Become a Defiant Holy Fool

Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making | Andrew Peterson | B&H Books

What does it mean to be a “creator”? Frederic Nietzsche once suggested that the “noble man,” or übermensch, is one who regards “himself as determining values . . . he creates values.” And many authors speak of their writing as coming from their subconscious, or from some inner “muse.” 

But J.R.R. Tolkien offered a radically different version of creativity, one based not within the self, but outside of it. The creative life, he suggested, is predicated upon our ability to receive the fact that we ourselves are created and thus are sub-creators. Our work will only be beautiful or artistic insofar as it reflects the beauty of God, the ultimate Creator. As Tolkien writes in his poem “Mythopoeia,”

Man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White 
to many hues, and endlessly combined 
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

God is the “single White,” the source of all color and beauty. All our efforts at beauty, novelty, or glory are small refractions of that greater light, greater beauty, which stems from God Himself. 

Andrew Peterson’s new book Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making is about this sort of creative life: about the desire to reflect God’s glory and to share it with a dark and hurting world. Peterson is a singer-songwriter, author of the Wingfeather Saga, and creator of a ministry called The Rabbit Room, which focuses on cultivating a “strong Christian arts community.” He has spent more than a quarter of a century seeking to create, to share God’s light in songs and other written works—and as his book makes clear, this has been no easy task. 

This review will appear in the Winter 2020 issue of FORMA. To subscribe now click here.

Adorning the Dark is part memoir, part how-to manual for aspiring musicians and writers. But it is also, in a larger sense, about what it means to be a “sub-creator”—to see the teleological end of your creative work as lying beyond yourself. Adorning the Dark defines the creator not as an übermensch, capable of self-creation, but rather as a receptor: eager to broadcast the meaning, beauty, and glory you are given (but do not make yourself). For this reason, as Peterson’s subtitle implies, a great mystery rests within our efforts at “making.” We move forward with toil and struggle, but also, Peterson suggests, with grace. He shares stories about loss, hardship, stress, exhaustion, and brokenness. From the story behind his Behold the Lamb of God album, to the early struggles of his musical career, each glimpse of Peterson’s life confirms the fact that creation is a difficult discipline. But each is also inspiring, heartening, encouraging—because through them all, Peterson seems to whisper, “Don’t give up.”

Perhaps artists will feel less pressure if they embrace this identity of “sub-creator” and stop looking for some creative muse within themselves. Perhaps those who see themselves as divine copycats, rather than as their own source of innovation and values (as Nietzsche did), will feel less anxiety as they pursue the creative life. But Peterson suggests that it is not this simple. If we believe that God is “profoundly complex, unfathomable, deep as the sea,” and that we are needy, sinful, and small creatures, then the very act of trying to reflect His light, His beauty, can feel impossible and hubristic. Who do we think we are, anyway? 

Many artists struggle with imposter’s syndrome—regardless of religious faith or artistic genre. Throughout several chapters, Peterson describes battles that many readers will recognize. He describes that needling, incessant voice that says we are “not intelligent enough, or academic enough, or witty enough” to accomplish whatever it is we want to achieve. I am not an artist, but I recognize that voice, too. For a long time, it prompted me to turn down speaking engagements, to say no to the (rare) invitations I received to speak on panels or come on radio shows. For a lot of people in the secular world, it seems that bolstering one’s self-respect or pride would be the answer to this sort of crippling doubt. One of my favorite tricks for a while, one that enabled me get up on stage when I wanted to cower in a corner, was to pretend to be someone else. I would mentally assume the identity of a friend of mine—a woman who was far more gregarious, eloquent, and funny than I was—and by imaginatively pretending to be her, I could overcome the mental barriers that prevented me from speaking in public. 

But eventually, I learned what Peterson writes so perfectly: “Living as we do in dying bodies in a dying world, our best work always falls short of the initiating vision. Toil and trouble, thistle and thorn, we push through the brush and come out bloody on the other side, only to realize that we’ve ascended a false peak. It’s difficult, yes. But it doesn’t change a thing about who we are.” 

The “answer” to imposter’s syndrome is not to assume an importance or rightness we do not have. Our identity and confidence must lie not in what we create, but in our createdness: in the fact that we are beloved, precious, redeemed. Because of this identity, we don’t have to strive for perfection. We don’t have to win Pulitzers or Emmys. We just have to be faithful. 

