Bringing a Dream to Life: Alumnus David Taylor on Bono, Eugene Peterson, and the Psalms
Since leaving Regent, alumnus David Taylor has worked as a pastor, an artist, and a teacher of arts and theology. He is currently the Director of Brehm Texas and an Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. We called David to hear about the making of his recent project, Psalms.
You released a great new project on April 26—Psalms, a film featuring Bono and Eugene Peterson. The film seemed to appear out of nowhere last month. How did that happen?
We had been at work on this for 18 months, but we’d had to keep it under wraps, which is a rather long time to sit silent on something. [Laughs.] Truth is, I was contractually obligated to keep silent. And, remarkably, a small platoon managed to keep quiet, for a year and a half. Now, finally, it’s seeing the light of day, which is a relief.
How did the film come to be?
At one level, you might say that it began with Regent College.
Twenty years ago this spring, I took a course with Eugene Peterson, titled “Biblical Spirituality.” It was a remarkable exposition of Scripture as it intersected church history, literature, Greek mythology, poetry and other things Eugene seemed to be interested in at the time. Not once, however, over the course of that class did he give us practical advice.
As many of us know, Eugene is allergic to How-To’s. As a young man at the time, I did not know this about Eugene and felt myself become rather frustrated. What I was supposed to do with all of this wisdom? In the last class of the semester, at the very end, it dawned on me that Eugene was going to leave us without a concrete way of enacting his vision.
I raised my hand. “Dr. Peterson, this has been a really rich experience, but I have no idea what to do with it. Would you mind telling us one thing we could do?”
After thinking for a moment, he gave me a deceptively simple answer. He said, “David, tomorrow, read Psalm 1. The next day, read Psalm 2. The day after that, read Psalm 3. And when you get to the end, start over. Thank you very much and have a good night, everybody.”
So that’s what I did: I adopted his suggested practice. After a couple of years, it began to change the way that I saw the Psalms. And it changed my own practice of the Christian faith. The Psalms have saturated my life: my sense of self, my thinking, my understanding of God and of worship and of Scripture.
In my doctoral work at Duke I had a chance to study the Psalms further. Now, as a professor at Fuller Seminary, I begin the session on the Psalms in my Practice of Worship course by sharing what Eugene said to us in that class, in the spring of 1996.
I have a deep affection for Regent, because of the influence it has had on my life as a person, a pastor, and an academic.
That explains your focus on the Psalms and Eugene Peterson, but how did Bono get tied up in all of this?
Well, that’s where things get a little more unusual.
In the second week of October 2014, in the wee hours of a Monday night, I had a dream. In this dream, I found myself interviewing Bono and Eugene Peterson about the Psalms.
To be honest, Bono wasn’t on my mind much. I hadn’t ever been an ardent U2 fan, and I had never been to one of their concerts. I wasn’t sure where my subconscious got the idea, but I woke up and lay awake around 3 AM, thinking about turning this dream into a conference.
On Wednesday of that week, I got a call from Steven Purcell, another Regent alumnus, inviting me to attend a weekend retreat. My wife Phaedra and I drove up and found that Eugene Peterson and the poet Christian Wiman were the speakers.
Steven Purcell began the retreat by saying, “We’re so glad Eugene Peterson is here, because he’s told me that he’s no longer travelling.” I was dismayed to hear this. Naturally, I wished to be respectful of Eugene’s wishes, but, well, I also had this conference idea that I couldn’t quite shake. I figured I could always ask and he could always say no—or yes.
On the last day of the retreat, I found him and said, “May I ask you a far-fetched question: How would you feel about having a conversation with Bono about the Psalms? In a public setting? In Los Angeles? This coming spring?”
After a bit of back and forth, he said, “Sure.”
“Come again?” I asked.
He said, “Sure. But I won’t write him. You have to do that.”
As it turned out, the musician Charlie Peacock, who had hosted Bono at one point in the past, was also attending the retreat. So I asked him, “What are the chances of Bono saying yes to this?” And he said, “Fifty percent.”
That was higher than I anticipated, so I crafted a letter, passed it to Charlie, and he passed it to one of Bono’s assistants in early November. I heard nothing for three months. Then one day, in late January of 2015, I was on a break in my Systematic Theology course and I got an email from U2’s management saying, “We’re interested.”
That must have been amazing.
It was. But it took a while to get things going. It also took a long time to find a date when we could get Eugene and Bono in the same place on the same day. In the end, I realized that the conference idea wasn’t going to work out, so we decided instead to go with a filmed conversation at Eugene’s house. We found a three-hour window that worked for everyone, and on April 19, 2015 we all met at Eugene and Jan Peterson’s place in Montana.
