How Christian Authors Stigmatize Artists Like Sufjan Stevens

Most of the people that I’ve known for more than a few years grew up in “the church” in some form. Most of us were born and bred in fundamentalist Christianity. To this day it’s hard for me to understand where people are coming from who don’t share that background. But, as time goes on, more and more of those people seem to be rejecting most or all of what they grew up with. And, at least in the U.S., that trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Of course, not all of us have become militant atheists or are completely done with church. We’re mostly in the middle somewhere. We still think about God and theology; we just don’t really know what to do with those thoughts. Our friends who don’t share our history don’t understand why we just can’t just let the whole thing go. Andy Hull (of Manchester Orchestra), David Bazan (formerly of Pedro the Lion) and my friend John Moreland are a few artists who seem to share this struggle. They seem to have a hard time believing or participating in the whole evangelical thing any more, but they can’t seem to quit thinking (or singing) about it either.

I could be totally off base and misinterpreting what is really going on. But, over the past several years, I’ve tried to keep up with what Sufjan Stevens has been creating, and his thoughts about it through interviews. And it seems that he has been on a very similar trajectory to most of my friends.

I don’t remember where I first heard his music, but I’m guessing it was when I was caught up in the New Reformed movement. I do remember a lot of my fellow hipster Calvinists hailing him as one of their own. I loved his music but I also wanted to know more. Honestly, it could have been the case even back then that all of these people were trying to take ownership of him without his consent. I don’t know.

A couple of months ago, I heard about his new album coming out, and a few friends posted an interview about it in Pitchfork. Based on some other things he has been involved in, and the tone of what I had read or heard recently, it seemed he was in a very different place than when I first heard about him years ago. I wondered if he even called himself a Christian anymore.

You may be reading up to this point and thinking to yourself: “Who cares?” That’s totally understandable. And it’s probably better to just enjoy an artist’s work and not ask these kinds of questions. I don’t usually go beyond the music itself and try to understand it. But, there are a few musicians who had an impact on me at certain points in my life who I follow a little more closely than many others. And, I do find it interesting when an artist lets us in on his or own spiritual path (wherever they’re coming from). I’m guessing that’s part of the reason why podcasts like WTF are becoming so popular; it’s rare to get through an episode without God or faith – or at least meaning – coming up (BTW, Marc Maron should totally interview Sufjan).

In the Pitchfork interview, Sufjan says he’s still a Christian. But, the way I read it is that he has moved into a much more open, flexible form of his faith:

I still describe myself as a Christian, and my love of God and my relationship with God is fundamental, but its manifestations in my life and the practices of it are constantly changing. I find incredible freedom in my faith… The unique thing about Christianity is that it is so amorphous and not reductive to culture or place or anything. It’s extremely malleable.

That does not read like a fundamentalist, an evangelical – or even an orthodox Christian – to me at all. The next response clarifies this (in relation to other religions):

…some of them are cultural and require an allegiance to…a code.

That seems to me to be the definition of orthodoxy: “allegiance to a code.” There is a certain type of Christian who sees the religion as fundamentally – primarily – about a very specific set of beliefs, outlined in the Creeds. And, of course, there are a lot of other people who “describe themselves as Christians” who don’t see their religion in that way.

When I was writing a lot more, I spent a lot of time trying to push back on the first type of Christian mindset. I was trying to say, “Christianity is malleable. Christianity is amorphous.  And it isn’t fundamentally about beliefs (or allegiance to a code) at all.” This perspective seemed to fly in the face of what it means to be an evangelical, and, from the evangelical’s point of view, what is required to even call oneself a Christian.

So, with all of this said, I had a very strange reaction when I read an article that was published in The Atlantic, which a few friends had posted on Facebook: “How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music.”

For the most part, I really don’t disagree with the article. He’s right about the ridiculousness of the idea of “Christian music” in contrast to “secular music,” and so on. He makes some very helpful points, especially for conservative evangelicals who are still, sadly, caught up in this game. But, my shock came from how the author framed the article, and his choice in using Sufjan Stevens as an exemplar of his perspective.

My first confusion was with the quotes he had pulled from articles and interviews about Sufjan from 2006. I don’t know about you, but I was a very different person 9 years ago. As an example, here is an article I was interviewed for in 2008. Reading it now, it’s really hard for me to identify with the person I used to be. An irresponsible journalist could pull quotes from me from that article and try to say that’s how I still think or feel today.

The next thing that really bothered me was his use of quotes from Francis Schaeffer and NT Wright, two theologians who I honestly doubt Sufjan himself would quote to explain his art. In that interview in 2008, I probably would’ve quoted both of those theologians to support my own views, but that has very little to do with how I think about my life and the world today.

