Hidden Under a Bushel Sufjan Stevens and the problem of Christian music

I read almost everything I come across about Sufjan Stevens.
The writer of this article, Delvyn Case says a couple interesting things and criticizes Sufjan’s style. Maybe he’s musically right, but still, Sufjan’s music is beautiful.

“…A Michigan native, Stevens was something of a musical prodigy. He attended Michigan’s prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, where he honed his skills on the oboe. He attended Hope College in Michigan, formed a band, and started piecing together his slightly outsider compositions with a few other sympathetic souls. From obscurity, Stevens has taken the college rock world by storm. His 2005 CD, Illinois—which occupied the number-one slot on college music charts for weeks in the fall of 2005, and has since received wide acclaim—and its recent companion disc of outtakes, The Avalanche, are part of his staggeringly ambitious project for a state-by-state romp through America. Stevens has done two states so far, the first being Michigan. Each release will be devoted to a single state, intended as a sweeping travelogue, a character study, and a window into Stevens’ worldview.

Even a casual listen to Stevens’ work reveals his fascination with Christian themes—creation, fall, and redemption. Take for example these lines from one of the tracks on Illinois, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” a heart-rending exploration of theodicy (via the story of a friend’s death from bone cancer):

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders, and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

Certainly an overtly Christian message is a bitter pill to swallow for the average indie rock fan, but in song after song Stevens is open about his faith. As critical acclaim has mounted, though, he’s become much more evasive when questioned about his faith. He routinely brushes aside the matter of his personal beliefs, strategically separating himself from the weird world of contemporary Christian music. He has a “knee-jerk reaction to that kind of [Christian] culture,” he quipped in one interview. “Maybe I’m a little more empathetic … because we have similar fundamental beliefs. But culturally and aesthetically, some of it is really embarrassing.”1 More bluntly, he has said, “I don’t make faith-themed music.”2

Stevens seems convinced that to own up to evangelicalism would amount to professional or artistic suicide, and he is probably right. Though Christian culture warriors are put off by his calculated ambiguity, fans and critics are captivated. The high praise he has garnered from The New York Times and Rolling Stone—let alone thousands of fans around the world—may be the direct result of Stevens’ willingness to grapple, in a suitably cryptic fashion, with issues of faith. Indeed, the secular music press now views the spiritual component of his work as an asset, best summed up by the Village Voice, which called him “the Next Flannery [O’Connor].”… (article linked to title)

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