Music

Bible Study with Sufjan Stevens

John J. Thompson

Sufjan Stevens is on a tear. The mysterious, press-shy, and often obtuse indie-music darling has been leaving little to the imagination when it comes to his Christian convictions lately. It seems desperate times call for desperate measures. Stevens has a platform, dadgummit, and he’s gonna do some preachin’!

Although Stevens’ music has been imbued with spirit and soul since day one, he’s been explicitly exploring Christian theology in a series of blog posts that kicked off about three weeks ago at Sufjan.com. His first missive, entitled “The Ten Commandments,” laid out the artist’s frank declaration that God’s law is really not all that complicated. “The Ten Commandments are neither profound nor difficult, at all,” he writes. “They are meant to distinguish us from barbarianism and narcissism.” He goes on to outline a passionate, urgent, acerbic, and even humorous understanding of the law. For Stevens, it’s about living for others, humility, service, and honesty. He contrasts the simple message of Moses’ tablets with the values of today, and in doing so throws down the gauntlet for the entire series of posts.

Some time later, after a few smaller posts in between, he returned with a scorcher that starts: “There really is no such thing as an illegal immigrant, for we are all immigrants and refugees in a wildly changing world that is dominated by superfluous boundaries built by blood and war.” His latest installment is even more politically engaged. Labeled as a  “Friendly reminder,” it tackles the notion of Christian nationalism. After an opening salvo that plainly outlines the incompatibility of biblical Christianity with “My country right or wrong” jingoism, Stevens gets downright Pentecostal on us. “A ‘Christian nation’ is absolutely heretical,” he declares.

Stevens goes on to reference about a dozen different Bible verses. His reminder that Jesus said “you must hate your mother and your father and you must love your enemies” are direct allusions to Luke 14:26, Matthew 10:37, and Matthew 5:44. When he declares that “God is love, period,” he has 1 John 4:7-8 as support. And it’s hard not to think of Paul’s egalitarianism in Galatians 3:28 when Stevens calls for a “spiritual deployment of true identity, which no longer resides in skin color, nation, ideology, genealogy, name, people, places, and things...”

I believe that we need more of our artists to sow seeds of holy discontent.

In fact, you can practically hear him waving a Bible opened to Matthew 22:21 and pointing a pastoral finger as he bellows, “When Jesus Christ says, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ he acknowledges a necessary evil (and throws some shade), but he also compels us to participate honestly and responsibly and with righteousness and stewardship in a faulty and dysfunctional society even as we are called to be ideologically and socially dispossessed.”

Dang!

There is certainly room for some theological pushback. Stevens’ suggestion, for instance, that the Ten Commandments are easy to understand might be mistaken for an insinuation that keeping those commandments is easy, which is obviously not true. His casual approach to unpacking Scripture can also lend itself to moments of over-simplification. But it might be his literal embrace of the words and work of Jesus that makes his argument so radical. His simple, some might say conservative, reading of Scripture leads him to a culturally progressive conclusion: “To gain your life is to lose it. To lose your life is to gain it. The life you live is not your own. Give your life away.”

I believe that we need more of our artists to sow seeds of holy discontent. This is a good start. It would be really exciting if Stevens’ faithful passion could be translated into some beautifully subversive, Sufjanesque music. I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, The Bible