Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens dropped 59 songs’ worth of existential Christmas crisis on the world this week in the form of a five-disc collection called Silver & Gold. The sprawling set is Sufjan’s attempt to reconcile the conflict he feels between the sanctity that supposedly defines the holiday and the vapid consumerism that has become its calling card, a conflict that seems to be rather consuming. Silver & Gold collects a bunch of skewed and faithful takes on seasonal standards alongside a bunch more originals that run a similar gamut from heartwarming to unsettling. That this is Sufjan’s second such release, following 2006′s 42-song EP box Songs For Christmas, speaks volumes (literally) about the man’s Yuletide fixation. So does the wealth of bonus material; in case the sheer quantity of music wasn’t sufficient to communicate his complicated feelings about the holiday, Silver & Gold comes with stickers, temporary tattoos, a paper ornament, song lyrics and chord charts, extensive liner notes, an “apocalyptic pull-out poster” and “hallucinogenic photographs and psychedelic graphic design (by Sufjan Stevens, drug-free since 1975).” It’s an Etsy-era mother lode.

An essay that accompanies Silver & Gold sheds light on the ideas behind the project: “Christmas is a drag,” it begins, before pondering why this culture returns every year to “going through the motions of merriment.” The thesis seems to be that we sing Christmas songs as a respite from the gnawing emptiness in our lives, that we return to the holiday’s convoluted tangle of sacred and profane to grasp at something that feels like meaning. Silver & Gold, then, is Sufjan’s attempt to find new life in those familiar tropes. Because this is a product of Sufjan’s imagination, traditions and iconography are subverted in ways both precious and long-winded. The videos accompanying Silver & Gold conjure warmth (the title track), dread (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”) and absurdity (the claymation zombie bloodbath “Mr. Frosty Man”). The tattoos include a bomb-throwing skeleton. “I Am Santa’s Helper” frames kindly old St. Nick as a slavedriver. The 12-minute “Christmas Unicorn” adds an entirely new character to the Rudolph-Santa-Frosty pantheon before channeling an unlikely Christmas spirit, Ian Curtis. (There is also a Prince cover for some reason.) A nine-minute, AutoTune-slathered rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” becomes an unusually funky meditation on detachment and isolation; it’s easy to imagine the tweaked refrain “Do you feel what I feel?” as a cry for help from a ghost becoming a machine.

Though unpredictable in some sense, none of this comes as much of a surprise anymore because Sufjan has made a career out of confounding expectations. In his anonymous early years, he followed template-establishing debut A Sun Came with template-smashing electronic instrumental record Enjoy Your Rabbit. After finding breakout success nine(!) years ago with his graceful and expansive homeland treatise Michigan, he promised 49 more albums about states. Not to be shackled by such a daunting project, he promptly followed up with the pensive spiritual meditation Seven Swans. Then he actually did make another state-themed album, Illinois, a record that somehow managed to be even longer and denser than Michigan. It contained so much music that it’s a miracle he had any songs left for the outtakes collection The Avalanche, but of course that had 21 tracks. By this point people expected Sufjan to be prolific, but what followed was half a decade of nothing but a few quirky side projects (Songs For Christmas, the expressway-inspired classical piece The BQE), during which time his reputation swung so far in the opposite direction that people wondered if he’d ever release a proper album again. Out of that silence came 2010′s All Delighted People, an EP so sizable he could have easily deemed it a full-length (his Bandcamp bio calls it “generous”). That was cause for excitement, but it was quickly overshadowed by Sufjan’s most radical left turn, an outsider-art-inspired digital freakout called The Age Of Adz. Now comes another batch of Christmas songs, surpassing the girth of Songs For Christmas in the same way Illinois surpassed Michigan.

It’s unclear how much of this was Sufjan toying with his audience, how much was him simply following his creative instincts without a care, and how much was a self-conscious effort to avoid falling into a rut. Whatever his motivation, the end result is one of modern music’s more endearing and unusual catalogs. His music inhabits many spheres, but he never seems bound by those spheres’ established rhythms, only his own. Along with his prodigious talent, Sufjan’s refusal to follow the script is what makes him such a compelling figure, particularly since his music intersects with worlds where the script is so clearly defined.

