If Francis Schaeffer was alive today, Sufjan Stevens would make him proud.
Stevens’ new album, Carrie and Lowell, which debuted last Tuesday, was named best new music by Pitchfork shortly after he was compared to theologian Francis Schaeffer in the Atlantic. Few self-proclaimed Christian artists have achieved such secular popularity and recognition for their faith as Stevens.
His success among both non-Christians and Christians may be explained by the fact that he seems to embody a Schaefferian view of work as an artist. In Art & the Bible, Schaeffer asks,
How should an artist begin to do his work as an artist? I would insist that he begin his work as an artist by setting out to make a work of art.
Focusing on the artistic qualities of his music first is an area many agree Stevens has mastered but where Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) artists have failed.
David Roark argues in the Atlantic that most music typically considered “Christian” today really isn’t all that good. CCM, which started during wake of the “Jesus Movement” in the 60s and 70s, views music strictly as a tool for evangelism rather than an art form. The highest measure of value is the number of times “Jesus” is mentioned while talent and production quality take a backseat. This is why he argues Christians have failed to make much of a dent in the popular music scene.
While Stevens doesn’t hide his beliefs in his work, he purposefully avoids the CCM label, perhaps because he doesn’t believe Christianity should be viewed as a cultural subset. Instead, we should live and breathe the Gospel so naturally that it weaves its way into every area of life, transforming it.
According to Roark, Stevens’ music is the physical embodiment of what Schaeffer called “the totality of life.” He says,
Instead of dealing directly with religious or biblical matters, Stevens’ music embodies what theologian Francis Schaeffer called the “totality of life,” as opposed some sort of “self-conscious evangelism”—an approach that turns the whole Christian-music stigma on its head. […]
For the musician, the gospel doesn’t just play some small, personal role in life and culture; it infiltrates and restores all of life and culture. It addresses the entire human experience, or “the totality of life” as Schaeffer described it.
Carrie and Lowell centers around Stevens’ mother Carrie who abandoned him as a child and recently passed in 2012. In Should Have Known Better, he shares the hurt his mother caused him as a child as well as his regret in not trying to be closer to her. He wrestles with depression in The Only Thing and cries out to Jesus for help in John My Beloved. He shares his brokenness, his fears, (Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away), and the symbols of hope he sees in the world around him (My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination).
He struggles with sin and wrestles with his faith. Many moments are so raw and so vulnerable; some may find them difficult to listen to. But maybe that realism about the human condition is exactly what we crave in a song.
The way in which Stevens integrates his faith with his music can be compared to other artists like Johnny Cash and U2. Roark says these Christians artists stand in stark contrast to CCM because,
They didn’t see music as just a means to an end, or a way of evangelizing to young people. Instead, they focused on telling compelling stories and creating aesthetically pleasing music, while still expressing themselves personally and spiritually. It’s not as if they separated their faith from their work—on the contrary, Christian themes and ideas are woven throughout their lyrics. It’s more that their endeavors were simpler: They cared more about writing good songs than converting the world through music.
Is a song about a mother abandoning her son any less Christian than a song about a Biblical scene? Sufjan Stevens wouldn’t say so, and neither would Francis Schaeffer.
Stevens’ music speaks something beautiful and true to our souls, which is why it’s captivating both Christian non-Christians alike. And if Francis Schaeffer had a chance to listen to Carrie and Lowell, I’m sure it would make him proud.