Andrew Peterson is often touted as a modern-day Rich Mullins. Though this is a comparison he has been cautious to receive because of his great respect for Rich and the deep influence he had on Andrew's music and life, a study of their songwriting reveals the likeness.
Q: What did you witness in Rich's life and lyrics that you try to embody in your own life and lyrics?
: Rich made me want to believe the gospel more than I did. I was a nineteen-year-old kid in a rock band, and I was really frightened of God. I didn't like myself at all, and to be honest, a lot of days I still don't. I was just lost, wandering around in the world trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I believed that there was some great beauty out there, but I could never articulate what it was or why I was looking for it.
The first time I heard him in concert was at my little Bible college in Florida. When he talked about God, I got the sense that he was talking about an actual person that he actually knew, not about an idea. I wanted that. I was so hungry for that. I'm hungry for it now.
A person recently told my pastor, "I have a hard time feeling close to God." My pastor replied, "When was the last time you did something for someone else?" I remember Rich saying if you want to know God, or be close to God, obey Him. Go do the things that He's called us to do. Rich wasn't perfect, but I think he tried to live his life as if the gospel were true. That way of living resonated with a lot of people who, like me, were hungry for the gospel and wanted it so badly.
Rich's music was this combination of Scripture and poetry and humanity. His songs were full of Scripture, and they could be loftily poetic, but they were also very human, using folky vernacular. He brought all these big, beautiful ideas down to earth, and he sang about them with an earthy voice. In a key that I could actually sing in. To feel like you've been given a gift of some kind but you have no paradigm for expressing it was very frustrating. So for a young guy who wasn't a good singer, but felt like he had a song to sing, hearing Rich's music gave me permission to try--I didn't have to be perfect or slick if I wanted to write songs.
Q: In our churches, it seems there is a gap between connecting with God as our father and discovering Him as our friend--as this personal God. Do you feel like putting "skin" on God has been a part of your own musical trajectory and why you continue to write songs?
: George MacDonald wrote, "A poet is some- one who is glad about something and wants other people to be glad about it, too." Sometimes a songwriter is some- one who feels captured by the wonder of something and wants somebody else to be captured by it, too. Come, I want to show you something that I saw. An encounter with Jesus is the deepest version of that. I had an encounter with love, and with beauty, and truth, and that person has a name and I want you to know that name, too.
I was the recipient of that through Rich and his music. I was in Bible college when I heard "The Love of God," and when the chorus ends with, "In the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God
," I just wept because I couldn't believe it. "Is that really who He is?" "Does He really love me that way?" So as a songwriter, one of my highest callings would be to make Jesus known, and one of the ways I do that is by telling my story about who He is in my life.
It wasn't until I heard Rich talk about God as a person that I believed that it could be true. I'm so frightened of being known. One of the main things that keeps coming up in my life and music is this fear that once people really know me they won't like me anymore. Or worse, they might despise me. I project that fear on to God, and onto Jesus, so my tendency to hide from Him is a habit that I'm constantly trying to push back. Going to church is a way for me to fight that habit--to go to a place where I'm known, and can go to the table every Sunday and be assured that the One who knows me best loves me most.
Q: Within Rich's songwriting there is a constant longing for home, for something we haven't yet experienced. I sense that throughout your music as well.
: The church is living in that tension. We believe something has happened, but something is still going to happen, and that keeps us alive in some way. The longing reminds us the story's not over.
The end of the Nicene Creed reads, "We look for the resurrection and the life of the world to come." I often get emotional when we get to that part because the church has said all of these things that we believe, so now what? What do we do with all that? Well, we look for the resurrection and the life of the world to come. We're constantly leaning into that.
In Surprised by Joy
, C. S. Lewis talks about sehnsucht-- the German word for an "inconsolable longing"--and how the breadcrumbs that led him to faith in Christ were these moments of sehnsucht, these stabs of almost painful joy that he couldn't explain. God peppers all of our lives with these moments, and part of our job as members of the human race is to follow the breadcrumbs and ask, "Okay, why did that get my attention?" "Why was I crying during that movie?" "What was it about that story that got me?" Buechner talks about listening to your life. Pay attention to your life and you'll discover, hopefully, what it is that God is wanting you to ultimately see--grace.
If I were to look back on the works of art that got my attention--that category of art and literature that did something transcendent in my life--they would be Lord of the Rings
, Buechner's books, Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow
, the Narnia
books, and it would be Rich Mullins's music. It got my attention in a way that nothing else ever has, and it still makes me cry. I'll spend my whole life trying to understand why.
Q: We live in a divided culture. We are so strained by social issues, by politics and platforms--we exist separately rather than together. Love is often trumpeted as what will bring us together, but is the solution to such deep divides really as simple as love?
: It's not a question of our love, but God's love for us. Brennan Manning said, "I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day Jesus is going to ask each of us one question, and only one question, 'Did you believe that I loved you?'"
If I'm honest with myself, most of every day I don't believe that Jesus loves me. Even though He has provided mountains of evidence to the contrary, I'm so convinced that I'm a screw-up that no matter how much I try to work that out by doing nice things, the effort is all flesh, not spirit. These actions pale in comparison to those moments of transcendence, of real grace, where I'm stopped in my tracks by something beautiful that actually breaks through the noise in my head and the narrative that I've told myself for my whole life--it shatters that just for a second, and the voice of God breaks through and says, "You're loved." And even if just for a moment, I have the grace to believe it. That's why I'm so bonkers about reading books and watching movies and listening to music--I'm always on the hunt for evidence that there is a God and that He really does love me.
Maybe it's a better thing to be more than merely innocent, but to be broken and then redeemed by love. This is what the forces of darkness don't understand about what God is up to: He's in the process of not merely making us innocent, like babes, but He's in the process of redeeming who we are now, and making us into these resurrected creatures whose stories we bear just like Christ bore the scars of the cross. And the scars of the cross make Him more, not less, glorious. This is what our sadness, what all of this grief we're experiencing, is reflecting. In the end, I have to believe that Christ is the model for what it is that God is doing for us, and that these wounds are making us more beautiful.
You can find
Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth: Spiritual Conversations Inspired by the Life and Lyrics of Rich Mullins on Amazon here.