One of those is the nebulous realm of Christian rock, a subculture I used to know pretty well. I grew up in a conservative evangelical environment surrounded by a lot of what’s branded as “contemporary Christian music” — first inspirational pop stars like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, then stylistic chameleons like DC Talk and (God help me) Carman, then punkish acts like ska fiends The O.C. Supertones and post-hardcore greats Stavesacre. As I got older and started exploring the vast expanse that is popular music, I gradually lost interest in most of the Christian bands that defined my childhood. At the same time, I struggled with the faith I was raised in and essentially abandoned it in all but name.

Eventually I ended up re-engaging with biblical Christianity, but not the culture factory that’s so often attached to it (and definitely not the political machine that continues to give it a bad name). This isn’t exactly breaking news, but there’s a whiplash-inducing disconnect between the Jesus of scripture and the American institutional church. The Jesus of the gospels seems to share Sufjan’s concerns about “going through the motions of merriment,” preaching against “meaningless repetition” in the Sermon on the Mount and teaching that new wine (that is, the dynamic spiritual life he proposed) requires new wineskins (that is, wiggle room for the church to take different shapes as needed, even radically different shapes). In other words, orthodoxy is about adherence to objective truth and ideals, not rigid forms and homogeny.

That’s why so much of what’s marketed as Christian music today bothers me: It holds unswervingly to a certain cultural context in a way that not only isn’t mandated in the Bible but actually goes against that call to flexibility. There’s a massive worship music industry built around U2-style swells designed to whip people up into an emotional frenzy. (When approached about joining a worship band during his time at The King’s College in New York, a friend of mine was asked outright if he could play like the Edge.) If that’s your speed, fine, but does all worship music have to sound like the same genre — the same song, even — echoing blithely and breathlessly into infinity?

Christian rock is more diverse, but not much more innovative. There have always been compelling artists doing their thing under a Christian banner, from Larry Norman to Starflyer 59, but the bulk of this industry seems geared toward hopping on whatever stylistic bandwagon is hot at the moment and creating a youth-pastor-approved equivalent. (The exception to this changing of the seasons is godawful metalcore bands, which always seem to be in style among Christian kids for some reason.) Former DC Talk member TobyMac exemplifies this genre-jumping phenomenon. He started out mimicking golden-era hip-hop in the late ’80s, then remodeled himself as an alternate-universe Christian Kurt Cobain in the mid-’90s. His new solo album, Eye On It, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, leeches off the EDM craze. You could make a case that imitating the popular styles of the day is a way of being “all things to all people,” but more often than not it plays like a lucrative way of preaching to the choir.

Settling into formula, playing to the constituency, vacuous trend-jumping — sound familiar? Fans of independent music in 2012 deal with the same trifles on a daily basis. It’s a shame because so many people got into underground music as a shelter from callous formulas and comfortable patterns. It seems fair to say independent music is also supposed to be about truth and ideals, albeit more subjective truth and ideals, and not so much about forcing dubstep drops where they don’t belong or partnering with VitaminWater or cashing in on the latest microgenre sweeping the blogosphere. I realize this concept is more arbitrary since there is no Bible for indie music (unless Steve Albini’s “The Problem With Music” counts; “Some of your friends are probably already this fucked,” amen). I’m not saying I’m above it, and I’m not interested in entering the hall of mirrors to discuss whether it’s punk-rock to go against punk-rock ethics because you’re punker than punk. I’m just saying a million terrible chillwave Bandcamps can’t be wrong.

Sufjan stands apart from this madness as much as a musician in his position can. He comes off as awkward and alien, but in a completely different way than the religious right comes off as awkward and alien. He plays along with the indie hype machine when it suits him, but mostly on his own terms. His artistic choices suggest a man dead set against being boxed in creatively, one who’ll disappear from the public eye for years until he can come up with something fresh, but who’ll bleed a subject dry against all reason when he feels like it. That stubborn uniqueness yields great dividends: His music is challenging and refreshing and even frequently good.

But for all its rewards, strident individuality of the Sufjan variety causes its own set of problems. Experiments are necessary for forging ahead, but sometimes experiments fail, and sometimes mad geniuses like Sufjan release those failed experiments anyway. This is part of the reason human beings love patterns so much. We like to have something familiar to latch on to. There is comfort in routine; in many respects, we want to know what we’re getting before we get it. This compulsion isn’t always bad, but if we’re not careful it can suck the life out of something good: A church that strives against being bound by old traditions will often settle comfortably into new ones without realizing it. Radiohead begat Travis begat Keane, and some poor sap bought it looking for a fix. “What’s up?” gives way to “Not much” without a second thought. A rock ’n’ roll revolution becomes a Nuggets box set.

