Musician challenges expression of religion

Posted Oct. 15, 2010, at 7:39 p.m.

Sufjan Stevens released a new album last week. If you don’t know who Stevens is, you can be forgiven. He’s not exactly a household name yet. Anyone familiar with the indie music scene, however, knows him well. Personally, I named one of my cats after him.

Stevens made a name for himself with a gimmick, claiming he would release an album for every state in the nation. He started with “Michigan.” It was full of xylophones and banjos and alternately spare and lush arrangements. But it wasn’t until “Illinois” that he really started to get notice. With it, Stevens built on the promise of “Michigan,” cleaning up the orchestration and refining his themes. Every hipster kid in a pair of skinny jeans bought a copy.

And then Stevens didn’t release a full-length album for five years. In the interim, he put out a collection of B-sides and outtakes from “Illinois” and created an orchestral suite in the style of Gershwin.

But in the last couple of months, Stevens has suddenly reappeared, first with an hourlong EP called “All the Delighted People” that is very much in the style of “Illinois” and contains more music and more ideas than most songwriters put into their LPs; and now with the new album “The Age of Adz.”

This album isn’t about a state. Indeed, it sounds nothing like anyone expected, containing swirling electronic whirrs, relatively dark lyrics and artwork from schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson. And yet it’s every bit as great as anyone had any right to hope for and is probably the best album of the year so far.

Stevens is a devout Christian, and his music reflects that. “Michigan” contains a nine-minute hymn called “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” In between “Michigan” and “Illinois,” Stevens released the folksy “Seven Swans,” which includes songs with titles such as “To Be Alone with Him,” “The Transfiguration” and “Abraham.” And every year he records a Christmas EP for friends and family that inevitably winds up on the Internet. As it happens, his Christmas music is some of his best work.

But Stevens, like his frequent collaborators in The Danielson Famile, doesn’t consider himself part of the Contemporary Christian music, or CCM scene. Really, his music has very little in common with that genre. Even if his music is not your cup of tea, nobody would deny that Stevens is wildly ambitious.

CCM is just the opposite of that. If you turn to your local Christian radio station, what you’ll find there isn’t necessarily bad. It can even be sort of pleasant to listen to. But it’s also relentlessly bland and inoffensive. At it’s worst, it’s just comically hokey.

Finding the larger popular culture insufficiently pious, many Christians have turned inward to create their own culture. CCM is a part of that. As Daniel Radosh displays in his funny, but nonetheless respectful book, “Rapture Ready,” the problem is this alternative culture is every bit as disposable as secular pop culture, and perhaps even more so.

Examples abound of hilariously misguided artistic projects, from the woman who will Photoshop a likeness of Jesus into your family portrait (for a small fee of course) to the always popular Passion of the Christ nail pendant. But most artifacts of Christian culture are just nichey and kitschy, from Thomas Kinkade paintings to Christian self-help books to CCM.

Some of the more conservative members of the Christian community dislike CCM and have dubbed it “Jesus is my boyfriend music.” The moniker is amusing and largely accurate; CCM artists have a tendency to write love songs that sound like they could be about a girl in the park until Jesus pops up in the chorus. These more conservative Christians would prefer to stick with the old hymns, and I definitely agree that replacing old hymns with CCM is a downgrade. But it’s important to understand why the great old hymns are great.

Marshall McCluhan wrote, more than a few times, that the medium is the message. What he meant by that is the medium you use changes the content of the message you convey. If you want to convey a particular message, choosing the right medium is important. If you want to create great art, you’re better off focusing more on your medium than on your message.

With that in mind, the great hymns are great because they’re great examples of their medium — that is, great pieces of music — not because of the messages they convey. In fact, many old hymns are every bit as theologically problematic as contemporary Christian songs. But as Stevens has said, maybe music media isn’t the best forum for theological discussions.

The problem with CCM, and Christian culture more generally, is that it has placed message over medium. What matters in Christian culture is that you never have to hear anything you might disagree with or find offensive or that might challenge your beliefs. It has, in other words, its own version of political correctness.

The art has to stay within those boundaries, and the results are predictably dull. Christian culture has forgotten that great art is a glory to God.

Stevens, on the other hand, hasn’t forgotten that. Near the end of his new album, Stevens repeatedly uses slang that some might consider vulgar to indicate that he’s not fooling around. Maybe there’s no place for that kind of language in Christian culture, although it’s used here as a frank expression of artistic seriousness. But maybe there’s no place for that in Christian culture either.

Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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