In this conversation, the Brehm Center’s Program Director, Nate Risdon, spoke with David Taylor, the Director of Brehm Texas and associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, about about the making of his short film, Bono & Eugene Peterson: the Psalms.
Photos by Taylor Martyn and John Harrison
Nate Risdon: How did this whole project get started? When did this “crazy” idea of getting Bono and Eugene Peterson in the room first hit you?
David Taylor: On Monday night, October 13, 2014, I had a dream. In that dream, I was sitting with Eugene and Bono in front of an audience, somewhere in Los Angeles, asking them questions about the psalms. I don’t normally dream about Bono and I cannot, I’m afraid, count myself as one of U2’s diehard fans, so it was a bit of a strange moment for me. The dream was vivid and detailed, as most of my dreams are. When I eventually woke up, around 3 AM, I lay there replaying the conversation my sub-conscious mind had imagined up.
With my wife, Phaedra, sleeping soundly next to me, I began to conceive of a one-day conference on the psalms. I knew the idea was entirely far-fetched, but I wasn’t able to fall back asleep until my mind had drafted a full schedule, a set of speakers, snacks, artistic interludes, a PR plan, contractual arrangements, a communications protocol, and the means by which we could persuade Bono and Eugene to agree to an impossible event taking place somewhere in Los Angeles.
Then I went back to sleep. Then I awoke around sunrise. Then, over breakfast, I told Phaedra about my dream. Then I told her that I was going to see if I could make my dream come true. Then she smiled at me, because that’s what wives do on behalf of husbands who dream about the Man Who Wrote the Bible and TIME magazine’s 2005 Person of the Year.
In one sense, my original vision for this project was relatively simple: to offer Eugene and Bono an opportunity to connect as friends and to inspire others to read, pray, and sing the psalms for themselves. Whether it would ever come to pass was another matter.
NR: And what happened next?
DT: Two days after my dream, on Wednesday, October 15, 2014, I received a last-minute invitation by Steven Purcell, the director of the Laity Lodge, to attend a Laity Lodge retreat that was to begin on Thursday, October 16.
Eugene Peterson and the poet Christian Wiman were scheduled to be the featured speakers, with Charlie Peacock as the featured musician. I told Steven that we’d be thrilled to come.
It was during this retreat that I spoke with Eugene about my somewhat preposterous idea. He agreed to it, on one condition: I had to get ahold of Bono myself; he would not do the work for me. He respected Bono’s privacy enough to refuse all requests to make connections to Bono through him. I respected Eugene for telling me this.
I had already approached Charlie Peacock earlier in the retreat. Charlie had hosted Bono in his home, along with an group of Christian musicians, in 2002, around the time of Bono’s advocacy work in Africa, specifically with DATA and the fight against AIDS. I knew Charlie had a contact for one of Bono’s personal assistants.
I asked him: "What are the chances that Bono might be willing to meet with Eugene in a public setting to talk about their common interest in the psalms? 10% 30% 2% 100%?"
Charlie replied, “50%.”
I was surprised that the percentage was that high. I shared with him my idea and, aware of the bluntness of my request, I asked if he might be willing to pass a letter along to Bono’s personal assistant. I’ve known Charlie since 2003, when I’d invited him to be a guest artist at an arts festival that my church, Hope Chapel, in Austin, Texas, sponsored annually.
I respect Charlie and I cherish his friendship, but I was acutely aware of the presumption of my query. Dreading a negative answer, he surprised me by saying that he would.
It goes without saying that this project would not have happened if Charlie had not generously offered to make the original introduction.
NR: What was the original plan for bringing them together? Why did that change?
DT: The original plan was for a one-day conference on the psalms, to be hosted by Fuller in Pasadena. The problem was that we couldn’t find a single date on the 2015 spring calendar that both Bono and Eugene could make. I figured at this point, the project was DOA. I had already put in four months of work on the project and to think that this was it was a wee bit depressing. U2 was about to launch its North American tour of “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” and if anything else were to work out, we’d have to wait till spring 2016, a year later, by which time Eugene might be wholly disinclined to travel by plane and Bono might have moved on from the idea.
I called Steven Purcell, to update him on the state of the project. A few days later, he called me back and asked, “What if you re-conceptualized the event? What if instead of a public conference, you planned a more private gathering? What if you found a film crew to capture on camera a conversation between Bono and Eugene?”
