The best music is imaginative in the Chestertonian sense. It does not attempt to create a new world. Rather, it seeks to uncover and reveal the truth, goodness, and beauty God has already placed in this world, but remains hidden because we do not have eyes to see. Andrew Peterson translates this type of imagination into joyful, hope-filled folk and roots rock music. His latest EP, Resurrection Letters: Prologue is a Lenten musical devotional, taking listeners to the depths of melancholy in anticipation of the joy of resurrection. This is typical of Peterson’s larger catalogue of work, where he captures the beauty and joy, as well as the sufferings and sadness, of life.
Peterson succeeds where some other Christian artists fail because he applies the wisdom of C.S. Lewis’s Meditation in a Toolshed. In that famous essay, Lewis wrote of the difference between looking at a beam of light and looking along it, and used these as metaphors for knowledge. When you look at a beam of light, you see the light from the outside, and can know various facts about it. But when you look along the beam, the light becomes the atmosphere by which you know anything else. Part of the greatness of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is the atmosphere he creates to communicate truth, goodness, and beauty. He puts the reader in the beam of light. He doesn’t just tell you about jollification, but makes you feel jolly.
Peterson’s music possesses this same quality. He doesn’t just sing facts about God, but puts the listener in God’s world, with all its attendant joys, sorrows, and longings. He creates an atmosphere of grace that stirs up gratitude and wonder, and drips of permanence. But he does not just put permanence on awkward display, like a first-grader on show-and-tell day. He puts his listeners in stories of the permanent things, and makes them feel the weight of glory.
Ten years ago, Peterson released Resurrection Letters Volume 2, a celebration of the ripple effects of the resurrection of Christ. He always intended to record a Volume 1, focusing on Jesus’ resurrection itself, not just its outworking in our world. But writing songs about the central event in all of human history is daunting, and, with other projects demanding attention, Peterson never got back around to the prequel album. Until this year. Resurrection Letters Volume 1 will be released on Good Friday, and Prologue came out last week. Though it is a short five-song EP, Prologue is a solemn and beautiful album worthy of attention in its own right.
The album begins with “Last Words (Tenebrae)”, focusing on the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross. With piano and percussion in the background, the first six sayings of Jesus are introduced gradually, repeated, looped, and overlapped, creating a hauntingly beautiful account of the crucifixion. The song climaxes with Jesus’ final words before death: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
“Well Done, Good and Faithful” recounts the agony of the cross: the pain of crucifixion, the mocking of the crowd, the loneliness, and the wrath and turning away of the Father. The chorus begins by asking twice, “Why, oh why, my God?” which seems intended to both evoke Jesus’ anguish on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—and to call for an explanation of the faithfulness of Christ. Peterson’s answer hearkens back to Hebrews 12:
“For the joy before him he endured.
And is seated at the right hand of the throne.
Well done, good and faithful, well done.
Well done, good and faithful one.”
Ultimately, the track celebrates the faithfulness of the Son amidst excruciating circumstances.
The middle track, “The Ninth Hour,” is a piano and strings instrumental. According to Mark 15:33, at the crucifixion of Jesus, there was darkness over the whole land from the sixth hour until the ninth. This song is a sober, yet hopeful soundtrack for the reappearing light. The end of the song features a soft crescendo where one imagines the dawning of the afternoon sun, but it does not end in exuberance. Instead, it fades into silence, for the body of Christ hangs lifeless at the ninth hour.
I saw Peterson in concert last week, and he told the personal story behind “Always Good.” While on the road touring, he received a call that a dear friend’s wife died after giving birth to her first child. In his absence, Peterson asked his sons to go to the hospital. His seventeen-year old son accompanied his friend into the room where his wife’s body lay. There, prostrated on the floor, the suffering man repeated, “Always good, always good, always good.” Written for her funeral, the song connects Jesus’ suffering to our suffering and speaks to how hard providence shapes us in ways we do not understand.
You’re always good. Always good.
Somehow this sorrow is shaping my heart like it should.
And you’re always good.
As we try to believe what is not meant to be understood;
Help us to trust your intentions for us are still good.
‘Cause you laid down your life and suffered like I never could.
And you’re always good.
The final track, “God Rested,” is the most interesting as Peterson connects Christ’s burial to the seventh day of creation. When God made the world, He worked six days and rested on the seventh, the Sabbath. When God remade the world, He again rested on the seventh day, as the body of Jesus lay in the tomb on the Sabbath.
“Six days shall you labor, the seventh is the Lord’s.
In six he made the earth and all the heavens,
but he rested on the seventh.
He said that it is finished
and on the seventh day he blessed it.
The album ends with Christ dead, lifeless in the tomb, resting. The final lyrics capture the atmosphere of Lent—lament and anticipation—and help us prepare our hearts for Easter.
“The sun went down; the Sabbath faded; the holy day was done and all creation waited.”