Even someone like Sufjan, dead set on sidestepping such currents of nature, can’t escape his own tendencies, his inherent Sufjan-ness. Even iconoclasts are bound by certain rhythms. We can change, but real evolution is slow and hard-fought. Regardless of what you believe about how or why it got there, a sense of order is built into us. But so is the desire to shake free from the doldrums in search of, ahem, abundant life. We need machinery to function, but we need personality to live. We need our choruses to sing, but God save us from “going through the motions of merriment.” Given the number of musicians that cover similar ground as Sufjan without even scratching the surface of something powerful, I’m glad he’s around, warts and all, to keep wrestling with what makes us tick.

Comments (60)
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    • I would say, without looking to pick a fight, that the search for meaning on at least some level is inevitable, and that happens in and outside religion. Humans have the ability to think in terms of ultimates (death, time, absurdity) and circumstance inevitably disrupts a rhythm of “eat, drink and chill out.” I’ve found the agnostic/atheist relationship to human rights to be a really interesting. Why are people equal and deserving of rights in an accidental, meaningless universe? I mean that rhetorically, but also in the context of when people trample on things like equality and dignity. Both of those, in fact, are moral terms because they invoke value and to make a decision on one’s affirmation or rejection of anything of that type of value, one must appeal to or reject an authority. Otherwise, it’s just any number of parties making up of equally meaningless jibber-jabber in the face of a universe that will kill us all. Asking “why?” begets more “why?” and it’s within the range of belief between organized religion and individual philosophy to decide in what Ultimate does the line of “why” stop at an answer.

      • I think needing religion in order to act morally is pretty messed up. People should be good to one another because it’s the right thing to do. I suppose I do think everything is pretty random, but I never said that life is meaningless. Above I said that for me, relationships with those I care about give my life great meaning. My point was that life can be full of meaning in a very natural way without manufacturing meaning through being a part of some greater power’s plan.

        Listen, I do think organized religion is a bit silly, but I’m not going to say that the notion that there is something bigger than us pulling strings, keeping balance in the universe, or whatever is invalid. I don’t fucking know what happens when we die. Einstein was spiritual, but he considered the physics that controlled the universe a reflection of god. God means different things to different people. I do think everything is random, but I don’t know for sure. My philosophy is just to try not to worry about things you can’t possibly know or control and find meaning in what you do understand/enjoy/love, but that’s just me. And I know it’s pretty much impossible to rant about your beliefs without coming off like a total dick, so I’m sorry. I just don’t get some people I guess.

        • No I totally hear you and I’m not looking to change your mind. I just think it’s going to be a natural response for some people when you say “People should be good to one another because it’s the right thing to do.” to then ask “Why is it the right then to do, if there is such a thing as a right thing to do, especially when being good to someone might come at a personal cost to me?” I don’t think at all that a given individual requires religion to have morals and act morally, nor do I think your relationships are meaningless without a broader, ultimate context. I just think there’s room for MORE meaning should you ever find yourself in a place where you need it. Life’s weird, ya know?

          • I’m having a deep convo about spirituality with a cartoon beaver so yeah I do know what you mean by “Life’s Weird”

          • > there’s room for MORE meaning should you ever find yourself in a place where you need it.

            See, this right here, this seems to me to be a rather arrogant and disparaging thing to say to someone whom you don’t know. Apart from this conversation consisting of a few comments, you know nothing about the person you’re speaking to, about his experiences in life, the quality of his relationships with his friends and his family, the level of fulfillment or satisfaction he may feel with his life. Knowing nothing about him, how can you claim that he could find “more meaning” for himself if he were to begin believing in your deity or conception of the ‘Ultimate’?

            Personally, I am an agnostic, but I come from a family and community of Jains. Jainism is a beautiful, ancient tradition that has sustained my community for more than three to four thousand years (predating Christianity by centuries) and unlike most other religions, rejects the idea of supreme Gods. As Jains we don’t believe in a supernatural supreme being, but we meditate, we fast, we strive to care for our families and help the afflicted; we gather in our temples to celebrate life and strengthen the bonds of community. We choose to focus on love and compassion, on how we can live flourishing, loving, and ethical lives here and now, rather than speculating upon gods and supernatural realms.

            Perhaps believing in deities helps fill a void or provide meaning for some people, and I don’t begrudge them that, but I assure you that those of us who lack such a belief do not, as a result, live less than fulfilled lives.

