Category: Music

Sufjan Stevens would make Francis Schaeffer proud

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.

71cd3730His 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.

Sufjan’s latest: should have known better

I should have known better
To see what I could see
My black shroud
Holding down my feelings
A pillar for my enemies

I should have wrote a letter
And grieve what I happen to grieve
My black shroud
I never trust my feelings
I waited for the remedy

When I was three, three maybe four
She left us at that video store
Be my rest, be my fantasy

I’m light as a feather
I’m bright as the Oregon breeze
My black shroud
Frightened by my feelings
I only wanna be a relief

No, I’m not a go-getter
The demon had a spell on me
My black shroud
Captain of my feelings
The only thing I wanna believe

When I was three, and free to explore
I saw her face on the back of the door
Be my rest, be my fantasy

I should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
I should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling

Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing
The breakers in the bar, the neighbor’s greeting
My brother had a daughter
The beauty that she brings, illumination

Don’t back down, there is nothing left
The breakers in the bar, no reason to live
I’m a fool in the fetter
Rose of Aaron’s beard, where you can reach me

Don’t back down: nothing can be changed
Cantilever bridge, the drunken sailor
My brother had a daughter
The beauty that she brings, illumination