Andrew Peterson: Cultivating Community and Wonder
In this interview, Andrew Peterson talks about the importance of community in the arts, and how the arts can enrich the church and science, deepening our sense of wonder.
Andrew Peterson is an artist in every sense of the word, from a recording artist, songwriter, producer, filmmaker and publisher to the founder of the Rabbit Room, a community for faith and the arts. He also enjoys gardening, beekeeping, and can talk at length about the beauty and even some biology of trees. When I first met Andrew Peterson and the Rabbit Room staff, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t have to explain what BioLogos was; they were already familiar with our work and supported the ministry that we, and organizations like us do at the intersection of faith and science. Intrigued and curious by this, I invited him to do an interview with us to learn more about what draws him as an artist to science. Right before our interview, I had the chance to attend a faith and the arts conference called Hutchmoot held by Andrew Peterson’s The Rabbit Room, and I left inspired and moved by the community of creatives I met there, some of which were even scientists. In this interview, Peterson talks about the importance of community in the arts, and how the arts can enrich the church and science. He also discusses his newest memoir, God of the Garden, and reflects on the many ways he encounters God through nature.
For Andrew Peterson, the best conversations and ideas happen in the context of community, when people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines come together. “In my experience,” says Peterson, “if you’ve got a dinner party, and you’ve got somebody who’s a poet, and somebody who’s a doctor, or a scientist, and somebody who’s a theologian, that is going to be a fascinating dinner party, right? The conversation is going to be amazing.” This is what in part inspired him to found The Rabbit Room, a community for faith and the arts. A misconception about the Rabbit Room is that it only exists for artists, but Peterson says it is for “anyone who has been moved by the way the Lord moves through the arts.” He sees creation as an extension of the arts, and a medium through which God moves as well.
While not a scientist himself, he finds value in communities where interdisciplinary conversations that include scientists can happen. And he believes that the more that these types of conversations happen “through friendship, sharing an actual meal together and doing life together, this can open the door to new revelations, new ideas, new art, new poems and [perhaps] even new breakthroughs in the sciences.”
Peterson is quick to acknowledge that he is not an expert on matters of science but finds that things of science have the capacity to move and excite him. He remembers being moved by a Francis Collins talk he heard years ago and drawn to the way Francis bridges the gap between science and faith, often using music. He also loves being the self-proclaimed “geeky-arts-guy” in the room whenever he has “geeky science conversations” with his friends. “I just get excited. I like the idea that the world is full of surprises, and I think that the sciences are one way [for God to] surprise us.”
There’s a saying that Peterson wholeheartedly embraces: “Community nourishes art and art nourishes community,” and he thinks the same can be said about the faith and science community. “It seems like there would be a lot of scientists who are out there who are people of faith, who feel a little like the oddball in the room, because they can’t geek out about the same things in the same way. So finding each other is going to not only create wonderful friendships that will probably last longer than our lifetimes, but it’s also going to help unlock certain ideas, certain discoveries that might not have happened otherwise.”
“In my experience, if you’ve got a dinner party, and you’ve got somebody who’s a poet, and somebody who’s a doctor, or a scientist, and somebody who’s a theologian, that is going to be a fascinating dinner party, right? The conversation is going to be amazing.”
BioLogos is one of many organizations that provides an opportunity for scientists of faith and others to find community. Peterson finds this to be a good and beautiful thing for the church and hopes to find ways to partner more with such communities down the road.
“through friendship, sharing an actual meal together and doing life together, this can open the door to new revelations, new ideas, new art, new poems and [perhaps] even new breakthroughs in the sciences.”
The Garden and the Fall
In his most recent memoir, God of the Garden, Peterson reflects on the communities that shaped him growing up, recalling his childhood in Illinois and Florida, before eventually landing in Tennessee. He refers to his time in Illinois as the Garden and his time in Florida as the Fall, alluding to formative moments of innocence and brokenness in his life. He recalls the transition between the Garden and Fall in his life as “a shock to [his] little boy’s heart of being lifted out of a Norman Rockwell painting and thrust into a Flannery O’Connor short story, in the deep south.” Writing his memoir helped him process some of the most challenging moments from his past, and revisit even idyllic ones with a more sober lens.
