Sufjan Stevens’ Insight Not to Be Missed

Zac HicksArt and Worship, CultureLeave a Comment

A Lot Under the Bus

Author David Roark has published a well-written article about Sufjan Stevens vis-à-vis the “Christian Music” scene. Roark has located the turn from Christians-as-artists to “Christian artists” in the 1960s, with the Jesus Movement’s evangelistic objectives and youth culture targeting. The bulk of the article is focused on the dichotomy between what artists like Sufjan are trying to do and what the “Christian Art” world is doing. I appreciate the article, but at the same time I’ve become weary of such blanket diagnoses that appear to file everything coming out of “the industry” as “bad” and “kitschy.” I understand that the need for brevity and clarity in such forums drives the thinking to sharp distinctions, but for me its black-and-whiteness throws too much under the bus that doesn’t need to be thrown there. Not all produced within the cubicled four walls of a fabled Nashville office needs to be so blanketly dismissed. Still, I don’t want to discount the need for us to charitably make some of the observations that Roark is making.

The Easily-Missed Punchline

People who read the article will probably either take offense or cheer it on. The polarizing nature of its content might cause either party, though, to miss something VERY profound at its end. In many ways, what is said here is THE fundamental insight for Christians in the arts (and, in fact, humans everywhere doing anything):

 “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.”

Please, please don’t miss this. Here we have bedrock theology packed into what feels like a simple response. Stevens is making a few distinctions worth chewing on. First, faith is less a part of our life and more like an alien living inside of us. Second, this faith “absolves” artists from having to “impose religious content” on what they do. This is profound.

Sufjan Probably Isn’t Afraid of Modern Art

It reminds me very much of what made Dan Siedell’s Who’s Afraid of Modern Art? so unique among conversations about Christianity and the arts (please read my review here). It drills down deep, beyond the conversations about what is “appropriate” or “Christian.” It finds that subterranean core that echoes up to the surface its cries to be justified.

Stevens and Siedell remind us that many of our attempts as Christians in making art are really an “embarrassing effort to gratify God.” It is always the case that when we are attempting to justify ourselves before God, we end up instrumentalizing, rather than receiving, God’s good gifts, whether they be people or art. Perhaps the reason why some Christian art feels so cheesy and kitschy is because we can see through its all too thin sheen, recognizing it as an instrument for something else. When art is so wholeheartedly used for religious purposes (i.e. evangelism or persuasion to a Christian worldview), it forces us to look through it and past it, rather than, as Siedell says, “receive” it. Instruments don’t speak; they are used

The Gospel, though, tells us that all our instrumentalizing efforts can cease because God has been gratified. We no longer have to make such embarrassing efforts, extracting art’s art-ness to construct a platform to serve our self-salvation projects. God, in Christ, has declared us justified. We don’t need to use art to satisfy our evangelism quota so that God will like us. We’re free to receive art as a gift, and we’re freed to make art from its gifted nature. 

Sufjan’s Unlikely Bedfellow

Stevens said, “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.” I find the freedom of this strikingly similar to how Siedell describes 17th century Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez:

Velázquez not only refused to solicit or accept commissions, but he also refused to paint the historical and religious subjects that featured heroes from classical and biblical literature and which traditionally established an artist’s reputation.*

This anti-establishment spirit (the same one I sense in Stevens) doesn’t seem to be for rebellion’s sake (another veiled form of self-justification), but out of a freedom granted from outside oneself. Siedell notes that Velázquez didn’t take his paintings too seriously, evidenced by his odd practice of cleaning his brush on the corners of the very canvases on which he painted. I see that same kind of playful spirit in a man who performs quirky folk arrangements on a banjo while wearing bird wings. Siedell asks then answers:

How could a human being so gifted care so little about his gift? Certainly, a human being whose identity is received as grace, whose relationship to God, the world, and himself was not defined by his work as an artist and the paintings he painted.*

Would to God that we could all do our art-making from this starting place. From here, art would be simultaneously free and (most deeply and profoundly) Christian. Indeed, Lord, have mercy.

*Dan Siedell, Who’s Afraid of Modern Art (Eugene: Cascade, 2015), 80, 85.

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