By Kati Heng
If only all Christian music carried the strength, the pure and raw musical finesse of its secular counterparts.
We’ve been searching for Christian artists who can make music that matches (or if we dream, even outdoes) the secular music of today, but the simple fact is artists like Kanye are still producing more crowd-pleasing and award-winning music than guys like Lecrae.
So when Sufjan Stevens, a Detroit-native and graduate of the Reformed Christian Hope College, hit the scene in the earlier 2000s, it seemed like we finally had someone to stand behind. Christians loved him for songs like 2004s “The Transfiguration” that explored the magic of Jesus’ meeting on the mountain with Moses and Elijah with lines like “Lost in the cloud, a voice: Lamb of God! We draw near!/ Lost in the cloud, a sign: Son of Man! Son of God!” Secular listeners loved him for his fragile vocals, favor of banjos over guitars and intricate woodwind harmonies. It seemed that for the first time since Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming” Christians finally had themselves an artist that could stand proud against any competition.
But since Steven’s latest release, “The Age of Adz,” he’s fallen out of favor with his once diehard Christian fanbase. The album, written during and released shortly after Stevens faced a battle with a mysterious illness that plagued his nervous system, deals with physical struggles, pain and features not a single song regarding the Lord. Not only did Stevens fail to mention God in the album, he cursed repeatedly, like in the bridge of his song “I Want To Be Well” that says “I’m not f***ing around” almost 20 times in a row.
The album also showed a new side of Stevens musically—instead of his common reliance on the banjo, the songs were mainly backed by electrically-created sounds, synthesizers and distortions.
The album received mixed reviews—Pitchfork gave the album a 8.4 rating, qualifying it as ‘Best New Music, while the Christian magazine Relevant gave Stevens a scalding review, directly asking him to “stop feeling you have to impress us with ‘innovation” and begging him to come back to his banjo-plucking roots.
Many of his fans didn’t know what to think. Was this his way of informally resigning from being the spokesperson of Christian music without even telling us? Was this just his ‘dark’ album, made during a time spent struggling with his faith?
Perhaps the better question is who are we putting our faith in—God, or the ‘coolness’ of Christian music?
Some fans are acting like Stevens has personally let Christian music down or walked away from his role as the hero of Nonsecular music, but the truth is the guy never called himself a Christian artist, not even in the beginning.
Do we need Stevens to be the redeemer of Christian music? That’s a lot of pressure to put on one guy who is human just like the rest of us.
Keep listening to Sufjan Stevens. Keep listening with an open, but a discerning ear, just as you should with every musician—Christian or not. Don’t take every word that Stevens said as Biblical truth, and at the same time, don’t take offense at every curse that comes from his mouth.
Learning to find the truth and the beauty in the lyrics and melodies of any song is a useful skill to carry in this fallen world in which Secular music far outshines the Christian. If hearing an f-word or listening to someone struggle in their faith causes you to fall in your own faith, you have larger issues to deal with than worrying about the state of Steven’s heart.
What do you think? Are there Christian artists you believe have the musical chops to rival secular artists?