The compelling faith of Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens has never hid his faith. Throughout his work, he borrows extensively from Christian imagery. I always had viewed his frequent religious allusions as just another one of his characteristic oddities, akin to his absurd song titles and state-themed albums. It’s not as though Christianity is universally present in his works: Sure, if you only listened to Seven Swans, you might assume Sufjan to be an aspiring member of the clergy, but if you had only heard The Age of Adz you would never know he was religious at all. However, my views changed when I read his blog post that compared artistic creation to the Christian concept of the Eucharist — Sufjan views the artist as transforming their spirit into a tangible creation as an act of generosity. His blog made me realize that Sufjan’s views on religion were much more complex and idiosyncratic than I had initially viewed them.
I, being irreligious, have never had a positive impression of “Christian music,” always viewing it as exclusive or pandering. Stevens inverts those stereotypes. His religious inclinations feel wholly genuine and inclusive, a reflection of his personal experience without artifice. It is what separates him from the music labelled as “Christian,” that he himself described in a 2006 interview with Delucions of Adequacy as existing “exclusively within the few insulated floors (cubicles and computers included) of some corporate construction in Nashville, Tenn.” Rather than being stiff and preachy, Sufjan’s faith is malleable and subjective; it is open for interpretation. The way that Sufjan incorporates Christianity into his work proves that artists don’t have to label themselves as “Christian music” or beat the listener over the head with a neon bible to do so. His hymns are not agents of proselytization or ecclesiastical drones, but the earnest products of an attempt to create beauty through expression.
Sufjan’s most overtly religious work is Seven Swans, an acoustic-folk album he released in 2005. The album is littered with Christian allusions and spiritual overtones, including two songs (“Abraham” and “The Transfiguration”) that are actual Biblical tales. Yet, Sufjan made his position clear with DOA: “I don’t make faith-based music,” he said. This is a confusing statement at first — this guy just made a song consisting of the story of the Transfiguration of Christ with a banjo playing in the background, and now he’s saying that he doesn’t make faith-based music? The key word here is “based”: while Sufjan often infuses faith into his music, his religion is never the basis of his creation. In that same interview, he provides further clarification: “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,” he said. To view certain songs as “Christian music” implies that there is some distinction between the religion of the artist and the rest of their existence.
Part of what makes Sufjan’s faith compelling is that he isn’t afraid to publicly wrestle with it — in the elegiac “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Sufjan tells the story of a female friend who was diagnosed with bone cancer. “Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body but nothing ever happens,” he sings. The creeping doubt, the “nothing ever happens,” is the subtle thread that runs through the narrative of the track. In the final line, after Sufjan’s friend passes away, the religious conflict comes to the forefront: “All the glory when He took our place, but He took my shoulders and He shook my face, and He takes and He takes and He takes.” Sufjan offers questions but no answers — his doubt is not assuaged, and he is just left with his confusion: he doesn’t understand why the glorious God who sacrificed his son in the place of humanity continues to take with no recompense. There is no answer. The song is over. Sufjan isn’t the type to conclude with a moralizing statement, or some life lesson. He tells his story, and he tells it as well as he can. This lack of an ulterior motive, be it piety or proselytization, is what sets Sufjan apart from other Christian musicians. In the DOA interview, he concurs: “On an aesthetic level, faith and art are a dangerous match. Today, they can quickly lead to devotional artifice or didactic crap. This would summarize the Christian publishing world or the Christian music industry.”
Another point of curiosity in Sufjan’s music is the relationship between his Christian beliefs and his slightly-less-than-ambiguous sexuality, with songs such as “Futile Devices,” “The Owl and the Tanager” and “All for Myself” all depicting a love interest of Sufjan’s as male. In both “To Be Alone With You” and “John My Beloved,” the narrator addresses a “you” in an intimate manner who can be interpreted as either Jesus or a male lover. While many Christians would view these two identities as conflicting, Sufjan seems to be asserting that they can coexist. The only hint he gives of conflict between his faith and the homosexual undertones in his music can be found in the song “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” in which Sufjan narrates an experience he had at a Methodist summer camp: The lyrics imply an intimate love between Sufjan and his male friend, with an ominous wasp hovering overhead as Sufjan’s feelings progress. This ominous wasp can be interpreted as Sufjan’s reservations about this same-sex attraction brought on by his religious upbringing, a disquieting presence threatening its harsh sting.
Also worth mentioning are the two Christmas albums. A seamless mixture of the sacred and the secular; the 52-track long Silver & Gold contains both a faithful rendition of “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light” and a twelve minute long original work entitled “Christmas Unicorn” that itself includes a lengthy interpolation of Joy Division. Somehow, these two songs feel as though they belong together, united by Sufjan’s earnest nature and vision of beauty in spite of their ostensibly different tones.
Sufjan’s Christianity, in its honesty and unashamed doubt, succeeds in doing what the best efforts of the neon Bible-thumpers in Nashville could not — providing a wholesome form of music that discusses faith while still appealing to non-believers. Of course, Sufjan was only able to achieve this because he is not trying to. “Christian music,” as a genre, will always feel duplicitous to nonbelievers — they know that they are trying to be convinced of something; the whole genre is a tool of conversion (a clumsy one, at that) rather than art. Sufjan, in total contrast, only includes faith when it adds to the final artistic product; it is never the goal, only the means. Sufjan is not a Christian artist. He is an artist who is Christian.