By / Dec 6

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.

By / Aug 25

Russell Moore joins Phil Vischer, Andrew Peterson, Randall Goodgame, and Sally Lloyd-Jones to talk about the power of story and song in parenting and family life. 

By / Jul 20

As a teacher at a Christian school I believe there’s a far greater threat facing our students than secular culture. I don’t think their greatest threat is public education. I don’t think it’s a racy scene on The Walking Dead. And I certainly don’t think it’s the word “damn” in Hemingway. Instead, the greatest threat to our students is the homogenized, list-driven, rehashed Pharisaism that we’re unwittingly peddling to the young adults in our care. We’re not exposing them to the richness and depth of biblical Christianity; we’re hawking a cheap alternative.

Recently, I came across the application for a Christian writing competition, which contained an extensive list of “questionable material” that would be denied entry if it made an appearance in any of my students’ submissions. One list was summarized by the following content: “witchcraft, ghosts, etc.” Another contained things like “bathroom humor.” If this is what we want to market to our students, then so be it; but we best be prepared to say goodbye to any hope of inspiring the next Dostoevsky, the next Flannery O’Connor, the next C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, and—more startling still—I think we’ll find that even Jesus will ultimately be barred from our “safe for the whole family” contests. My chief problem with this kind of approach to Christian education is that we’re missing an opportunity to demonstrate the complexity and beauty of Christianity, and we’re settling for the propagation of a simplistic moralism.

Any approach to teaching young Christians the craft of writing that blushes and waves a dismissive hand at the works of Shakespeare should give us pause. I’m startled by the message it sends to my students to spend a month on The Tragedy of Macbeth and then offer them an opportunity to write with the addendum, “Just make sure your writing is nothing like Shakespeare’s!” If we applied the same moralistic standards that we often expect of our students to the stories that fill our curriculum, we would lose the opportunity to introduce our the young to the murderous Macbeth and his three bearded friends. They wouldn’t just be losing the enjoyment of a good story, but the chance to grapple with fate and free-will, to self-examine their own ambitious hearts, to have the eye-opening experience of identifying with a man who buckles under the pressure of an apple too enticing to say, “No.”

And it’s not only Shakespeare (who some would reject since he many not have been a believer). A closer look at the kinds of restrictive lists we often compile reveals that even some of the most influential Christian artists of all time should get the boot from our classrooms. If, for instance, we consider the common prohibition of stories with “magic” in many Christian circles, then C.S. Lewis should be next on the chopping block. Say goodbye to The Chronicles of Narnia, a story that not only contains a witch, but also contains forces for good that use “magic” as well. Barring Narnia forces us to say goodbye to one of the most vivid and beautiful depictions of the gospel that the fantasy genre has ever seen. Lewis’ drinking buddy, Tolkien, has to hit the road as well. Our beloved wizard Gandalf, the one who taught us what it means to cling to hope, risk our lives in the fight against evil, and see the strength in the “least of these” is just another outlaw on many of our moralistic lists.

It’s not just the focus on making lists that’s so problematic—although we’ll return to that in a moment—but even the things we’ve chosen to fill the lists with. This fear of fictitious “witchcraft,” for example, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible means when it condemns witchcraft and magic in the first place. The Christian Research Journal does a superb job correcting our ignorance of the Bible’s teaching and its connection to the fantastical stories we love:

“The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter series are works of fantasy. In both, the authors create multidimensional worlds peopled with various creatures, many of whom use magical powers to affect physical changes in their world. Some of these creatures are bad and use their powers for evil, and some of these creatures are good and use their powers to battle evil. The “magical” powers are “natural” attributes of the respective fantasy worlds in which they operate. In this sense the magic is more akin to the ability of animals to speak and wear clothes in children’s literature such as The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. Within the context of the world of the story, clothed talking animals are not supernatural, occult aberrations but the normal state of affairs. In other words, the magic is mechanistic, not occult: the make-believe laws that govern their use in these make-believe worlds are physical laws, not spiritual or moral laws. These practices are not the same as the occult-based wizardry and sorcery practiced in the real world by real people and condemned in the Bible (which illumines the real world).”[1]

When we kick Tolkien, Lewis, and even Rowling out of our classrooms, when we send the message to our students that their works are incoherent with our faith, we’re losing the opportunity to use stories “such as those in the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series as vehicles to show these youths what they really want and need — a place of love, courage, friendship, belonging, and a chance to lay down their lives in a cause greater than themselves.”[2] In other words, we lose the opportunity to bring them the very fabric that weaves together the story of the gospel.

