What Christians and the Church can learn from an artist and his art
If you’re lucky, you have a friend like my buddy Nathan. Since meeting him in 1995, I have had my music collection triple because of his recommendations and gifts. From Soul Coughing to Tool, Nathan has turned me on to some of the best bands of the last twenty years. For a while, before he became a father and I became a minister, we used to get together regularly to walk our dogs, cook food together, have marathon Parcheesi sessions, listen to music, and drink wine. A lot of wine.
On one night of particularly copious imbibing, 10 years ago, Nathan hit play on Sufjan Steven’s masterpiece, Come on Feel the Illinoise. From the opening chords—so reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band without being derivative—I was in love. I think I made Nathan play the track “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” five times, tears streaming down my face the whole while. I’ll admit, I was in my cups, but that song still has the power to reduce me to a sobbing mess with just the opening lines.
Upon introduction to Sufjan Steven’s music, I purchased a great deal of his back catalog. Without question, my favorite—until the release of Carrie and Lowell just a few days ago—has been Seven Swans, Stevens’ self-described Christian album. Like U2 during the Boy, War, October, and The Unforgettable Fire period, Seven Swans explores the landscape of Christian theology, from blood atonement theology to the meaning of The Transfiguration, but does so within a tapestry of hypnotic melodies and heartbreakingly beautiful harmonies.
While I am a pastor, I do not like most of the music that is marketed as “Christian.” Too often the theologies are too simple (Jesus died for you, now go convert the heathens) or too narrow (God forbid we hear a Christian folk song about two men falling in love with one another while loving Jesus at the same time). It is safe to say that I do not have any of my radio settings pre-tuned to Christian stations. Sufjan Stevens’ brand of Christian music, though, is right up my alley.
But I have felt somewhat alienated from Sufjan Steven’s last albums. The Christmas collection was impressive, but a little too self-conscious and overproduced for my taste. Ditto for his last studio album, The Taste of Adz, which seemed to follow in the footsteps of Rufus Wainright with a “big band” feel. Perhaps the failure is mine, wishing for Stevens to fit within a certain niche, but I have been aching for a stripped down album reminiscent of Seven Swans, a wish fulfilled with the transcendent, genius offering, Carrie and Lowell.
Much has been written about the inspiration of the album; Stevens’ mother, Carrie, was briefly married to a man named Lowell Brams, who now is director at Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty record label. Carrie suffered from schizophrenia, depression, and alcoholism; her relationship with Sufjan was tempestuous, at best, but the brief period in which she was married to Lowell proved to be a zenith, providing a modicum of stability in an otherwise tumultuous life. With her passing in 2012, Stevens began to unpack the complicated feelings he has concerning his mother, feelings that are intimately tied up with his own spirituality.
By confessing of suicidal thoughts (“The only thing that keeps me from driving this car/ Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night”), feelings of despair (“My black shroud/Holding down my feelings”), and reliving the desires of a small child to be close to his mother (“Since I was old enough to speak/I’ve said it with alarm/Some part of me was lost in your sleeve/where you hid your cigarettes/No I’ll never forget/I just want to be near you”), Stevens brings us along a journey of melancholic catharsis; the release date of March 31, coinciding with the Christian Holy Week and the Jewish Passover does not seem coincidental.
His wrestling of how to contextualize miracles amidst pain permeate songs such as “Drawn to the Blood”:
For my prayer has always been love
What did I do to deserve this?
With blood on my sleeve
Delilah, avenge my grief
How? God of Elijah
How? God of Elijah.
As Jews recall the blood smeared on tent-poles that saved them from slaughter, blood Christians transpose onto the crucified Christ, Stevens’ plaintive words challenge our notions of what it means to live for God. He invokes the Jewish notion of how to live the Great Shema while in exile: “For my prayer has always been love/What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?” As one trying to find life reborn in Christ, but still feeling the sting of sin and despair, he sings: “Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me/From fossils that fall on my head/There’s only a shadow of me;/in a manner of speaking, I’m dead.”
Stevens’ ability to slip easily into a thin yet powerful falsetto while singing lyrics written from the perspective of a child leaves the listener feeling like a toddler dropped off at preschool for the first time, watching mother’s back as she leaves you in an unfamiliar place with discomfiting smells, unknown juice boxes, and closets that most certainly are filled with monsters. Stevens reveals that the ways in which many of us approach God are akin to children simply wanting to be told that everything will be okay, but being afraid to open the closet door to see that there are no monsters lurking therein.
Sufjan Stevens is quietly redefining the ways in which Christian music can be crafted, much as did Amy Grant back in the 1990s. With allusions to world mythology and bible references that don’t easily translate to Prosperity Gospel sermons, Stevens presents the listener with a Christianity that is not meant to be used for proselytizing, but a music that does accompany one on the dark night of the soul or on a walk along the personal via dolorosa.
The album should be required of all Christians who want lyrics that do not rely on platitudes, and music that goes beyond the soft/loud/soft formula that plagues so much of Christian radio today. Stevens offers Christian music the ability to grow up, and we’re all the better for it.
The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, currently serving First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, a More Light PC (USA) congregation in Ohio. An academic, Aaron has taught at numerous universities and is best known for his book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. He is passionate about social justice and interfaith, ecumenical work. He also serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College.