This gets to another issue underlying this approach. Whatever our “team” is, why do we try so hard to find famous people to represent us? We all do it. When I was going through my hardcore atheist phase, finding out that Quiet Company’s lead singer had rejected his faith, I felt the urge to spread that gospel to others through their music. Or when I learned that Jose Gonzalez’s album “In Our Nature” was written in response to him reading Richard Dawkins, I felt somehow validated. In some weird way, I thought to myself, “If more people knew this, maybe my team would be seen as more legitimate!” I still think I enjoy David Bazan primarily because I agree with his perspective on so many things, rather than just because of his music.

Then, here is my final problem with the evangelical co-opting of certain musicians: to be an evangelical requires one to very clearly define what Christianity is and to very clearly decide who is in and who is out. If you actually pinned down Sufjan Stevens, or Bono – or even Martin Luther King, Jr. – and asked them what they actually believed, you would be forced to declare them heretics or “unbelievers.”

The Atlantic article seems irresponsible and dishonest.

I do appreciate that I sent the author an email and he responded. In his response, he said the following:

Until I hear something where Sufjan claims that he is no longer a Christian or refutes the fundamentals of Christianity (like, say, in the Apostles’ Creed), I’m going to continue viewing him this way.

Of course, I can’t exactly speak for Sufjan, but I’m guessing if he was asked he would not fit into the author’s very narrow definition of what a Christian is. And the author would be forced to reject Sufjan as not only outside of his team (evangelicalism), but also outside of the faith (Christianity).

Or, maybe, just maybe, this revelation would cause the author (and others like him) to reject his own narrow definition of Christianity, and find ways to embrace the beautiful diversity of people who find Jesus attractive enough to identify their lives with his.

And maybe the world would be a much better, more inclusive place because of it.

The Aftermath

It’s been a week since I wrote my open letter. As I expected, no one within Acts 29 has responded. I’ve had more hits on that post than any other I’ve ever written: thousands. Hundreds of reposts on Facebook. And so on.

But, from A29? Silence.

I’ve had some pretty interesting feedback about my letter, though. Mostly, it’s been positive, supportive. But, a lot of people have been bothered by my use of the word “shit.” I’m honestly not sure how else to say, “own your shit.” I guess that’s what happens after removing oneself from a certain cult(ure) for over four years; some things just aren’t a big deal any more.

But, something that confuses me more and more as time goes on… A lot of people really want to know “where I’m at with Jesus.” Because of my experiences, have I “rejected God”? Do I still “follow Jesus”? And so on.

I’ve almost come to the point where this could be the dividing line between one type of religious person and another. The first type is someone who is self-confident. Someone who knows who they are, what they want in life. Someone who has goals and is working toward them. Someone who loves life, NOT for what may or may not come after, but for the now. The other type of religious person, though, is someone who seems fearful – about him or herself, about the future, about their own fate. Fearful about “the world.” Worried about who is in or out of their club. Or who might end up in heaven or hell. Or who might not be walking the same path that they (think they) are.

At this point in my life, these kinds of questions (which usually feel like an interrogation – an inquisition – no matter how sincere) confuse me. I just don’t know how to answer them, because it always makes me wonder why someone is asking. What if I said, “Jesus is awesome”? Would that be good enough? Would I be “in”? What if I said, “Jesus probably never existed”? Would this interrogator have a legitimate comeback? How about, “I don’t really like Jesus” (which would seem to be a more honest self-appraisal than most Christians)?

Usually I fumble through something vague about thinking Jesus was somehow unique and that I can’t deny my own experiences and the influence certain interpretations of Jesus have had on me. But, maybe I should stop doing this. Instead, maybe I should follow Jesus’ example, and pivot toward a different set of questions altogether.

I might enjoy hearing stories about people who have moved beyond a fundamentalist form of religion toward something more egalitarian, something more humanistic. But, in the big scheme of things, I really don’t care if someone is “in” or “out” anymore.

Here are the questions that matter to me: “How are YOU doing?” “Are you doing things YOU love?” “Are you spending time with the people YOU love?”

I don’t know what that makes me. I don’t know what category that puts me in. And I don’t really care.

An Open Letter to the Acts 29 Network

If you’re reading this, and you have no idea who Mark Driscoll is, you should probably stop reading. And you should thank me for sparing you. For those of who choose to keep reading, you may not have any idea of my connection to Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill, Acts 29, etc. Many of you I know from a long time ago, or I have met since I walked away from that world. To make a long story short, I was a Driscoll-ite for several years, until I became a staff member at an Acts 29 church. Then, I saw behind the curtain, and walked away.