Herein lies the heart of the problem: we run away from encountering Jesus because people are complex. People are impossible to fit on a list. The person of Jesus can’t be contained, controlled, or homogenized, and Jesus was constantly frustrating the list-makers in his day. Have we forgotten about the incidents concerning Jesus and the Sabbath? He demonstrated for us that the things on God’s lists existed for a greater purpose, and that the moment the list is incongruent with the story of redemption, we’ve misunderstood the entire point of our faith altogether. (e.g. Mark 3:1-6). We must remember how the religious leaders scoffed at his drinking and the company he kept, two more things Jesus did that violated the lists of people trying to be more pious than God. (e.g. Matthew 9:10-11; Matthew 11:19). Jesus wasn’t rebelling against lists to be trendy or provocative. He was trying to teach us something invaluable about the nature of Christianity: the lists in Scripture don’t exist as ends in themselves; they exist to show us something of the nature of God, the helplessness of man, and the desperate need for rescue. The Bible’s lists are about the story. The story is about a Person. The Person is what should be driving us and forming every decision we make—especially in our art.

I’ll be the first to admit: there isn’t an easy alternative to limiting our students’ writing with moralistic lists; however, there is a better one. The writing that we should be inspiring, that our culture so desperately needs, is writing that works from an understanding of the gospel. We don’t need safe, unrealistic, black-and-white depictions of the moral life. We need young writers who honestly wrestle with the reality of biting the apple, the struggle of humanity, the sweetness of redemption, and the hope of returning to Eden. The need of the hour is for gospel-driven writers, not moralistic ones. We need more storytellers, not more list-makers.

[1] Mark Ryan and Carole Hausmann Ryan. “Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.” This article first appeared in the News Watch department of the Christian Research Journal, volume 24, number 4 (2002)

[2] Ibid

By / Nov 6

Well, I’m back. This is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and this is Questions and Ethics, the program where we take your questions about moral dilemmas that you are facing and try to look at them from a gospel perspective.

We have been on a little bit of a hiatus while I have been finishing a book. The book is done, coming out next year, and so, I am ready to go back to talking to you about whatever is on your mind.

And the first question that we have comes from a listener who writes and says, “Dr. Moore, we are planning our wedding, and we were planning to write our own vows, but after watching the Livestream of the ERLC National Conference, we noticed that you said that you don’t let couples write their own vows. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and should we rethink this?”

Okay, well, when I say this, what I am not saying is that there is some inspired, inerrant set of wedding vows. I normally use the Book of Common Prayer wedding ceremony. There is nothing that is handed down by God on golden tablets in the Book of Common Prayer. I certainly, as a Baptist, wouldn’t think that.

But what I do think the issue is, is what is the wedding. And this is the reason why I don’t let couples write their own vows when I am doing the marrying—because I think we are in a culture right now where many people assume that the wedding is the celebration of the love of the couple. Now, of course it is that to some degree, but it is so much more than that, and the main point of the wedding is about more than highlighting the individuality of the couple.

In a biblical understanding of marriage the couple is being given to one another, and there is an accountability, a public accountability for the marriage, for the wedding. That’s the reason why Jesus is present as part of the community at a wedding at Cana, and in the epistles of the New Testament the writings about marriage are not simply to the couples themselves but to the entire body of Christ. We are members of one another, and we are responsible for one another.

