When people talk about you and your music, they often talk about your ability as a storyteller. What is the importance of telling stories to you?
When I was a kid I listened to my dad preach every Sunday, and I noticed the way I paid more attention whenever he broke away from exposition and told a story. I’d be scribbling on the bulletin, struggling to stay awake, then he’d say, “The other day I was at the post office…” and something in the air would change. And it wasn’t just me that sat up straighter, it was the old farmers and sheriffs and the decorating committee. Everybody’s wired to pay attention to stories. I suppose that realization I had when I was ten carried over into my songwriting and, eventually, the writing that I do.
Should a song ever preach a sermon? What should a song do?
A song can do a lot of things. It can facilitate worship, of course, but it can also instruct, it can inspire, it can tell a story, it can unify. Sometimes I think we have too narrow a view of worship—which is to say that, obviously, worship is more than just singing—but we also have too narrow a view of what songs are for, even when we sing in church. Could it be that singing in church is more than just a means for worship? Can’t it be a way for us to be reminded of doctrine? Can’t songs be a way for us to re-experience the Gospel story, not to mention our own stories? Don’t they instruct us? Don’t they edify? Can’t songs, in a way that can’t be quantified, unify us for those precious few moments that we’re singing them? Songs, even what we typically call “worship songs”, ought to be for more than just worship. To answer your question, yes, a song can preach a sermon. It can also be something to jam to while you’re cleaning your house. As for the kind of songs I love, I think they can, miraculously, infiltrate someone’s heart with the light of truth. I’ve seen it happen. On our yearly Behold the Lamb of God tour, which I do with several other songwriters, I love to sit on the stage while someone else is singing and watch a random audience member’s face. I’ve seen them, in the course of a three-minute song about the love of Jesus, go from disinterested, to casually interested, to engaged, to ugly crying. I’ve seen the very moment when someone believed. How amazing is that? God gave music a peculiar power to ambush us with the truth. I think that’s what I’m usually shooting for.
Your songs aren’t designed for singing in a Sunday worship service, but how do you see them in relation to the common person sitting in the pew?
Well, actually some of my songs are used in churches—but you’re right, most of them would never work in that setting. I suppose the common person sitting in a pew spends the majority of their time not sitting in a pew. Most of our days are spent out and about, engaging in the heartbreaking work of being alive; that’s where I hope my songs can bring some comfort.
You have been releasing music since 1996 and yet your style hasn’t changed dramatically in all that time. How are you able to stay timeless yet relevant with each new release?
Well, that’s very kind. I don’t know that only fifteen years makes me timeless, but I reckon if there’s any lasting relevance to anyone’s music it’s because it told the truth in a beautiful way. I don’t know if I’ve done that, or if I ever will, but I hope so. The trick, if there is a trick, is to try and be obedient to the work, to maintain an appropriate amount of snobbery—which is to say that one should care about doing excellent work, and to distrust your own ability to do it, at least enough that you’re unwilling to be lazy—and to take your work seriously without taking yourself seriously at all. There’s enough pretentious art in the world; what we need is honesty, even at our own expense.
You have said Light for the Lost Boy was inspired by your children, you are also a writer of juvenile literature, what is it about young people that help give us guidance of clarity in creative and spiritual arenas?
There’s this great Rich Mullins song called “Growing Young”, about the parable of the lost son. It says, “We are children no more, we have sinned and grown old / but our Father still waits and he watches down the road / to see the crying boy’s come running back to his home / and we’re growing young.” There’s something childlike about the old saints I have known, as if there’s this middle stage in our lives that we have to grow out of by becoming more, and not less, like children. We spend our early days wanting to be older, and our old days wanting to be younger, which is evidence that we’re meant for eternity; it’s like the trappings of time are clothes that don’t quite fit. I think most of us would love to be twelve again, but I don’t know anyone who wants to re-live junior high. We want to go on, not back. Sin has aged us. We’ve been wasting away since the day we were born, winding down with entropy, yet Scripture says our souls are being renewed every day. Christ’s defeat of death gives us hope in the resurrection, the promise that one day these undying souls of ours will be joined with an undying body. There’s a quality of holiness, a seeming nearness to eternity, in the very young and the very old that eludes those of us in the middle. Writing stories for young people is a way for me to draw near to that quality, in the hopes of keeping my heart young.
Speaking of your work as a novelist; how does your process in writing a novel differ from writing music; how is it similar?
Writing a song is something that happens (for me, at least) in little bursts of activity and inspiration. Plus, you get the satisfaction of sharing the work with people almost immediately. A book takes months, sometimes years to write, and is the result of dogged determination. Songwriting involves a lot of waiting, like going fishing. Book writing is about perseverance, like building a house. The cool thing is, from a creative standpoint, they both scratch the same itch. I get the same thrill from both.
What do you hope listeners pull away from Light for the Lost Boy?
With all of my records, my main hope is that folks will feel less alone, and most of all that something in the songs will wake them up to the reality of God’s presence. I grew up in the church and had a merely passive appreciation for the Gospel; it was certain songs and books that kicked down the door of my heart and invaded it with the love and reality of Jesus himself. C. S. Lewis said that stories could slip the truth past people’s “watchful dragons.” I think songs can do the same.