Sufjan Stevens and ‘Christian Music’

Pastor Bob O'Bannon

As a fan of the singer Sufjan Stevens and the magazine The Atlantic, I was thrilled to see the two come together recently when the periodical posted an article on its Web site titled, “How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music.”

There has always been an interesting juxtaposition between “Christian artists,” on the one hand, and artists who happen to be Christians, on the other. The former would include the typical kind of band or singer you’d hear on CCM radio, such as Switchfoot, Casting Crowns, Newsboys, or MercyMe — bands with a slick commercial appeal who wear their faith on their sleeves. The latter would include artists like Johnny Cash, U2, Wovenhand, Bill Fay, Danielson, and Sufjan Stevens — artists who identify as Christians but whose music tends to be more musically challenging, lyrically comprehensive and appealing to those outside the church.

My general thoughts on CCM can be found in another blog I wrote last year, so no need to repeat that content here. But suffice it to say that I’ve never been a fan of the genre. To the degree that the music has encouraged and blessed Christians in their walk with Christ, I am thankful for it. But to my tastes, it’s just not very interesting music. It lacks imagination. And I have my concerns about how well it represents Christianity to those outside the church.

For instance, to get an idea of how the world regards Christian music, read The Atlantic link, in which CCM songs are described as “kitschy” and “musical travesties.” Ouch. That’s strong language. And Christians can’t get off the hook by claiming that such a negative assessment is a kind of persecution against their faith, because, historically speaking, some of the greatest artists in western culture have been Christians — folks like Bach, T.S.Eliot, Vincent Van Gogh and Flannery O’Connor. And even the most cynical of unbelievers will often sing the praises of Johnny Cash and U2.

Christians can make music that gets the attention of the world, and that’s what Sufjan has done. He has been quite explicit about his faith in his music. He recorded versions of “Holy Holy Holy” and “Come Thou Fount” on his Christmas box set. His 2004 album “Michigan” features a song called “The Transfiguration,” which is exactly what a Biblically literate person would expect it to be about. And the haunting song “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” is perhaps the best pop song ever written about the depravity of man: “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”

It’s no secret that Sufjan claims to be a Christian, and yet he is highly regarded among secular music critics. His 2005 album “Come on Feel the Illinoise” was listed as best album of the year at AOTY and the ultra hipster music web site Pitchfork.  There is something sweetly wonderful about the thought of a young indie music fan downloading one of Sufjan’s albums (or picking up the vinyl version at his local independent record store!), and then hearing the words, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” blaring through his earbud.

As The Atlantic article points out, it could be that the music of artists like Sufjan actually has the bigger impact for God’s kingdom. Speaking of Sufjan, the article says,

“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.”

To someone used to hearing only CCM, Sufjan’s music might sound odd. Some of it is very somber; some of it sounds like a cross between Phillip Glass and Dave Brubek with a group of cheerleaders on lead vocals. But this is what makes him so appealing. His music is unique. It does not fit within the narrow confines of CCM. He has forged his own artistic vision, without apparent regard for commercial appeal, and as a result has gained a large hearing outside the church. To quote the article once more,

“ . . . The success of artists like Stevens demonstrates how music that incorporates religious themes can thrive, while inspiring even the most secular of audiences.”

If you are interested in Sufjan, there is perhaps no better time to enter into this musical world than now, as he has just released “Carrie and Lowell,” which in my opinion is his best album yet. It’s a beautiful collection of songs mostly reflecting on the recent death of his mother. Try “Death with Dignity” to get a good sampling of the album.

To be clear, I am not necessarily vouching for everything Sufjan believes. I don’t know his theology, and would probably disagree with him on many issues. But as a Christian approaching the arts, I think Sufjan is doing it the right way, and I wish more Christian artists would follow in his footsteps.