March 29, 2015


How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music : The genre has had a bad reputation since the 1960s, but the singer-songwriter succeeds by focusing on aesthetics over evangelism. (DAVID ROARK, MAR 29 2015, The Atlantic)

While many believers have been busy copying the latest radio hit (transforming Taylor Swift songs into trite melodies about Jesus instead of ex-boyfriends) others have been taking a different approach altogether. Even since the days of "Jesus music," artists such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, who were also professed Christians, have gone another route. They didn't see music as just a means to an end, or a way of evangelizing to young people. Instead, they focused on telling compelling stories and creating aesthetically pleasing music, while still expressing themselves personally and spiritually. It's not as if they separated their faith from their work--on the contrary, Christian themes and ideas are woven throughout their lyrics. It's more that their endeavors were simpler: They cared more about writing good songs than converting the world through music.

The same can be said for one of the most renowned bands of this generation: U2. As the writer Joshua Rothman noted in a 2014 story in The New Yorker, "Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band. Actually, they're a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band." Formed in the late 70s, the Irish rockers--led by the devoutly religious Bono--shaped music as we know it. Yet, even though most of the band are believers, U2's success has had little effect on the perception of music made by Christians and the apparent influence of the religion on popular culture.

These bands only function as a small sample size of the many others with similar approaches that have existed over the years. Music groups that proclaim Christ have dominated the hardcore and hard-rock music scenes in recent years, from the likes of Underoath to Norma Jean to Thrice. But in the last decade especially, there seems to be a greater influx of Christians making music this way, including Sufjan Stevens.

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."

Posted by at March 29, 2015 8:37 AM

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