          • Vikram I think you’re overstating my case. plb and I have a difference in belief on the scope of “meaning.” Which is fine and I thought it was friendly and honest. I didn’t claim to know everything about him, but taking his statements at face value, which I think I did, I am just saying there are plenty of people of sound mind who have legitimately wanted to know about a possible significance beyond what is visible or present in their lives at any given time. I’m not saying plb in no way wants that or never has. I make no assumptions about whether or not plb is happy or miserable, nor would I try to convince him he is either of those things. With that said, and I WOULD venture a guess that no one would take issue with this, on an ontological level, I think Christianity, to which I subscribe, makes superlative claims about the concept of meaning and significance of individuals and man kind as a whole. That isn’t saying “I’m right and you’re wrong” it’s simply a comparison of what Christianity says about people vs what agnosticism* says about people. For me to say that God created man, loved him despite animosity and made extreme sacrifices for their benefit/redemption all with a specific goal in mind is something someone can outright reject, clearly, but it’s obviously saying something more exacting and ascribes more value to people than the atheistic view of the purpose of man. Rejecting the idea and recognizing that it’s at the very least a more urgent claim are not mutually exclusive. That in no way means that to not subscribe to that belief that one cannot experience and assign meaning to things.

            *there is obviously no compiled consensus of an over-arching agnostic theory as far as value and morality and “meaning” are concerned, but speaking in generalities to a possible fault in this forum is a necessity.

        • You also don’t sound like a dick at all.

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  3. i enjoyed reading this

  4. Michael_  |   Posted on Nov 16th, 2012 +17

    I wouldn’t say I’m a diehard Sufjan fan, but I think in terms of indie music goes, I’m comforted by his comical outlook on the subject of Christianity through his music. As a Catholic school brat who still attend church on a regular weekly basis unless I absolutely can’t, I feel like there aren’t enough people out there who are “cool” examples of a progressive form of it. My sentiments about it are along the lines of what plb above says, meaning that you can take the teachings of Jesus and apply them to your life to make good decisions and the relationships you have with others are probably a more direct representation of your beliefs than whether or not you throw a few dollar bills into a basket on Saturday or Sunday.

    Most of my friends don’t go to church, which doesn’t even phase or bother me because I don’t know many “liberal” / artsy-minded younger people who do. About a month ago, one of them had a question regarding baptismal procedures, and it was kind of funny how she approached me, prefacing her question with, “I know you go to church and I respect that…” I guess I was likewise kind of annoyed by that because it tells me there is still some negative perception to practicing a faith altogether, especially Christianity. We’re not all pro-life, abstinence-practicing, “If I do a bad thing, God will punish me with a lightning bolt” types. In fact, I actually go to church because it’s more of a self-reflective hour in my life that usually includes a brief 10 minute nap rather than a lecture by some old dude. If it wasn’t for the fact I didn’t drive there, i would have walked out of mass the other weekend because the priest began the sermon with telling us who we should vote for. So I get where Sufjan is coming from with what he does musically and his disgruntled but honest take on Christmas. There’s a good take away from having a set of religiously-inspired morals, but unfortunately there’s only a few unicorn Christians left to show it isn’t entirely uncool, or conservatively crazy.

    • Just to touch on one thing you mentioned (and not being sarcastic or dismissive at all), what you said about having a self-reflective meditative hour followed by a short nap made me think of yoga. Once you build up some fluency with the positions it’s a really calming yet engaging activity and I always leave feeling great – mentally and physically. You sound like someone who might enjoy it if you don’t already.

      • This crossed my mind too, although I was thinking more transcendental meditation than yoga.

        Michael_, I was wondering if you thought you could have the same self-reflective experience at a service of a different religion?

        • Michael_  |   Posted on Nov 16th, 2012 0

          Was thinking about your question this week, and it made me wonder if being brought up Jewish would have given me the same self-reflective experience, but without the looming archaic Catholic guilt burden. For a religion steeped in the Old Testament, the Jewish people I know just seem to be more happier and open-minded about evolving times more so than the religious world I take practice in.

          • I’m not Jewish(I did grow up going to church somewhat regularly and I went through confirmation classes) and and this could be off base but it seems to me that Jews are taught to question everything whereas Christians are taught to shut up and do as they’re told.

      • Michael_  |   Posted on Nov 16th, 2012 -1

        Hah! Maybe I’ll give it a try sometime. I have the build of a pro-wrestler physically these days, so it might be a nice way to increase my agility while cooling my thoughts.

