Featuring Wycliffe Jean Doing A 25 Second Rap

In the flesh, Sufjan Stevens is the most beautiful man I have ever seen except for Ann-dee. The Elder stunned me over the weekend by telling me he was giving me two tickets to the gig so last night I took my lady friend and we had a ball. Sure, Sufjan didn’t play To Be Alone With You or Abraham, but he did shock us all, by which I mean me and Neuro, by opening with Sister and then playing the Transfiguration. He did all the other favourites like Chicago and the Predatory Wasp and Seven Swans and the Supercomputer song but not the one about zombies. There are two kinds of people at Sufjan gigs- the uber-hip shit cool and the totally lame-oid nerds who don’t even know that there is a thing called “hip”. The contrast makes for a really nice crowd. Some people trying to banter and shout at the stage and others saying, “Sssssh. Ssssssh.” I was in the third category; the theological representative who was there to explain the deeper meaning in the songs. I overheard the guy beside me before the gig comment that Sufjan Stevens was “an official Christian”. I need to get myself a stamp or a visa or something.

I used to know all the names of the tracks on albums I loved. Putting the cd in the system meant I would have to hold something and have a chance to read it. Since switching to downloading my music this knowledge has just faded away. 3 or 4 keyboard shortcuts and I have any one of a bijillion songs at my fingertips and now I find myself not knowing the names of the songs and trying to describe them to friends by imitating the tuba noises or saying “Its about 12 minutes in”.

The Revelator
I always imagined that a U2 gig for me would be a transcendental experience. Not in a Shakira gig kind of transcendence but in the sense that over the last few years, U2’s songs have played a major role in shaping how I approach faith. (Ignore that noise. Its just the intellectual and the rigorously Reformed Christians punching their monitors) Sufjan was more like a revelation. My cynicism about contemporary Christian music may run deeper than most people but the diversity that should mark out Christian community should be mirrored in Christian creativity. Instead we have b-grade tosh most of the time. Sure there is a Jars Of Clay here or well, that is all, holding up the tin edifice. All these bands I am thinking about are much more explicit about their faith than Sufjan, Duke Special, Bob Dylan or Bono but they are all much more banal. That makes no sense!

Unless! Unless, music as a creative expression, as dare I say it, Art, need not be explicit. Perhaps the banality comes from the expectation that they jam in a Biblical reference here and an intense “Praise Your Holy Name” chorus there. The revelation came in the silence after the Transfiguration (how fitting), as the 10-piece band wearing kite wings prepared for the next song. Music in church should be this diverse, this creative, this thrilling. Sure, my little church, (which by the way, has an awesome worship team with superb theology) can’t match the guitar virtuoso-dom of Annie Clark (yet) but we aren’t aspiring to push the music into uncharted places. I’m going to verbal process here, but we worship in music because the idea of God stretches language past breaking point. But the idea of God stretches the language of our music beyond breaking point too. Surely we should go searching for new ways of doing things. The Worship Wars of the previous generation were about whether we should let contemporary music into church. In reality, the Worship Wars have given rise to a new hegemony. Where once there were hymnbooks there are now Spring Harvest songs projected on Powerpoint. What we need, what at least we should aspire to, is diversity and creativity. Always playing the same kind of music can produce a cosy little rut for our congregations. Ruts can be comfortable places, but surely they are a barrier to worshipping in spirit and truth?

Discard all of this if it is early morning drivel.

The Significance
Over the last few years I may have occasionally mentioned how superbly smart my wife is. So enjoying a customary post-gig chocolate malt, I am gushing about this and ooohing over that and she goes medieval on my ass. “What’s so freaking exciting about a singer who makes vague references to his faith in songs?”, she said, philistineishly. What followed was a very long debate about the role of the Christian as an artist, or as a producer of cultural artefacts and how culture affects behaviour. It was a brainwrecking battle but I think I came out on top. On the drive home I discovered the weakness in her logic. It couldn’t stand up to sustained, high-pitched wailing. Every time she would make a point, I would screech like a threatened monkey and she came around to seeing things my way.

Sufjan’s music is unique and beautiful. But honestly, the thing I like the most about Sufjan Stevens is that his music is a sincere expression of his faith. He doesn’t set out to write a song about how “just, really like, Jesus is lovely” but there is barely a song where his faith doesn’t poke up somewhere. Our worldviews are the centres of our lives, whether we admit it or not. If one has a Christian faith, then the expectation is that it would shine through in one’s work. There are so few people out there doing that and it makes Sufjan hugely important to me. I am reading a novel called Gilead that won the Pulitzer last year. Except for To Kill A Mockingbird, its the only significant novel written by a Christian which allows their faith to be apparent that I can find since The Last Temptation Of Christ, (which is heretical).

So the personal significance of Sufjan for me is that he is a fellow pilgrim who is letting me in on some of the things he is struggling with or loving as he makes his journey. The wider significance, (just one aspect of it, in fact) is that in a culture totally stripped of grace, and denuded of the “Yahweh principles” like forgiveness and sacrifice, Sufjan is singing Bible stories to 100s of people a night. None of them are about to drop to their knees and accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, but that does give me and them a shared language to discuss the Carpenter. If Sufjan had introduced the Transfiguration last night with a theological preamble, people would have been to varying degrees pissed off or turned off. The place for Sufjan to evangelise is the same place for me to evangelise- in the context of loving relationship. But hearing and loving and investing in songs like the Transfiguration is not eternally neutral. It allows people a glimpse at a shadow of something that is all around them.

Or maybe its a glimpse of that which is missing from inside them.

Regardless, the starting-point of Sufjan’s significance is that he is a Christian artist living his Christian faith out with authenticity in his creativity.

Neuro pointed out that for all I know he could be sleeping with a different girl in every city. She always ruins everything. Her and her damned addiction to reality.

Your Correspondent, Talking like this to hypnotise you

2 Responses to “Featuring Wycliffe Jean Doing A 25 Second Rap”

  1. stigmund says:

    I’ll never understand the logic behind shouting over an artist while he’s singing for you to tell him to sing something else. The tension was broken at one point when one gimp bellowed “Romulus!” and a guy at the back shouted “I’m here!!”

    Zoomy, Zoomy, Zoomy. Sufjan Stevens is just a pretty boy. I can’t believe you can’t see through him.

  2. […] While we’re on the subject of ridiculously good musical performances I’d like to join Zoomtard in singing Sufjan’s praises. He was stunning. I can’t describe it. All I’ll say is that while he was performing Majesty Snowbird I had my hands over my mouth, was laughing and had tears streaming down my face, purely because I could barely keep up/take in what was happening musically on stage. Unreal. […]