It was a brilliant idea, I thought, but an equally impossible one. So sitting in my office, the following day, in late February, I typed a letter to Eugene—because the man is allergic to electronic mail. Two weeks later, on the morning of March 10, I got a call from Eugene saying that he would be happy to do this. Needless to say, I was thrilled and terribly relieved.
Long story short, after another fantastically long series of back-and-forths with U2’s management and The ONE Campaign, we agreed to meet on the afternoon of April 19.
NR: Were there any challenges in making this new plan happen? How did you overcome or meet those challenges?
DT: The short answer: there were many challenges.
The long answer is that as with any large-scale project, that involves large institutions, in this case, Fuller Theological Seminary on one side and U2 along with The One Campaign on the other, unexpected changes to the original plan or the need to adjust one’s expectations come with the territory. To state the obvious here: large institutions offer unique opportunities and challenges.
With U2’s management team, it was perfectly reasonable for them to protect the band’s image in general and Bono’s in particular. That was their proper job. On my end, it sometimes caused things to take longer than I had anticipated. There were scheduling challenges. And there were many exciting directions that the project could have taken that required both prudence and patience on all our parts to discern the right way forward.
I can’t say that any aspect of this project was easy. It was hard, but perhaps predictably so, and while I am grateful for how the project turned out and I am profoundly grateful to everyone who contributed to its success, I will probably need a long-ish vacation from the stress of managing a high-stakes project.NR: So when you got to Peterson's place, were you nervous? If so, what made you so? If you weren't, what kept you calm and focused?
DT: Yes, I was nervous, for two reasons.
For one, I knew that I wouldn’t get a second shot at this interview. We’d have to work with whatever we captured on camera. What we filmed would eventually be sent out into the world.
The words of an old friend floated through my head: “David, don’t blow it.”
Beyond this, I knew that a good interview needed to feel like a good conversation. The only way that a good conversation could happen, however, is if the people felt comfortable with each other. While Bono had met briefly with Eugene in 2009, and while we had given them a chance to speak privately, off-camera, an hour-long, prior to our official interview, I would have no chance to warm up to Bono, or he to me.
It didn’t escape me that I would be sitting across from “Bono.” I don’t usually hang out with famous people, nor am I normally star-struck. But as Dean Nelson, journalism professor of Point Loma University, once said to Eugene during an interview in 2007: “It’s Bono!” And it’s difficult to read the temperature of a room when you have no way to read the subtle, non-verbal signals of your interlocutors.
While standing on the Peterson’s dock, then, I prayed and rehearsed the sequence of questions in my head. I tried to imagine a combination of tones to our conversation, while also trying to gauge in advanced what we could accomplish in the one hour that I had been promised with Bono on camera.
Then Bono arrived, accompanied by two of his personal assistants, who turned out to be incredibly lovely human beings, and the whole thing got going.
NR: After that first day of filming in Montana, how were you feeling?
DT: I didn’t feel great. But that’s because of a flaw in my personality type. As an INTJ, I am positively incapable of enjoying the moment. As soon as I have finished a task or project, I analyze it, looking for all the ways that it could have been twenty times better as a way to anticipate future occasions. It’s a serious character issue.
After the filming had been completed, I shared my frustrations with Phaedra. Like a good wife and a good friend, she reassured me that it had probably gone much better than my immediate reaction was allowing for.
NR: What happened next with the footage you shot?
DT: The film crew shot three different sequences: the official interview, B-roll of Bono and Eugene chatting casually, and a second interview between myself and Eugene, after Bono had left to travel back to Vancouver.
I must also express here my heartfelt gratitude to my friend Taylor Martyn, who on only 48-hour notice, agreed to fly out to Montana in order to photograph the event. What a gift to have all these photographs.
NR: From the beginning, you wanted to bring in Nathan Clarke and his crew to direct these shoots? Why is that?
DT: I had met Nate (Clarke) through our common friend, Steven Purcell. Nate had done a good deal of work for the Laity Lodge, and I had watched one of his films, in which he captured the process by which the artist Roger Feldman had completed a sculpture, “Threshold,” in 2013.
I was very impressed with the way that the film had been photographed and scored. And so I was not only looking for a filmmaker with the right aesthetic sensibility, I was also looking for somebody who could be the right partner on this project, fully confident in their capacity to produce good work but humble enough (and flexible enough) to figure things out as we went along.
I could not have asked for a better partner in crime than Nate. Here at the end of the project, the gift to me is not only a beautiful short documentary film but also a genuine friendship.
NR: What advice did you seek in editing it down?