        • still doing that 10 hours/week at the gym? Don’t skip the cardio man, my step dad is into competitive power lifting and he just had a heart attack(he’s doing ok).

          The limited amount of yoga I’ve done didn’t do anything for me spiritually, but it was a hell of a workout.

          • Michael_  |   Posted on Nov 16th, 2012 -1

            It’s more like 7 1/2 hrs with some cardio thrown in on top of it. I’m not at all a power lifter, though — I do a good, hard balance of strength training and endurance, and I doubt I’ll get any stronger, and if my wardrobe knows what’s good for it, any bigger. I’m average height, so I don’t want to look like a bulldog.

            It’s funny we’re talking about this in the context of a religion post, because my friend says that the gym is my temple since I find peace of mind there on a near-daily basis (unless it’s super busy and everyone is getting in my way.) So, I guess that shows you just how much value a church has compared to other non-religious buildings.

          • I went to yoga initially to try to impress a girl who asked me to go with her, and oh man could I barely walk for like three days afterwards. Lots of weird little muscles get worked in lots of weird little ways, so for someone who usually just goes running and does your basic tris/bis/pecs workout it was brutal. I was sweating and shaking so much I had to grip the sides of the yoga mat to keep from sliding right off. Meanwhile a half dozen gorgeous girls in Lululemon pants are doing effortless ballet all around me.

            Some classes are much less workout focused though and are more about breathing, which is cool too. I tend to like the workout and exertion though because it helps me find that I-am-barely-conscious mental zone/groove that allows me to forget everything (which is why I like running and going to the gym). And then the 10 minute “nap” at the end is just awesome.

  5. This article gave me flashbacks to the reign of P.O.D. Other than that I really like this article

    As for the U2 comparison, I remember back in youth group there was a phase where worship teams thought it was fun to intro their songs in the manner of U2′s Vertigo. My faith has never fully recovered

  6. “not so much about forcing dubstep drops where they don’t belong or partnering with VitaminWater”

    (Meanwhile on the side of the screen: Bon Iver for Bushmills)

  7. Enjoyable piece. In a lot of ways, a lack of innovation in Christian music is a lot more forgivable (at least, more understandable) then it is in indie music. If a well meaning kid in youth group wants to join a praise and worship band despite having minimal skills on the acoustic guitar, I doubt a church will turn him away. It would be kinda douchey to criticize someone who simply was trying to minister for not knowing more than four chords. Plus, congregations are so conditioned to focus on the “message” not the “messenger” it’s much harder to say to them, “The Lord was definitely using you this morning, kid, but lay off the power chords”. Either God intended for that performance to be as it was, or it wasn’t. Which sounds silly but that’s the approach many Christians take to music and life in general. So I can understand why Christian artists don’t get the feedback necessary to want to challenge their skills as a writer or arranger. Christian songwriters, at least those who want to make a living at it, have to create songs that can be replicated throughout congregations nationwide. In that way, I can forgive a lack of innovation, because their music has to be accessible for lesser musicians, singers and artists.

    In regards to Sufjan, his cover of Come Thou Found of Every Blessing more or less kept me from being an atheist a few years back. It’s tremendous. I’m now a well-adjusted secularist who secretly has a playlist of Christian hymns on Spotify.

  8. Chris DeVille, you are one hell of a writer.
    You managed to masterfully articulate my feelings about Sufjan and Christianity in one behemoth essay.
    When Age of Adz was released, I wondered where the guy who wrote “To Be Alone” or “Sister” went; it felt disconnected, disjointed, and confusing. I felt the same way when I became disillusioned with the “Christian” church machine in North America. But the doubt and questioning lead me back around to a deeper, purer faith not reliant on systems or formulas – a real relationship with Jesus that isn’t confined to a building.
    Sufjan’s music seems to often highlight his personal emotional/spiritual states – you’ve made me want to give his entire body of work another listen.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us, man.

  9. Nice to see a fellow ex-evangelical on here. I don’t think you can defend Christian music though. It’s just bad. With one exception…


    Those guys can write a song.

    • Just to clarify, I wouldn’t consider myself a former evangelical, though if by “evangelical” you mean the entrenched culture of the religious right, then yeah, I no longer associate myself with that. I think most of the American church has lost the plot with its dogmatic conservatism and its insistence, but I also don’t subscribe to a postmodern or so-called “emergent” position on Christianity that says we can take what we like from the Bible and discard the rest. The Christianity of the New Testament (which is what Christians should be looking to as their model) doesn’t reflect either of those extremes. It does consistently call Christians to spread the message about what Jesus accomplished at the cross, which I would certainly describe as “evangelical.” I still believe in that.

