Andrew Peterson: Encountering the God of the Garden—Part 1

god of the garden

“Everyone was talking about how Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins, but the elephant in the room was why?”

Andrew Peterson is a musician and the award-winning author of The Wingfeather Saga (WaterBrook), a four-book fantasy adventure series for young people. Sometimes described as “The Princess Bride meets The Lord of the Rings,” these books are presently in production as an animated series from the same studio that produced The Chosen.

Peterson’s recently released second nonfiction book, The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture and the Kingdom, is a spiritual follow-up to his 2019 memoir, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling and the Mystery of Making (both from B&H).

In 2008, he founded The Rabbit Room, a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating a strong Christian arts community, and Rabbit Room Press, which has published over 30 books to date.

Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Peterson to hear more about the themes of The God of the Garden, and why, in a culture that emphasizes fast and easy values, slowing down to see creation more clearly might be the way to connect to the big story God is writing among us. 

Some people know you as a songwriter, some know you from their young adult’s bookshelf as the author of The Wingfeather Saga, others have read your nonfiction. What do you tell people when they ask what you do for a living?

I often say, “I’m a writer,” and just leave it at that. I’m a singer/songwriter, but lately I’ve been doing more prose. It’s very complicated. I never know exactly where to begin because there are so many plates spinning right now.

For those not yet familiar with your work, can you paint your backstory?

I’ve been married for 26 years, have three grown children and two new daughters-in-law, but no grandkids yet. I grew up in Illinois and Florida, and during the year between high school and college, I moved out to play in a band. That was the year when I met Jesus because I was really confronted by his love for the first, life-changing time when I was about 18. Thanks to the music of Rich Mullins, I began to believe that the gospel was more beautiful than I had thought it was, that Jesus loved me. 

Not long after that, I found myself in Bible college. While I was getting a Bible degree, I started writing my own songs. I played music quite a bit, but I had never written my own songs or done my own concerts. But it was during that season that I asked God if he would let me sing. By the time I finished college, I was ready to move to Nashville.

My wife and I moved there and started a music career. Somewhere between my second and third records, I read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia books to my kids, which reawakened my desire to be an author. I had always wanted to write books, but I tabled it for music. I started working on The Wingfeather Saga while I continued to do music.

“It’s easy to think of Christianity as some sort of construct, when it’s actually centered on a Person.”

Somewhere in there I started a nonprofit called The Rabbit Room, which is a ministry that cultivates and curates stories, art and good music to nourish Christ-centered communities to be the light of the world. It’s kind of a gathering point for people who are Christians who are also trying to tell the truth beautifully.

Along the way we started the four-year process of turning The Wingfeather Saga into an animated series. Last year we concluded the 22nd annual Behold the Lamb of God Christmas tour, and I released The God of the Garden. So as we speak right now, I’m tired. Super tired. I’m eager to go home and do nothing for a minute. 

You mentioned Rich Mullins as a pivotal figure for you. What was it about the type of Christianity present in Mullins’ witness or music that spoke to you at that crossroads in your life?

I’ve thought a lot about that. It was a combination of honesty, truth and beauty. Rich’s music got my attention because it wasn’t slick. He wasn’t slick. When I heard him sing, I heard somebody who knew what it meant to be broken. He was deft at writing with disarming honesty. When he wrote about his own brokenness, it made his writing about Jesus feel authentic.

His work was also high craft. He was an actual Songwriter, with a capital S. I would put him up with James Taylor, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan as one of the greatest. Not all his songs, but when he was great, he was as good as any of those guys. And he was a true believer. He knew Jesus and loved Scripture. The way he sang about Jesus made me realize that Jesus was real.

It’s easy to think of Christianity as some sort of construct, when it’s actually centered on a Person. Experiencing Rich’s music, I began to realize that Jesus is this real presence who could be known.

Let’s move to The God of the Garden. My understanding is that the book was written during the early COVID-19 lockdowns. 

Yeah, that’s right. I was grounded from touring for about a year because of the pandemic. I had been praying for a sabbatical for a couple of years. I was not burned out yet, but I could see it on the horizon. So when I suddenly found myself forced to stay put, I was torn between feeling a real grief for what was going on in the world—I was as unsettled as anyone else—and at the same time I was very grateful for a minute to catch my breath.

Not long after I got home from tour, the editor who published Adorning the Dark, my first nonfiction book, asked if I wanted to write a new one. Initially I said no, because I didn’t really know what the book was supposed to be about yet. I indicated that I’d love to write a book, but that I didn’t know what it was yet, so we should wait for it to develop. When I realized that things weren’t going back to normal anytime soon, I suddenly felt like tons of book ideas came flooding in [laughs]. So I called them back and said, “OK, fine. Let’s do this.”

