Yesterday, I posted the first of a two-part interview with singer-songwriter and author Andrew Peterson. We continue our conversation today, with Andrew discussing theological growth in his music, what his next album might be, and his complicated relationship with CCM and Christian radio.
Trevin Wax: As you look at your albums over time, where have you grown theologically?
Andrew Peterson: I’m probably not a good judge of my own work, but I remember when The Far Country came out, a lot of those songs seemed to be about death and heaven, as I understood it.
After the record came out, Randy Alcorn sent me his book, Heaven, which was really interesting. It made me realize that even though I grew up in the Bible Belt, there’s way more about heaven in the Bible than I had thought.
Then I got a letter from a fan who was especially concerned about a line in “Lay Me Down” where I wrote,
“I’ll open up my eyes on the skies I’ve never known
In the place where I belong
And I’ll realize His love is just another word for Home.”
They lovingly rebuked me and said, “That’s not really scriptural. Heaven is going to be a redeemed earth.” I will know those skies. I had never understood that. I guess it was never talked about in a way that excited me.
I began to understand it with C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. I saw the way J.R.R. Tolkien paints this sense of longing in The Lord of the Rings - a longing for something tangible, material, but more somehow. But that letter really spurred me to investigate heaven, which led me to N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.
If I had to name one area that has grown since my earlier albums, it would be the realization that I’m longing for a redeemed earth; not just an end to suffering but a beginning of a new and richer life. The Kingdom is coming here. That’s where Light for the Lost Boy comes – this ache over the loss of innocence points to our redemption. And not just our redemption. All of creation longs for it, too.
Trevin Wax: What is the theme for your next album?
Andrew Peterson: I want it to be Resurrection Letters, Volume 1, but we’ll see. It’s a matter of finding the guts to write it because I’ve set myself up for failure by titling the older record Resurrection Letters, Volume 2.
I’m afraid people think, “Oh, you must have some master plan,” but I don’t at all. I just knew I had more to say about it and what I wanted to say next was chronologically before what I had written for Volume 2. That barely makes sense, I realize.
Andrew Peterson: It was a fight with Jamie after our 15th wedding anniversary. I don’t even remember what it was about, but we were arguing. If you’ve been married any real length of time, you’ve gone through some times where you think, “That hurt worse than I thought it would.”
The point of the song is that we shouldn’t be surprised when something is difficult, when something hurts, because, as I heard someone say, “nothing worth doing is ever easy.” Marriage falls squarely in that category because it is a means of dying to self and even of suffering. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, but it is a matter of each spouse learning to die.
Some songs you have to sweat for, but that one felt more like a gift. It happened in a few hours one night and I played it for her in the morning.
Trevin Wax: Occasionally, you have a song on the charts or the radio, but you seem to have an odd relationship with CCM and Christian radio. Where would you place yourself on the spectrum between church music and Christian radio music?
Andrew Peterson: If I thought about that while I was writing songs it would probably paralyze me. People talk about how they want their art to influence culture. I don’t think that is a bad thing to hope for, but I don’t think that’s the best way to write a song. Maybe we should just think about influencing someone’s heart. And even then, you can get yourself in trouble. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his encounters with this painful longing and his search to understand what it was all about. Music has done that for me. As I read the book, I kept thinking, “I know what that feels like.” There have been moments in my life where I’ve felt close to something but as I turned to grab it, it was gone and I was left with that sadness.
One of the things he said was if you set out to recreate that feeling, that desire, you’re going to fail every time. He said that transcendent experience of longing was not something that you could control. I think a lot of us try to do that with music. We’re trying to create this sense of deep joy in people. It’s not a bad thing, but in some ways, it’s futile. I can’t recreate it for myself. I can’t recreate it for anyone else. That’s the Spirit’s work. It would be like a farmer trying to get his seeds to sprout on demand. All I can do is be obedient to what God has called me to do and create a space where something might happen on an individual level.
If radio is a part of that, I’m happy. I want as many people as possible to hear these songs. Knowing music was the vehicle through which my heart often felt that longing, and does still, getting to be a part of making music that may plant those seeds in someone else’s heart—that’s what thrills me. Writing the books and the music is, in a way, wading into that mystery.
Surprised by Joy is filling my head, since it was just a few hours ago that I finished it, but Lewis said that the whole point is the object of the longing (or desire), not the desire itself. As soon as you start thinking about the desire itself, you’ve missed the point. So, maybe that feeling that a lot of musicians and worship pastors try to recreate, that emotional response, is ultimately an idol. What we’re after is not an experience, but God himself.