      Anyhow, I agree with you that Jars of Clay has a lot of good songs.

      • First time I heard Richard Swifts “Walking Without Effort/The Novelist” I was also confused at how something could sound so spiritual-y, and not sound like U2.

      • Yeah, I think the term “evangelical” has really lost any sturdy meaning. I don’t really know what people have in mind as an alternative type of Christian to the “evangelical” who believes in the eternal and spiritual significance of the person of Christ and the crucifixion. I read somewhere on CNN (which has the worst editorial on the topic of religion I’ve ever read) where it characterized evangelicals as people who “had a propensity for communing with the Holy Spirit” or something and, uh, that goes back a couple thousand years now. It’s not a new behavior coming out of a broader Christianity that just thought Jesus said some nice things that they find agreeable and that’s been the sum total of orthodoxy until the 700 Club made us all maniacs. (granted: the 700 club IS deeply misguided on many, many things and is a pariah to society as a whole.) 1st Corinthians should have said “Be united in mind or you’re going to screw things up for everyone.”

      • Okay, sorry should have read the entire article. I am no longer a Christian, fallible or infallible text, this doctrine, that one. I probably swing towards agnostic on most days, but then when I hear songs like “Oh My God”, it’s hard not to believe in some kind of spiritual presence in the world :)

    • Do we have to let them co-opt the term ‘evangelical?’ I love music, I love Jesus, and I wholeheartedly find the American religio-political institution called ‘Evangelicals’ to be quite off the mark and distasteful. But living life with an enthusiasm that is compelling and attributable to having experienced forgiveness? That’s evangelism to me and in that sense I’m happy to be known as such.

      The detail about praise bands and The Edge is hilariously spot-on. Whenever I visit a church with a praise band, I always think about that. Then again, I suspect 100% of the praise band members out there consider The Edge to be the guitar player for the biggest Christian praise band on the planet, hence the influence.

      • It’s true that a misguided demographic SHOULDN’T get to steal away a word’s meaning, but when they do, I find it’s better to abandon that word and find a new one with less nauseating connotation. I don’t know if I realized “evangelical” automatically meant “right-wing fundamentalist,” but if it does, I will stop using it to describe myself.

  10. I’m a christian myself, not ashamed of it, but am pretty ashamed of the way some christians present themselves. As for christian music, most of it IS absolutely awful musically. I love Sufjan’s christian stuff though. It feels real, he’s not faking anything and he’s being honest about his thoughts and confusions. It’s refreshing.

    Other christian artists I’m into are The Welcome Wagon (also on Asthmatic Kitty, everyone should check out ‘Welcome to the Welcome Wagon’, regardless of beliefs) and Josh Garrels.

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    • What makes you think he’s gay?

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        • Christianity and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive. Different congregations may have different ideas etc, but there are many in the LGBT community that are Christian and attend services where they are welcomed. I am not gay myself, but I would not be a member of any church that would not honor gay marriage etc. I am also very much pro-choice, don’t believe in abstinence, am a scientist that is a firm believer in the theory of evolution and I don’t consider myself to be a ‘bad’ christian for having these values.

          The representation of Christianity in the media today lumps regular, liberal people like myself into the flag waving, speaking in tongues rabble that give us as much a bad name as islamic terrorists give the average muslim. It’s just really tiring having to hastily explain that I’m not a fucking Westboro baptist everytime someone finds out that I go to church.

  12. One final thought on religion, when in doubt, W.W.D.T.D.

    What Would DonnyTilla Do?

  13. I’m a former crazy religious fundamentalist, and the one thing I’ve always appreciated about Sufjan that I can’t appreciate from contemporary Christian bands like Third Day and Newsong, is that he shows us how God is revealed to him through his own experiences. Third Day, Newsong, and the like are more authoritarian in that they’re too busy *telling* us who God is to let us figure it out for ourselves.

  14. Not got much to say except this is a fabulously written article. Kudos!

  15. guys we are all christmas unicorns

  16. The reason I most respect Sufjan as a Christian artist is that his art isn’t exclusively Christian in its themes. He writes from the perspective of the life he’s leading and, while this is informed by his faith, he doesn’t close his troubles, doubts, and pain off from his songwriting based on some ridiculous, overhyped megachurch idea of what art a Christian should and should not make. Sure, Vito’s Ordination Song is downright devotional, but Casimir Pulaski Day is conflicted and doubting and most of his music has no direct allusions to faith at all.

