With five Grammys, dozens of Dove Awards, and over 11 million records sold, Steven Curtis Chapman is one of the most decorated artists in Christian music history. Now, 30 years since the release of his first album, the songwriter has published a memoir, Between Heaven and the Real World (Revell), in which he opens up about marital difficulties, the death of his 5-year-old daughter, and other painful experiences. Music journalist Steve Turner, author of Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (InterVarsity Press), spoke with Chapman about times of discouragement that have fueled his faith and music.

You’re candid about your shortcomings in the book. Did you worry about sharing too much?

I didn’t want to skim the surface. Often, in the church, we’re very good at presenting a story that shows us in a favorable light. We’re supposed to have it together—particularly someone like me, who has been making albums and doing shows for years.

It’s always been a commitment of mine to say, “Don’t miss the point. Don’t hear my songs—like ‘I Will Be Here,’ that I wrote for my wife—and think, ‘I wish my husband would write a song like that for me. Those guys must have an almost-perfect relationship.’ ” That song wouldn’t exist but for the fact that we have struggled, and it’s been really painful.

I’m not telling these stories just to shock people or to wear my heart on my sleeve. The two words that guided me were “honesty” and “honor.” I wanted to be transparent while at the same time honoring my wife, my parents, and my family. I hope and pray I’ve achieved that.

How did you and your wife react to the death of your daughter, Maria?

My wife and I had a lot of tough conversations. We couldn’t help but think, “Did we miss something? Were we wrong to adopt her? If we hadn’t, would she still be alive? We were really trying to do good things, and then this happens. Shouldn’t we have gotten a better deal?”

But when I look closely at the world, I realize that suffering is very much part of the human experience. Because of my work, I’ve been able to travel widely and see different cultures. We live in a culture that can be pretty insulated from the widespread suffering that others experience, and with that can come a sense of entitlement. We say, “Hey God, I’ve done all these good things. Shouldn’t I get a better deal?”

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But Jesus tells us, “In this world you will have trouble.” But then he says, “But take heart. I have overcome the world.” He’s saying there’s another story being told, and if I didn’t believe that I would be an extremely bitter and angry man. Maria’s death underlined and solidified what I knew and believed, and made it more real. When there was nothing else to hold on to, I heard myself say, “God, I’m going to trust you and worship you, and that’s not because there’s an audience watching. I’m going to bless your name whether you give or take away.”

Previously, I’d gone 50 feet below sea level and thought it was dark down there, but that God was with me. Once I was pushed 100,000 feet below sea level, where it was darker than I could ever imagine, I found that the same thing was true down there as well.

You’re a musician, but you also perform the roles of pastor and evangelist. Is there a tension between these different roles?

Early on, music was a passion for me, and it played a big role in helping me understand my faith. It was how a lot of teaching came into my daily life. Years ago an interviewer asked Toby Mac, then with DC Talk, whether his music was limited by his faith, and he said, “Actually, if anything, I would feel very limited if I wasn’t able to write freely about my faith because that’s the deepest part of my life.”

There’s music that exists for its own sake, and there’s music that makes people feel less alone—and there’s a great need for that kind of expression. But for me, music has always been a means to a greater end. I felt that I could tell the story of my own journey in my music, and in doing so take other people along with me.

How do you come about the ideas for your songs?

I love the mystery of songwriting. Part of what’s driven my wife crazy for years is that I’m a creative guy, while she’s more a creature of structure and planning. Creativity doesn’t abide by rules. It moves and flows like the wind. You don’t know when it’s going to hit. For me, the ideas come when I least expect them. They can come from anything, from a conversation, a teaching, a message, or a Bible passage—or just from daily life.

Usually, for me, the ideas come first, and the music comes later. Only rarely have I started with a melody or a musical idea. With my song “Cinderella,” it started one night with me tucking my girls in. They were saying, “Let’s go to the dance,” and I said, “No, you’ve got to go to bed because I’ve got to work and you need to sleep.” Then I finally got them to bed and went down to the studio, and I felt guilty about being irritated because they wanted to dance and play. And I realized, “I’m only going to have those moments for a few more years. The girls are like Cinderella. The clock’s going to strike midnight, and they’ll be gone.” So I got my guitar out and started singing. I’ve recorded thousands of little clips that way.

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Do you feel that each song has to be about a specific spiritual experience or biblical truth?

If you ask people to name just two of my songs, they will probably mention “Cinderella” or “I Will Be Here” (which I wrote for my wife after my parents’ divorce). Neither has any mention of God. Some Christian radio stations wouldn’t play “Cinderella” because they thought it didn’t sound Christian enough! But to me it’s still a song about faith, just as much as “Hold On To Jesus,” “Be Still and Know,” or “God Is God.” As a dad, being involved in the lives of my children is an important part of living out my faith. My basic prayer has always been, “God, I want to know you. And then I want to make you known.”

Has the American church veered too much toward entertainment and away from preaching, teaching, and study?

I grew up in a pretty legalistic environment. When it came time to talk about your faith, you put on a straight face. Many people hear my song “The Great Adventure” and think it’s a lightweight, summer-camp song, but it actually came out of a time of deep discouragement, when I felt like a failure as a husband, father, and follower of Jesus. I was encouraged by the message that grace sets you free from all that.

So the motive behind songs like “The Great Adventure” and “Dive,” which people see as “fun” songs, has been to present deep theology in a way that doesn’t sound like, “Warning! Theology alert! Put on a straight face and pay attention.” We’ve gotten a lot wrong over the years in trying to make Christianity fun and cool, but thankfully God in his mercy has continued to correct us. I’m encouraged to see worship music with good theology, but even that is a challenge because an industry has sprung up around worship music. When this happens, we have to continually ask whether we’re really writing worship music from a true heart of worship, or whether we’re just doing it because it’s good business.

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Between Heaven and the Real World: My Story
Between Heaven and the Real World: My Story
448 pp., 12.99
Buy Between Heaven and the Real World: My Story from Amazon