And so, when we are gathering together for a wedding, we have a gathering of witnesses. That’s why in the traditional Anglican wedding ceremony we gather “in the sight of God and these witnesses to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” The people there aren’t just guests at the party. They are people who are witnessing the vows that are being made with the implicit message there—we are representing the body of Christ to hold you accountable to these vows, to help you through these vows, to support you as you seek to keep these vows.

And when a couple writes his or her own vows, or when a couple together writes their own vows, what’s happening is that couple is suggesting somehow that their vows are unique. The

vows are not unique; as a matter of fact, as a friend of mine who is a pastor puts it often, what makes the wedding, any particular wedding, significant is not what makes it different from every other wedding but what makes it the same.

A couple starting out a wedding frankly don’t know the vows that they need to make without the rest of the body of Christ, with those who’ve gone before them. A twenty-five-year-old couple, they are not thinking about Alzheimer’s disease. They are not thinking about what happens when we find out that our small child is dying with cancer. They don’t think about what happens if one of us commits adultery and we have to work through the aftermath of that. The rest of the body of Christ is speaking of the fact that the vows you are making to one another aren’t simply when things are in conditions as they are right now, and it’s not simply when things are in conditions that you can imagine right now, but it’s in sickness and in health; for richer, for poorer; till death do us part. Those are the sorts of vows that ought to be made.

And also because what’s happening in that wedding ceremony ought to be something that is the same sort of thing that ought to happen when we baptize. The people who are gathered there who are married ought to be seeing a reenactment, in as much as possible, of what it is that they themselves have vowed to do. They are participating in this not only by witnessing these vows but also in memory of remembering and recommitting to their own vows.

So, when a couple comes to me and says we want to write our own vows, I usually say well then I’m the wrong guy to officiate at this wedding because I really think we need to think of the wedding as about much much more than that.

What’s your question? Send it to me at [email protected]. Maybe there is a moral dilemma that you are facing at your work or maybe something going on in your family or maybe something you have come across in the Bible, and you are just asking how should I think this through as a Christian? Send it to us, [email protected], and I will be glad to take it up when we come back next time for Questions and Ethics. This is Russell Moore.

By / Mar 26

Today’s question is from a pastor who asked, “How should Christian leaders approach ghost writing?”

I think that is a good question. One of the things that is problematic is that when somebody says, “ghost writing,” sometimes it is hard to understand what is meant by that. I think it is wrong for somebody to misrepresent himself. We have this phenomenon going on with a lot of Christian authors who are putting out books that they have never even read. Not only did they not write them, they didn’t read these things. Somebody else has just written this, in toto, and put this person’s name on it. And I think that is a misrepresentation. I think it is deception, and I do think that that is wrong. And I think Andy Crouch’s article about that was right, that there is in some ways a performance going on that is not accurate.

Having said that, I think there are aspects of what some people might call ghost writing that really are expected. And I don’t mean expected just in the sense of the way an industry works, but for instance, a letter. I think there is a difference when a pastor of a local church is sending out a relatively pro forma letter—“Thank you for coming to our church this week. I have enclosed some information about our church.” Sometimes that is written by someone else. He has approved it. He has signed it. I don’t think there is a problem with that. I think there is a difference between that and his church newsletter. And I think it would be wrong if somebody is doing that by paying somebody.

Having said that, I think there are aspects where sometimes you will have pastors or leaders who are having people who are not ghost writing, but they are really essentially coaching. They are coming in and taking material that maybe there is a really good preacher who is not a good writer or who does not have a particular gift at writing. These people are coming in and taking his stuff and saying that this is what you have done, and I am organizing this, or I am giving you some coaching as to how you should do it. I do not think there is anything morally wrong with that.

Tim Challies did this piece about how we talk a lot about the evangelical celebrity complex. What we don’t talk about is that there is a bloodlust and a joy in taking down evangelical celebrities. So it’s almost exactly what happens in the secular world in Hollywood. There is a lot of time spent building up the Kardashians and keeping up with the Kardashians, but then there is a whole lot of other joy that comes in tearing them down. And there almost seems to be a delight in that in a way that makes me cringe to see it.