DT: It took Nate Clarke and me a good while to figure out what story we wanted to tell and what story the footage would allow us to tell. As Nate reminded me over the phone at one point, we couldn’t force the footage to be something that it cannot be. The concrete footage would have to open up a possibility that perhaps we had yet to imagine.
What complicated things was the fact that the film shoots in Montana and New York City were so different from each other—different in tone, in setting, in content, in movement, in color. They were not blending well together.
After producing a rough cut of the film in late summer of 2015, and letting it sit for a while, we felt okay about it, but not great. Something was missing. On the phone again, I asked Nate, “If we could tell any story we wanted with this footage, what story was that? Was there an original story that we could tell? And what did we need to do to tell that story?”
I had had two original hopes for this film: to chronicle the friendship between Eugene and Bono, and to inspire audiences to read the psalms for themselves. I asked Nate what it would take for us to tell the story of their unlikely friendship. He said he’d need to get his hands on some archival footage for that to happen.
I told him that we should aim in that direction. To tell the best story possible here, a story that would honor their friendship and their common love for the psalms: that needed to be the goal. It’s at this point that the film took a different direction and also required me to go raise the extra funds to do the job right (or as best as we could).
It was a matter of negotiating the ideal in our heads and the constraints that would force us to be even more creative than we had originally supposed necessary. Nate and I worked together to find filmed footage and photographs that had already documented Bono’s relationship to Eugene.
Once we had found the available material, Nate proposed that we send our Director of Photography, the incomparable John Harrison, back to Montana, to film footage of the landscape and to ask Eugene and Jan an additional set of questions. Their answers would help us to massage the story into proper shape. This, too, required extra funds, in addition to the funds that I had originally raised from family and friends.
But once I saw the additional Montana footage, I knew that we had made the right decision. While it represented only a small sliver of material in the final cut, it helped us to tell the story that the film wanted to tell.NR: Why did you decide you needed more footage with Bono?
DT: Bono felt that there was more to be said than we could cover in our one interview in Montana, and was hoping to find an opportunity for a second conversation on the psalms. Needless to say, I was happy to oblige.
Our first attempt to schedule a follow-up interview, in early July 2015, intercepting U2 in their visit to Boston, fell through. That’s actually a fun story for another day. We succeeded, however, on our second attempt, managing to coordinate our schedules with U2’s last stop on their North American tour, in New York City.
Knowing that we would be meeting in the Big Apple to take our conversation on the psalms further, and knowing that Bono had a special appreciation for visual art, I began looking for a gallery space that we might use. I called Makoto Fujimura and asked for his advice. His answer was better than I had originally imagined: Why not use the International Arts Movement space? Chuckling over the phone, I said: why not indeed!
The whole thing felt rather providential: a beautiful space, connected to a respected artist, run by an incomparably hospitable group of artists, available all the day long, at no cost to us, located a mere handful of blocks from Bono’s hotel. I couldn’t have been more pleased. This second interview took place on July 29.
NR: You did some extensive traveling for this project, plus a lot of time communicating over phone or email. How have your wife and daughter faired in all this? How have you?
DT: Phaedra has been exceedingly patient with me throughout this project. It’s been a challenging project, and I’m grateful for her steadfast presence. But attending to all the needs of the project, at last-minute moments, requiring me to put in long hours at the office, I often found that my brain was distracted and that my body was worn down. My absence at nights, working after hours, and the worries that attended the project were frequently hard on my family.
As I mentioned earlier, all large-scale projects involve things that disappoint or frustrate or tempt you to turn into the worst version of yourself. The worst version of yourself is usually the least pleasant version for your family to experience, and I regret that. At times the project was exhilarating, at times it was hard, grinding work (as any producer of a film can attest).
As many others can also confirm, whenever you’re birthing something new, it requires sacrifices. My family made sacrifices so that I could finish this project well. I don’t take those sacrifices lightly.
On a more spiritual note, the stamina required to persevere with a project like this, and the mental focus that’s needed to realize an idea and to compromise when necessary compelled me to be persistent in prayer. I felt humbled many times over the past eighteen months, and I feel like I was given small doses of grace all along the way to persist—not without difficulty but in a way that inevitably drove me to God.
I’m exceedingly grateful to Phaedra, my wife, for sticking with me through thick and thin, or to paraphrase ABC Sports’ slogan from the 1980s, through the thrill of victory and the agony of all the things that did not go according to plan.