Dear Acts 29 church planters, pastors, deacons, church members, etc.:

I read today that you have decided to dissociate yourselves from Mark Driscoll.

I’m not sure if “courage” is the right word, but I do want to congratulate all of you for simply doing the right thing. For making the right decision. Maybe “bold” is fitting, considering Driscoll co-founded the network. Whatever the best language is, it was a good decision.

But, I have to say that this turn of events is eerily similar, for me, to something that happened here in Raleigh a few years ago. I worked for an Acts 29 church called Vintage21 from September 2007 until January 2010. Over time, our Executive Pastor became more and more out of line. He was doing and saying things that were simply inappropriate. I was personally fielding almost daily complaints about him. Dozens of individuals and families left the church because of him. It was obvious to anyone who was paying attention that this person was not qualified to be a pastor. But, he was allowed to stay. For years beyond what should have been.

Eventually, this pastor left the church. A few months later, he confessed to some things that he was doing, while working for the church, that were beyond his disqualifying arrogance. This seemed to come as a shock to certain members of church leadership. But, to those of us who had already left the church, it wasn’t shocking at all. It was expected. To Vintage21 leaders, for some reason, those more recently revealed actions were seen as much more “sinful” than the other things, and mysteriously worthy of announcing to the entire church. Arbitrary.

Along with the public airing of dirty laundry, how did the church leadership react? From what I could tell, there was no collective ownership of a broken system. No apologies for allowing this person to stay in leadership even before this turn of events. No personal responsibility. All I heard was blame. This person had caused all of the problems in the church up to that point. The church was in a bad place solely because of him. And now that he was gone, they could finally be whole again.


Since leaving your world in early 2010, I’ve read about, or spoken with, several people who have left Mars Hill. Most of them have left and revealed things that many of us already knew were true. But, I’ve also seen a lot of personal ownership from these people. Admitting they were wrong, and that they shouldn’t have stayed as long as they did. Confessing that they, too, were part of the problem. That they had contributed to it simply by participating. Guilt by association? When there is abuse involved, yes.

But, your PR move today doesn’t sound like an apology. It reads like yet another scapegoating, shifting all of the blame for all of the problems associated with not only Mars Hill specifically, but Acts 29 as a whole, onto one person. It’s hard for anyone outside of your bubble to take seriously.

While I genuinely want to believe this is what people in your world call “repentance,” I was always under the impression that repentance required confession of wrongdoing. If you haven’t done anything wrong, what is there to repent of? No, I – and everyone else watching from the outside – clearly see that this is something else entirely.

The third line of your public letter to Driscoll reads:

Over the past three years, our board and network have been the recipients of countless shots and dozens of fires directly linked to you…

It sounds like Mark has finally made you look bad enough for it to hurt. It sounds like your collective ego has been broken. So, now it’s time to flex your muscles. Because that’s what real men do, right?

It’s strange though, that this arbitrary line has been drawn now. After everything else that has happened over the past ten plus years. I don’t have to list it all here. If you’ve been “in the world” and not existing solely in your own cult(ure), you’ve seen the articles. If you’ve been shepherding actual people – which, from what I understand, should be your primary responsibility – you’ve heard a lot of stories. Stories of abuse.

But, the problem isn’t Mark Driscoll. He’s part of the problem. A large part? Yes. But, there is culpability to go around. A lot of it. It’s been over four years since I left, but I even still bear some responsibility for participating as long as I did. I get it. We make decisions and then have a hard time dealing with the consequences. We have bills. And reputations. And relationships.

Honestly, this is all we want to hear: we just want you to own your shit. If you want to repair your network, if you want to do it primarily for “the cause of Christ,” then just do this one thing: confess your sins – publicly – and repent. All of you.

I could stop here. I’ve said a lot already. But, from what I’ve also seen and heard from almost everyone who has left your world, these problems run deep. People don’t exhibit similar systems to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after leaving a safe, healthy environment. I’ve unapologetically said this for a long time now: Acts 29 – as a whole – operates like a cult. The only people who don’t realize this have already drank the Kool-Aid. And, again, this isn’t just Mark Driscoll. It’s not just Mars Hill. The entire network is committed to a broken “theology” (if what you idealize is worthy of the name). Until that changes, these problems will persist.

The cult(ure) Driscoll has created has made it pretty difficult for any Acts 29 leader to take seriously the words of a “blogger.” I’m sure you don’t genuinely care what I think. But, that kind of attitude is part of the problem, too.


Rob Davis
Raleigh, NC
August 8th, 2014