    The vast majority of Christian artists make music about only on the subject of God, as if Christians should live in a holy bubble, never encountering anything and repeating “Jesus is great” all day long. Don’t get me wrong,sometimes intense musical focus on one subject for a time can be illuminating, like in Steven Merritt’s 69 Love Songs or Sufjan’s own Seven Swans. But to wilfully close off the vast majority of life from your art seems deceptive. It certainly doesn’t reflect the actual reality of life following Jesus. Sufjan cuts through all that.

  17. Wovenhand. Please.

  18. This is a great article! Very well written.

    Just adding my 2 cents here, I was the music director at a CCM radio station for about 5 years, and trust me, the vast majority of the music is bad, bland and un-interesting. But, there are plenty of amazing artists who are Christians, you just have to actively search for it. Just like music in general, it takes some effort and a lot of listening to find the good ones out of the vast sea of crap.

    In CCM, though, it was a lot harder because the sample size is a lot smaller. And it seemed the really really good artists would flee the CCM bubble for a number of different reasons, the most common of which was that they wanted to get their music to the people who would actually listen and like it. The CCM demo was not the right audience at all.

    The bottom line is, there’s a lot of great (or awful) music out there, whether the artist be Christian, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, Scientologist, left-handed, near-sighted, or even Canadian! Whatever!

  19. ive always been attracted to the christianity aspect of his music and art, because of how inclusive he is reguarding it. Its something he strongly believes in and is at the core of his being, but he isnt out to convert people to it, he isnt trying to win new people over. And I think that seperates him from most religious music especially christian music. I also think like Bazan, the doubt he expresses, as in Casimir, and other songs, is refreshing and honest, because even though he believes in God and Jesus, he’s grappling with the same questions we all have about the scary nature of the world and humankind and how God fits into all that. Ive always felt like the God that Sufjan believes in is the one I want to believe in, he makes religion sound interesting and engaging, in a way going to a church and hearing a sermon might not be. The fact that he crafts such beautiful songs with such gorgeous and mindblowing lyrics also is a major aspect of why he’s so effective and why he’s such a big deal.

    Also, he’s interesting for his refusal to be pigeonholed. Im sure there are many fans of his who have no idea he is even a Christian. And the Age of Adz for example, was an album that sounds completely out of place for a Christian to create, autotuned, explicit language, songs that focus on relationships with other people rather than God and Jesus.

  20. Excellent article, Chris. Like you, I grew up on a CCM diet. My faith has remained constant, but (thankfully) my taste in music has diversified. I won’t repeat the many thoughtful ideas you’ve presented here, and instead just offer my (sadly short) list of CCM refugees I still turn to:

    -Jars of Clay (have you heard frontman Dan Haseltine’s side project, The Hawk in Paris? They’re the ones behind that “Boys and the girls and the freaks in the middle” song)
    -DEREK WEBB (I was never a big Caedmon’s Call fan, but Derek solo has become quite the agitator in the Christian establishment, and he also reminds me of Sufjan somewhat in his folk songwriting/electronic experimentalism. Check out his 2009 album Stockholm Syndrome)
    -Jon Foreman (I’ve grown out of Switchfoot’s style somewhat, but their frontman does some really nice acoustic solo stuff. He put out a seasons-themed four-EP collection a few years ago that I highly recommend)
    -Pedro the Lion/David Bazan (listening to his stuff too long makes me want to slit my wrists a little bit, and I think Bazan has departed the faith entirely, but listening to him work through it in his songs is fascinating)

    And have you heard of the Bored Again Christian podcast? Unfortunately Pete, the guy behind it, updates infrequently nowadays, but it was a good source of indie and SUPERindie (read: Christian underground) music.

    • Wait, you mean there’s someone else out there that listens to Derek Webb and Sufjan? Sweet.

      • I was a relative latecomer to Derek Webb, since, as I mentioned, I wasn’t a big Caedmon’s listener. I think I first started paying attention to him when “What Matters More” (i.e. Derek Webb says the s-word in a song! And is maybe pro-gay people!) garnered all that controversy. I listened to the song and loved how it sounded (and what it said). So Stockholm Syndrome was the first of his albums that I heard, then I went back and checked out the beautiful stuff from The Ringing Bell, etc. I’m actually downloading a free acoustic version of his latest, Ctrl, on Noisetrade right now as I type. (

        In short, I wish Derek Webb was known beyond the CCM refugee circles! He is SO worthy of more listeners.

