waves of self-doubt at bay. In this beginning section, Peterson also discusses other thoughts on the sacredness of art and the importance of community. Then, starting in chapter nine, Peterson begins to outline his six principles for the writing life: serving the work, serving the audience, selectivity, discernment, discipline, and community. 

Three valuable insights 

One of Peterson’s valuable insights in his book lies in his understanding of creativity as a natural quality of humans created in the image of God. Frustrated by what he sees as a tendency toward elitism in the artist community, Peterson writes on creativity not as a special gift offered to a few but as a spiritual gift given to all. “We’re all creative. There is no “creative class” (168). 

In a culture that often suffers from self-intoxication, Peterson offers a much more meaningful view of the arts: as a way to love our neighbors by pointing them beyond ourselves to the One who fashioned us.

His principles of writing apply to Christians everywhere because of our God-given impulse to fashion together beautiful things— to bring order to chaos. We feel such an urge precisely because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) who did just that, speaking the world into motion and breathing life into humanity. If Christians have a tendency to elevate the importance of some work while diminishing the value of others, Peterson’s words offer a rebuke and way of dignifying all work, from gardening to beekeeping to raising a family, because like the musician who writes songs for a living, these too are creative works.

A second valuable part of Peterson’s book is that he connects our creativity directly to Christian theology. In a culture that often suffers from self-intoxication, Peterson offers a much more meaningful view of the arts: as a way to love our neighbors by pointing them beyond ourselves to the One who fashioned us. He writes: 

“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 one 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” (44-45).

Furthermore, his description of art points the Christian to a more complete understanding of God. Just as God is both immanent (near to us) and yet transcendent (beyond us), for the Christian, art has both immanent and transcendent qualities as it starts at the self and speaks intimately to ourselves and our neighbors, and yet also aims to point beyond, to the Creator. 

A final point from Peterson’s book that I found of particular value is that his view of faith offers forgetful Christians a reminder of the omnipresent nature of God’s character. For Peterson, because God is in all things, the world presents never-ending material to write about—quiet sunsets and worship services are both sources of inspiration. Peterson writes about the annual conference his ministry organizes called Hutchmoot (which I’ve attended, and highly recommend), which aims to “encourage people to look for the glimmer of the gospel in all corners of life” (168-169). His book invites us into the same way of living in the world: to be open to the sacred in the everyday by seeing the Spirit at work in all things. Peterson offers an embodied spirituality that invites us to meet God in the ordinary. We should anticipate this. After all, Jesus came born as a baby in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem, the son of a carpenter.

This book is theological, practical, and a delightful narrative all in one. While Peterson is clear that all people are creative, Adorning the Dark will be an especially helpful read for Christians who want to make good art. His vision of writing as a tangible way of loving our neighbors (what he calls the “audience”) is a compelling one. Peterson writes that he understands his own vocation to be “to use whatever gifts I’ve been given to tell the truth as beautifully as I can.” For any Christian who wants to engage the culture with the truth of the gospel of Christ through the medium of art, Adorning the Dark is an excellent read on how to steward the gifts God has given them for the purposes of his glory.

Cameron Presson

Cameron Presson is  an ERLC intern and senior at Belmont University pursuing a double major in Religious Studies and Communication Studies. With plans to pursue ministry or counseling, Presson is passionate about the spiritual value of the arts and the church's social witness.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24