NR: What do you think this project means for Brehm Texas, Brehm Center, and Fuller? Also, Fuller Studios where the film will live online?
DT: Curiously enough, this project embodies the three parts of the Brehm Center’s sub-title: worship, theology and the arts.
Most obviously, the psalms belong to the church’s practice of worship throughout history. From the patristic theologians to the monastic liturgy of the hours, from John Calvin’s use of metrical psalmody to the prayers that an Orthodox priest might pray as he vests himself before the liturgy to the spirituals that African-American slaves would have sung in the fields, the psalms have functioned as the church’s de facto hymnbook.
Theologically, this conversation with Bono and Eugene involved a broad range of topics: the justice of God, the love of God, the relationship between the psalms and the revelation of Christ, the question of theodicy, the nature of language for God, in particular as it relates to poetry and metaphor, the way in which the arts enable us to confront the twin realities of suffering and mortality, and the ways in which the arts open up particular ways to know and love and serve God in our contemporary context.
Lastly, the arts intersect this project at multiple levels. By profession Bono is a musician and a poet, while also an amateur painter. Eugene, in his role as pastor and writer, has practiced the craft of poetry, oratory, and the narrative arts. To the extent that the main product of this project is a short documentary film, I had the opportunity to work with a very gifted filmmaker, Nate Clarke. Together we experienced both the joys and the challenges—artistically, financially, organizationally, diplomatically, etc—of producing a film over the span of 15 months, from preproduction to post-production.
I’m very pleased with how the work turned out. But as anybody who has ever made a movie knows, it’s not a straightforward affair. It’s three steps forward, two steps backward, and you hope you keep your wits by the end of it.
NR: What are your hopes for this film?
DT: I’ve mentioned this already, but perhaps it bears re-mentioning, because it was the one thing that never changed for me.
One aim of the project was to offer Eugene and Bono an opportunity (or perhaps simply an excuse) to be together. They had known of each other since the early 2000s, but had only had one chance to meet in person, in 2009, in Dallas, around the time of U2’s 360 tour. This meeting in the Peterson home, not far from Glacier National Park, represented only their second time to see each other in person, and here, our project notwithstanding, the context was a wholly relaxed one.
A second aim was that, as a result of listening to Eugene Peterson and Bono bear witness to the ways that the psalms have transformed their lives—personally, professionally and otherwise—audiences for this short film would encounter the God of the psalms, as a God of hope, healing, justice, grace, goodness, and truth. The Psalter is a beautiful depository of devotional and doxological material. It would please me to know that audiences had discovered the strange new world of the psalms that has captured Bono and Eugene’s imaginations over the years.
I would also hope that people might be inspired to read, pray or sing the psalms themselves, as a way perhaps to understand why U2, for example, rains down on their concert audiences sheets of paper from the psalms, that have been taken from Eugene’s translation, The Message.
NR: This seems like a beginning of something that extends beyond a short film with Bono and Eugene Peterson. Beyond this, what plans do you have to work on the Psalms? With Bono? With Peterson?
DT: As far as the psalms go, I plan to keep reading them, one a day. That’s basically it.
Eugene is 84 years old now. I hardly think he’ll be interested in doing much more of these sorts of projects. He told me that he has a few more books in him and, as he mentions in the film, speaking of his remaining years on earth, “I would just like to spend my life doing something about [the hard things that confront us daily] through scripture, through preaching, through friendship.”
With Bono, oh, I don’t know. I hope to attend another U2 concert. It’d be great to see him again and perhaps to meet his wife, Ali, who sounds like a remarkable woman. If we don’t meet again in person, that’s okay. He doesn’t need me in any particular way and I am happy to watch the work of God in his life at a distance.
What I do feel excited about, as a kind of continuation of this project, is the mission of Brehm Texas. As I write on the website, its vision is to revitalize the church through the arts for the common good. By God’s grace, I hope to be able 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 would do this by planning a series of biannual conferences, dedicated to exploring the relationship between the worlds of the church and the worlds of the arts. I would also do it by editing, in partnership with Steve Guthrie, a series of books on the same topic. It’s the calling that I feel God has on my life and I hope to be faithful to that calling as best as I can.
NR: Looking back on this all, what was your greatest surprise? Or disappointment? What was your greatest joy?
DT: My greatest surprise: getting to pray with Bono.
My greatest disappointment: hair loss on account of stress.
My greatest joy: the community of friends who have faithfully prayed for this project over the past 18 months and who have supported me and my family personally and financially, with an enduring care.