Peterson’s book is about this work of faithfulness: about the dogged persistence required to write poems, paint pictures, sing songs, or pen novels. It is about the humility required for growth and for proper self-expression. And it is about all the other things—homes, families, churches, and communities—that are also, by their nature, creative and nurturing spaces which can glorify God. Two of my favorite chapters in the book—“Longing to Belong” and “Community Nourishes Art”—consider the importance of place, of embeddedness, in living a creative life. This book does not suggest, as some secular authors have, that creation is a solitary endeavor—but rather, that it should always happen within a context, a community. It is through community that we receive accountability and support. It is through the creation and cultivation of a home that we embody the disciplines of creation and stewardship. 

Although Adorning the Dark focuses on songwriting throughout, many of its principles and stories apply to other creative efforts. As Peterson rightly points out, you don’t have to write songs or paint pictures to be creative: Each of us, regardless of whether we are artists, is a creative being. The gardener, the baker, the woodworker, the teacher: Each are creators. And each can, as Peterson puts it, “look for the glimmer of the gospel in all corners of life.”

But our efforts at God-glorification can easily, even subconsciously, turn back toward self-glorification. As Peterson writes early in the book, “I confess, a mighty fear of irrelevance drove me to this vocation, a pressing anxiety that unless you looked back at me with a smile and a nod and said, ‘Oh, I see you. You exist. You are real to me’ . . . I might just wither away and die.” 

With time, Peterson’s artistic efforts shifted away from this desperate desire for self-assurance. He assures readers, “The Lord can redeem your impulse for self-preservation by easing you toward love, which is never about self.” Surrender and humility—both necessary to the life of the Christian artist—also help turn our vision outward again. But, he notes, “You have to believe that you’re precious to the King of Creation, and not a waste of space. You and I are anything but irrelevant. Don’t let the Enemy tell you any different. We holy fools all bear God’s image.”

Only a “holy fool” can defy Nietzsche’s “noble man.” Only a holy fool is willing to, as Peterson puts it, “fumble about in a dark room, feeling for the shape of [a new song],” aware of both the brokenness and the beauty in what they create. Only a holy fool can surrender to the “feeling of diminishment” that comes with realizing nothing you create will ever be as perfect as you hoped. Only a holy fool can sit down to write a book, certain of his or her unworthiness—but certain, too, that God can use even this feeble creation for His glory. 

Perhaps my favorite part of Peterson’s book is this quote, an excellent description of what it means to see yourself as a sub-creator: 

I am convinced that poets are toddlers in a cathedral, slobbering on wooden blocks and piling them up in the light of the stained glass. We can hardly make anything beautiful that wasn’t beautiful in the first place. We aren’t writers so much as gleeful rearrangers of words whose meanings we can’t begin to know. When we manage to make something pretty, it’s only so because we are ourselves a flourish on a greater canvas. That means there’s no end to the discovery. We may crawl around the cathedral floor for ages before we grow up enough to reach the doorknob and walk outside into a garden of delights. Beyond that, the city, then the rolling hills, then the sea. And when the world of every cell has been limned and painted and sung, we lie back on the grass, satisfied that our work is done. Then, of course, the sun sets and we see above us the dark dome of glittering stars.

Many of us who write or sing or paint have felt a flame within us—a burning desire to create something beautiful, and to offer it up in praise and thanks. But the work is demanding, exhausting. It is easy, when we see the imperfections in our efforts, to feel like giving up. 

Despite that feeling, Peterson urges, plant your seed in the ground—and trust that God can grow something from it. Your imperfections, your smallness, might even help you refract the beauty of the single White. 

“Write about your smallness,” Peterson suggests. “Write about your sin, your heart, your inability to say anything worth saying. Watch what happens.”

To the hopeful artist, musician, or writer, Adorning the Dark is a letter from a friend on a fellow journey—a journey that can often be shadowed, cold, and lonely. Each of us deals with the doubt and fear that accompany the discipline of creation. And so each of us needs to be reminded of the vision behind the work: the hope that we might reflect a little splinter of glorious light and make this dark world a little brighter by our efforts.

Gracy Olmstead (@gracyolmstead) is a writer who contributes to The New York Times, The American Conservative, The Week, The Washington Post, and other publications. Sign up for her monthly newsletter, Granola, here.

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