Sufjan Stevens, Music, and Christianity

Sufjan

David Roark, How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music (The Atlantic): The general consensus is that, when it comes to music, Christians tend to make, “devotional artifice” and “didactic crap,” at least in the words of the singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.

Stevens, both a Christian and musician, nevertheless stands in stark contrast to those in this category. Representing a different camp of “Christian art,” with completely different motives and characteristics, he’s distinct among other artists of faith, who tend to produce bad, kitschy work—whether heavy-handed films like Facing the Giants and Fireproof, or the musical travesties on the Wow compilation albums. Instead of dealing directly with religious or biblical matters, Stevens’ music embodies what theologian Francis Schaeffer called the “totality of life,” as opposed some sort of “self-conscious evangelism”—an approach that turns the whole Christian-music stigma on its head.

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Stevens doesn’t hide his beliefs when it comes to the lyrics he writes: from the overt Bible stories in Seven Swans to the theodicy that is “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which tells the story of a young girl who dies from cancer. Yet the gist of Stevens’ work transcends religious and spiritual subjects to tackle broader themes. Asthmatic Kitty Records, the label Stevens created, notes that The Age of Adz, his latest non-Christmas album before Carrie and Lowell, explores themes of “love, sex, death, disease, illness, anxiety, and suicide.” In other words, Stevens sings about topics that matter to humans, regardless of their worldview.

Stevens intentionally keeps his distance from the label of “Christian artist”—as if the adjective even made sense in the first place—and the likes of CCM. “Christian music (as a genre) exists exclusively within the few insulated floors (cubicles and computers included) of some corporate construction in Nashville, Tenn. Otherwise, there’s no such thing as Christian music,” Stevens told the music blog DOA in an interview.

For the musician, the gospel doesn’t just play some small, personal role in life and culture; it infiltrates and restores all of life and culture. It addresses the entire human experience, or “the totality of life” as Schaeffer described it. Stevens’ music also doesn’t alienate listeners of different beliefs. His work may seem less spiritual than that of others, given its seeming focus on “secular” rather than “sacred” things, but it actually proves more accessible to the wider world than that of contemporary Christian music—an irony given the evangelical intentions of these artists.

“Logistically I suppose my process of making art is driven less by abstractions of faith or politics and more by practical theory: composition and balance and color,” said Stevens. “It’s not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being. This absolves me from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do.”

Maybe in spite of the stigma, the historical presence and significance of Christians making music doesn’t have to decline in perpetuity. It’s not so much that faith is missing from culture as much as it is living and breathing within it—and the success of artists like Stevens demonstrates how music that incorporates religious themes can thrive, while inspiring even the most secular of audiences.

Joel Heng Hartse, How Not to Listen to the New Sufjan Stevens Album (Christianity Today): In a blog post presumably written while recording Carrie and Lowell, Stevens heartily recommends the 1983 book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. In it, essayist and cultural critic Lewis Hyde defends the value of making art simply as a gift to the public, an act that’s increasingly radical in a culture governed by money and trade. In his post, Stevens likened art-making to the act of Communion, wherein we receive the body of Christ as absolute gift. He wrote:

To objectify art is to measure its commercial value and squander its transcendental powers of benevolence. Reciprocity demeans art; or, rather, it functions to incarcerate its powers, to judge it for its charity. Like putting Mother Teresa on trial, or in prison, for the crime of compassion. On the contrary, perfect art, as a perfect gift (without ulterior motive, without gain, without compensation) courageously gives itself over to the world asking nothing in return.

Do I engage with my work as a father cultivates his child, with loving-kindness, with fierce enrichment, with awe and wonder, with unconditional love, with absolute sacrifice? I make this my impossible objective.

Stevens’s vision of music-making here may illustrate why he’s sidestepped the world of Christian music altogether. Though it has changed over the years, Christian pop music has usually had a goal: to help evangelize or to aid worship or to otherwise edify believers. There is usually a statement to be made, a position to be taken. Stevens, on the other hand, seems to have no interest in doing anything but following his artistic whims, creating beauty for its own sake.

These whims sometimes lead to uncomfortable places—places that listeners, Christians and otherwise, are not always comfortable going: symphonic pieces, 25-minute hip-hop dance songs, lyrics that depict ambiguous desire and, now, deeply personal grief.

Carrie and Lowell is an achievement—many early reviews have called it Stevens’s best album—in part because it doesn’t feel like a statement of anything other than one person’s life experience, artfully rendered. And here is where Stevens’s longtime Christian fans are most challenged, in the best way: Will we objectify Stevens and his music by demanding that he stand in for a Christian aesthetic? Will we continue to use him as proof that Christians can crack the code of culture and use its tools? Or will we simply receive Stevens’s vulnerable songwriting for the gift that it is?

In another blog post from the same period as the one quoted above, Stevens wrote a short, impassioned post advocating “all manners of love at any cost. Any other option defiles the insurmountable reverence due all creation, immeasurable in bounty and beauty, incomparable in awe. The world is abundant, against all odds. My prayer has always been love.”

Carrie and Lowell is acknowledged as an album made in response to tragedy and grief. But it is one that responds to this bounty, beauty, and awe of creation, the extravagant gift of all that is. And it responds not with platitudes or arguments or artifice, but with the shimmering, honest offering of itself.

 Going Further

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