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.