Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making
Peterson, Andrew. Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2019. 224pp. Paperback, $16.99. ISBN-13 978-1535949026
If you are looking for Adorning the Dark in a bookstore, try looking near the art section somewhere between the shelves on memoirs and “how-to.” Through personal reflection and narrative, Peterson explores the ups and downs of the creative process, serving as an admirable guide for artists and storytellers of all shapes and sizes. With an infectious vision for the renewal and re-creation of all things, Peterson invites others to confront the darkness around and within them in order to produce honest, beautiful, and life-promoting art for the sake of God’s glory and his kingdom.
Although Adorning the Dark is Peterson’s first nonfiction book, it is every bit as saturated with imagination and charm as his children’s fantasy series, The Wingfeather Saga. In both style and content, Peterson attempts to dismantle the “imaginational segregation” which prevents many people from fulfilling their spiritual callings. Peterson describes years of his life in which he failed to recognize any connection between the obligatory and (seemingly) mundane routines of his religious life and his deepest longings for adventure and artistry. With the help of writers such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Peterson helps readers recognize the profound beauty within Christianity, and demonstrates how God uses art – even so-called “secular” and fictional art – to call people to himself.
This process of re-enchantment happens by recognizing the sacredness of ordinary life and ordinary people. Recognizing oneself as one of those people is not only a means to producing art but a glorious end in and of itself. Peterson says that the world is already singing God’s praises; why not join in? In fact, humans can only make beauty by highlighting or enhancing the inherent beauty of God’s good creation and because they themselves are beautiful by virtue of bearing God’s image.
Peterson is not unrealistically optimistic about humanity’s potential for meaningful creativity. He is refreshingly honest about his own insecurities and doubts, which plague every Christian artist. Peterson offers helpful suggestions (particularly in his afterword) on how to work through some of these obstacles, including writer’s block, uncertainty, and self-doubt. However, Peterson also recognizes that the primary obstacle is not one’s own incompetence or insufficiency; rather, there is a Resistance of evil forces that try to prevent Christians from bringing anything beautiful into the world. Resisting this Resistance is not merely a matter of religious duty, but disciplined and discerning creativity – both within the culture and within the private context of friendships and fellowship; that is, with no thought of marketability or monetary gain. In this manner, the artist will learn to serve the art and the audience, rather than him/herself.
Those who are familiar with Peterson’s musical career and personal life will note how admirably he embodies these creative ideals. In the same way, Peterson’s writing exemplifies the very artistry he advocates for, although he occasionally slips into purple prose (which, it is worth mentioning, is commendably absent from his lyrics). He describes one noteworthy morning,
What I was looking for all along had found me instead. Not once did I suspect in all my sketching and reading and aching to enter the stories I read that Jesus was calling me through them… [I was] projecting my disappointment with myself onto everything else – everything but the world in my mind, build out of song and story and that terrible, secret longing… But that morning… life itself – the one I was actually living – for once outshone the life I had yearned for. The Maker of this beautiful, broken world ambushed me. (L1058-L1075)
While some readers will appreciate his poetic writing, others – particularly those with a more academic disposition – may deem it too flowery or anecdotal.
Peterson is candid about his academic incompetence, but is nonetheless thoughtful and biblical. Although Peterson addresses many biblical themes, Biblical references are conspicuously absent from the text. Despite this lack of formal citations (Peterson has more fingers than he has footnotes), Peterson consistently and helpfully refers to other artists who exemplify principles he is discussing. He also compiles several recommended sources on creative writing and imaginative reading in his appendix.
These resources could be supplemented by a growing body of cultural apologetic literature (for instance, see Paul Gould, Cultural Apologetics [Zondervan, 2019]). Recently, cultural apologists have made a strong case for Christian creativity and culture-making by looking at these topics philosophically and theologically. C. S. Lewis described this sort of inquiry as looking at a beam of light (cf. Lewis, “Meditation in a Tool Shed”); by contrast, Peterson explores these topics from within, looking along the artistic trajectory of his own life. He includes enough personal information that the book nearly feels like a biography, yet he arranges his chapters topically. As a result, his anecdotes jump back and forth in time, and the connections between paragraphs are sometimes unclear when he unpredictably shifts between narrative and discourse. This can be disorienting. In one instance, Peterson raises a question that he does not answer for several pages, having abruptly changed the subject.
For as much as Peterson beautifully addresses the goodness of creation, the tragic consequences of the Fall, and the coming New Creation, he writes surprisingly little about the gospel. It is unclear why, if (as it seems) he is writing primarily for Christian artists. Nonetheless, Biblical truths permeate his vision and pursuit of art that speaks powerfully and persuasively, whether or not it is explicitly Christian. His insights and his example have the potential to shape a generation of writers, readers, musicians and artists who are thoughtful, creative and honest. To that end, Adorning the Dark is a valuable resource for burgeoning artists and a delightful introduction to Peterson’s admirable craftsmanship and creativity.