  21. Excellent article, Chris. Growing up, the first cassette I ever personally owned was “Beyond Belief” by Petra (it’s still kind of a guilty pleasure), and from there I progressed from all sorts of Christian stuff– from ska to shoegazer to Christian Punk/Horrorbilly (anyone besides me listen to Blaster the Rocketman?). In high school, I bought pretty much every Tooth and Nail album that existed, and I think there were a lot of creative bands on the label then. Then when I went to college in the 2000′s, something happened to Christian music. I guess part of it was that I expanded my musical horizons to include ‘secular’ music, but I also think the diversity that existed in the Christian music scene got snuffed out at some point. Not to say there wasn’t cheesy/terrible Christian music when I was in high school, it’s just a lot harder to find the creative stuff now. Sufjan is a bright light in a dark age of Christian music today.

    Here’s my theory on what went wrong with the Christian music scene: the proliferation of the corporate (and I use corporate in both senses of the word) worship album in the mid-2000′s and on. Don’t get me wrong: as a Christian, I believe that worshiping God is good– a necessary part of a dynamic and healthy Christian life. Of course, the church and Christians usually screw it up. That’s understandable, though, being that we’re beings of finite intellectual and emotional capacity trying to worship a transcendental and mysterious God. The problem becomes that we try to cover up our inadequacy at worshiping God. We do it by boiling worship down to a formula– we essentially say– “hey, worship is hard and uncomfortable, so we’re gonna make it easier by putting it in the prepackaged box. The right chord progression here, just the right amount of synth pad over everything, and no lyrics a seventh grader couldn’t write (usually repeating Jesus’ name 100 times works, third commandment be damned). We’ll do the same with all the CCM songs on the radio.” And this becomes the status quo of “this is what Christian music should sound like.” The motions of worship, to adapt what Chris said. The church does the same packaging thing with God– “this is what God is, looks and feels like.”

    All that to say, suddenly it became a trend to do these packaged ‘worship albums,’ and after awhile, Christian music forgot that God is sovereign over all things, not just stuff that’s comfortable in church. He’s ultimately sovereign over woods and animals and prostitutes and middle managers and despots and druggies and sex and yes, even dubstep. (In fact, he invented every type of music– humans just happened to have discovered it and later the devil took credit for the good stuff.) Christian music forgot that all truth is God’s truth– even truth that makes us uncomfortable, makes us wrestle with God.

    Is it any wonder people my age are leaving the church in droves? They must sit in church and think, “is this all there is to God? Some open C chords, bad poetry, and an occasional canned food drive?” God deserves better than what we’ve shown him to be.

    So my hat off to Sufjan– I hope he continues to confound, just as Jesus did and continues to do. I hope he’s able to continue to pry open a small crack to the infinite window that is the joy and mystery of God. Uh, just stay away from dubstep, Sufjan. That’s one confounded expectation too far.

  22. Great book on this topic: Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock
    It is maybe getting a bit out of date (2006) but if I remember correctly there is quite a bit about Sufjan in it.

  23. Chris, Thanks for an excellent article!

    As someone who works in full-time ministry with college students (and specifically students in fraternities and sororities), my favorite moments are when I see students move from “culture-factory” Christianity to following Jesus (whiplash-inducing indeed)!

    And thanks for an excellent write-up on my favorite artist – this last Christmas concert was an unforgettable hodge-podge as I found myself singing along to “Come Thou Fount”, sandwiched between “Santa Claus is coming to Town” and hundreds of people latching on to Joy Division’s chorus in “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.

    I often wonder at the disconnect between the immeasurable creativity of Jesus and the diet-tofu-half-the-fat ‘artistry’ of the Western church. In my own songwriting and in the few artists I most enjoy, I hope to see the marriage of unbridled creativity with true wrestling, worship, confusion, lament, sorrow, joy, and all the idiosyncracies inherent in pursuing an abundant (and unique!) life in Jesus.

    With shout outs to John of Half-Handed Cloud, folks who love Jesus at Asthmatic Kitty, and Redeemer Pres./Harrison Center for the Arts (who do an excellent job of pursuing life in Jesus, and artwork too),


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