In some of the darkest moments of his past, when he felt most alone, Peterson now in hindsight sees evidence of God’s presence through community and creation, in ways that are redemptive. One way he sees God most in creation these days is through gardening. He recalls one moment in particular when he was planting seeds with his daughter, and nature provided a spiritual epiphany:“I was literally on my knees with my daughter planting a seed, pushing it into the mud, not because I was mad at the seed, or trying to get rid of it, but because I knew this was the way that new life comes. The only way for it to come up is to push it into the mud and wait for the rain. It gave a kind of telos to my suffering. I realized that there was a story being told in me.”
I was literally on my knees with my daughter planting a seed, pushing it into the mud…because I knew this was the way that new life comes. The only way for it to come up is to push it into the mud and wait for the rain. It gave a kind of telos to my suffering. I realized that there was a story being told in me.”
On another occasion he remembers reading that microbes in the soil, when they get under our fingernails, can have an antidepressant effect. As someone who has struggled with depression and melancholy, and who gardens, he can attest to the truth behind this. One day he came to a beautiful and poetic realization about God and creation by mulling on this science fact: “It’s almost as if God made us to take care of the earth. It’s almost as if we were meant to live in contact with God’s creation, because we are actually healthier when we do so.”
Indeed, we were created to care for God’s good earth, and as bearers of God’s image, we all have the responsibility and privilege of looking after it.
Metaphor and Mechanics
In addition to gardening, trees are another part of creation that connect Peterson to God’s presence. Peterson writes at length in God of the Garden about trees and their metaphors in scripture and in his life, but also finds genuine beauty in them as a standalone part of God’s good creation: “It’s not just that trees are a great metaphor for what God is doing in us and in the world. Because they are a great metaphor, truly. But also, trees aren’t metaphors, trees are beautiful. You can climb in them, and you can make houses out of them. What I would caution is to not get so caught up in the beautiful metaphor, and the lesson that trees can teach us and miss the fact that trees in and of themselves are objectively wonderful.”
Peterson believes there’s a healthy balance between what he calls the metaphor and mechanics of creation. He says artists like himself tend to lean more naturally towards metaphor and scientists towards the mechanics of how things work, but one is not enough, we need both. “Scientists could fall in love with the mechanics of it all, and miss the metaphor. And that would be a tragedy. But as an artist, I can fall so in love with metaphor that I miss how beautiful the mechanics of it are. We just need to make friends and get along with each other. And I think that’s where the real power of it is.”
“Scientists could fall in love with the mechanics of it all, and miss the metaphor. And that would be a tragedy. But as an artist, I can fall so in love with metaphor that I miss how beautiful the mechanics of it are. We just need to make friends and get along with each other. And I think that’s where the real power of it is.”
Especially in the church, he believes there’s a real opportunity for metaphor and mechanics to meet when artists and scientists interact more. Just reflecting on what his own creative background in the arts brings to the church, he can only imagine what science can bring, and how art can enrich the scientific endeavor more broadly. “As an artist I’m very comfortable with not knowing things. Part of what I love about poetry and art is that there’s this explorative part of it, that I have to be fine with mystery. And, and I think that makes me a little more able to say “I don’t know.” I don’t know how Genesis jives with whatever, I’m just not troubled by it like some people can be.”
“As an artist I’m very comfortable with not knowing things. Part of what I love about poetry and art is that there’s this explorative part of it, that I have to be fine with mystery.”
He says that artists cultivate wonder, and songwriters like himself have to “keep their eyes peeled for little beautiful hidden moments in life and the world.” He thinks artists and creative people can bring these gifts to the world of science and to the church. For Peterson, he finds science to be a delightful and creative process, and hopes that the church won’t miss this. “Science and the church need to be friends…Christians need to realize that there’s a world of wonder that the sciences are exploring…Who knows what’s under the next rock? I love that there are people out there digging into it.” Let’s keep digging, keep exploring, and finding ways to build communities that keep the faith, science and the arts conversation growing.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
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