We gave Bono and the Petersons about an hour to themselves and then filmed a conversation about an hour and a half long, which was remarkable.
And that was that?
I thought so. But two days later I got an email, from Bono. In essence, he said, “I think we have more things to talk about. Let’s try a second interview.”
We planned to meet in Boston, but that was cancelled when Bono’s doctor ordered him to rest his voice. Bono suggested we make it up in New York City, so I called up Makoto Fujimura, who arranged for us to do the interview in the International Arts Movement space.
Our conversation lasted about an hour. Bono had already spent some time in the Psalms the morning of the interview, and he came quite prepared. I was impressed by his intelligent, serious care for the Psalter, and by how hospitable and relationally generous he was. It was a delightful experience (which I talk about here).
What was your purpose in pursuing the project?
I had two objectives going in. First, I wanted to honour Eugene and Bono and ensure that they felt cared for. Bono has had an affection and admiration for Eugene over the years, and Eugene has respected U2 over the years. Before this, they’d only had a chance to meet once, in 2009. Bono has always wanted to connect with Eugene more, so I knew this was something that he would appreciate—to meet with Eugene in a relaxed, non-heightened, non-public setting.
Secondly, my hope was that as a result of watching this filmed conversation, audiences will be inspired to read and pray the Psalms themselves, to encounter God through them. And I think that’s what Eugene and Bono would want: that anybody who watches this will do likewise. Like Paul, they would say, “Just as I’ve received and encountered good news here, may others do so as well.”
If people watch the film but just leave it at that, I think I’ll be a little disappointed. At the end of the day, I would love for folks to go to the Psalms and to discover what John Calvin once called an exposition of “the anatomy of the soul.” Fervency around the film will eventually fade, but I hope the resource page connected to it might encourage people to enter into the world of the Psalms and to discover this extraordinary hymnbook of the church.
Are you hoping to do more projects like this?
Yes: next on the docket is Tim Keller and Kanye West, and then Beyonce and Beth Moore. [Laughs] No, alas, I have lost years of life on this project. Both Eugene and Bono have been wonderful, but bringing this together has been, well, a challenge.
That said, the film, which was directed by an exceptional director, Nathan Clarke, is the vanguard of an ongoing project at Fuller Seminary. It’s the first release by Fuller Studio, which is a new resource that Fuller is offering for the church.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been tasked by Fuller to lead Brehm Texas. This is a new initiative of the Brehm Centre for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, seeking to revitalize the church through the arts for the common good. Its mission is to gather church leaders, artists, academics and creatives for the purpose of exploring the varied role of the arts in the life of the church and, in light of those gatherings, to produce resources that serve the church in a global context.
I’ll be doing three things to serve that mission: actively serving the arts community in Houston, editing a series of books on the church and the arts, and planning a series of bi-annual conferences on the church and the arts.
Your writing, speaking, and work all seem to centre on the interaction of arts and faith. How did you come to that focus?
I have to credit Regent for providing me with a conceptual framework for thinking biblically and theologically about the arts, and for providing an occasion to begin doing that. I was at Regent from 1995–2000. I never did the Arts concentration—I did systematic theology for my MCS and then New Testament for the ThM—but my professors were always encouraging when I requested permission to explore the relation between the arts, on the one hand, and, say, biblical studies, history, theology or ministry, on the other. My various papers provided me with the necessary resources to become a pastor with oversight of an arts ministry. I owe a great deal to my thinking about art and faith to Regent College.
After Regent, I was a pastor for 9 years in Austin, Texas at Hope Chapel. While there, I began to explore how the arts can become integral to the church’s worship and mission. In a congregation of about 500 people, about 125 were artists, so I had plenty of opportunities to explore, try things out, to fail, and to discern ways that all sorts of arts might serve the formation of our spiritual lives; our humanity; our knowledge, love and service of God; our place in the marketplace; and so on. I engaged in the practice of art as well (I wrote plays and dabbled in a few other arts, film and modern dance among them) but largely those years in Austin were devoted to pastoral work.
In 2009 I went off to do my doctoral work with Jeremy Begbie, who of course has plenty of connections to Regent College. And now I have the opportunity to be a teacher myself: helping students to think clearly about these matters. I teach courses, among others, in theology and the arts, worship and the arts, and the vocation of an artist. In that role as a teacher, my hope is that I can offer to my students what was generously offered to me.
Some folks might say that I’m a one-trick pony: the church and the arts. But now in my 40s, and after plenty of years struggling to discern my place in the world, I am convinced that this is God’s calling on my life. I’m quite content to do this one thing and I’m grateful for the various traveling companions that God has given me, the Regent community included.