I then began a process of doing a lot of exploring and writing and working our land, trying to get to the bottom of what it was the Lord wanted me to see in that season.

And what was that?

What it really ended up being was a development of one of the chapters in Adorning the Dark—the chapter about place. In my last book, which was a memoir about the creative process, one of the chapters was about our property and how that fed our family’s life of creativity. That chapter somehow ended up resonating the most with people. The God of the Garden quickly became a further exploration of that theme.

Can you describe a little bit about your place?

We’ve lived in Nashville for a little over 24 years now. All our kids are from here, and it feels more like home than any place my wife and I have ever lived. It’s hard to imagine ever living anywhere else. We’ve sunk deep into the community. We just love, love this city.

About 15 years ago, I read a novel by Wendell Berry called Jayber Crow. It touched me deeply. Wendell Berry writes a lot about agrarianism and the importance of place, community and responsible stewardship of the land. That’s all mixed in with his faith. Growing up in Illinois, and in a pretty rural community in Florida too, I’ve always lived in places that were pretty close to the land. I knew farmers, and we ate vegetables from our own garden. But for most of my adult life, I didn’t live that way. That book ignited a yearning in me to live on a piece of land that I could love for the rest of my life if I wanted to.

“Everyone was talking about how Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins, but the elephant in the room was why?”

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That desire led us to this little corner of Southeast Nashville called Cane Ridge. It’s this little undeveloped pocket of the city. It’s beautiful. There’s a creek called Mill Creek. It’s more than a creek—it’s almost a river that winds through the valley. It’s a part of Nashville where you can still see cows—even though there’s a Starbucks five minutes away. We happened upon a couple of acres and bought them 15 years ago, and since then have been trying to learn to take care of them and steward them in a way that is a reflection of our role as image bearers, and a reflection of our belief in the coming kingdom. 

That small commitment is countercultural these days, and beautiful. In some Christian circles, we could be having this conversation, and folks would be thinking, Great, but ultimately that’s just physical. That’s just where you live. Why invest your time in it? Tell me about how caring for the place where you live impacts your interior life.

A lot of this was a convergence of my reading of Wendell Berry with my reading of N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. I grew up in the church; my dad was a pastor in the American South. In my little nondenominational denomination, there wasn’t a lot of talk about what was actually going to happen at the final judgment and return of Christ. “Let’s not try to nail that down too much, because who knows.” 

As a result, our imaginations about all that were more fed by Looney Tunes than by Scripture. A lot of us pictured heaven as harps and clouds and babies—that kind of thing. I genuinely was mostly terrified of the return of Jesus when I was a boy, because of how people talked about it. I remember having conversations with people about how those “tree huggers” were deluded because “it’s all going to burn”—that kind of mindset. And man, what a giant miss of the story that Scripture is telling.

Surprised by Hope put flesh and blood on my understanding of what the gospel truly is. The fact that every sermon in the book of Acts centered on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. The fact that it’s very clear in Scripture in the New Testament (and the Old too) that what we’re in for is not a disembodied heaven, but the new creation. I didn’t know that. I think maybe I wanted that to be the case, but I didn’t really know. It wasn’t really taught or talked about.

“To see creation and culture locking arms feels to me like walking in the Lord’s way and delighting in his will to the glory of his name in a real, tangible way.”

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But the cool thing about it is that the resurrected Jesus is the “firstborn” from among the dead, and his glorified body tells us something. He’s the first one through the brush, so to speak, but we’ve been invited into the same bodily resurrection. We’re going to experience a New Jerusalem and a new creation. We’re going to finally be able to live out our original Genesis call to take care of this creation that God so loves. Man, it’s just thrilling.

It’s almost like there was an elephant in the room when I was at church camp as a kid, and everyone was talking about how Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins, so I could be in heaven with him one day. It was like that all jived, that’s all in Scripture, sure, but the elephant in the room was why? What for? What are we actually for? What is the point of it all?

And when people would describe heaven as an eternal church service, that was the wrong thing to say to a pastor’s kid. I didn’t want it. But what I do get worked up about, what I do get excited about is feasting with my friends and the beauty of spring and the way my mom’s garden in the last 20 years has flourished. To see creation and culture locking arms in this beautiful way. That feels to me like walking in the Lord’s way and delighting in his will to the glory of his name in a real, tangible way.

I guess that’s my point in The God of the Garden. I’ve been trying for a long time to talk more about new creation than “heaven.” Because N.T. Wright says heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world. He’s kind of being funny, but that’s the story that Scripture tells. What is coming to us is not another place; it’s this place. Made new.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Andrew Peterson where he talks about hearing God through creation, why trees are so important, and learning to slow down in a culture that encourages us toward constant distraction.