If the point of these statements is to get our attention, then it worked.
The statements were attributed to Sufjan Stevens in an article written by David Roark in the Atlantic: How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music.
They got my attention, but they struck a sour note with me.
Sufjan Stevens claims to be informed by his Christian faith. I am not here to judge him, though he seems to have no problem judging others. Implicit in the statements is more than an opinion about art: he implies deceptive motive. “Artifice” meaning a ruse, trick, pretense, lie, slight of hand, play…. Ploy for what?
I suppose I should not be overly critical of Stevens. His words, though razor sharp, may have been taken out of context. The sentiment that the writer seems to capture, however, I have heard before, and the writer exploits it: “Christian music” is a joke; it is not art; it is sold like elixir from a hawker’s cart at a garish carnival; it is a sellout to …. What exactly?
The subtitle of the article is this: “The genre has had a bad reputation since the 1960s [sic], but the singer-songwriter succeeds by focusing on aesthetics over evangelism.” The real point of the article is that somehow, amazingly, by virtue of being a “real” artist, Sufjan Stevens has succeeded, in spite of being “Christian”, while most others have miserably failed. Sufjan Steves, apparently, is to be praised for not selling his artistry out.
Not selling out to who? The article pretty accurately points out that popular culture is not buying it. The people attempting to enter through the narrow gate are the people buying Christian music. The people taking the broad, wide path are not interested.
The “devotional artifice” is not a golden cow. The author even acknowledges that with his South Park allusion. If money is the object, there are better avenues. The same is true for fame, though being a big fish in a small pond does have some advantages. Still, the broad, wide path is a much more lucrative field.
If success means getting noticed by popular culture, then Christian music is certainly failing – the devotional artifice is not working. But, what if that were not the point?
Is success being true to one’s artistic vision? The author holds Stevens up as a golden example of one who has not compromised his artistic vision to be used as a “mere tool of evangelism, or as propaganda.” So, the sellout is to God? To the Gospel?
The author uses examples from the 1960’s and 1970’s, like Larry Norman, who was a rock and roller who “got saved” and started playing the same music with Christian lyrics. Yes, that was the Jesus People Movement, but that was a long time ago. The author has pretty obviously not researched his subject very well.
The proof that Christian music is “bad” is that it has not made a “footprint in the realm of popular culture”. If popular culture is the measure of good, he is right. (Do you see a theme here?) He probably does not realize that his criticism might be taken as a compliment, a confirmation of success.
For many a Christian artist, to be accepted by popular culture and rejected by the Church would be failure indeed. It all depends on who is the intended audience. Most of the “Christian artists” are making music for the Church. If they are making music their audience wants to hear, are they not successful? That “didactic crap” motivates, inspires and uplifts many people. That is why many Christian musicians call what they do a “music ministry”.
I would not expect someone who has not been touched by the Spirit of the Living God to understand that. For many people, it would matter little how good the music is; they could not get past the message. The point of “Christian music” is really the message after all. I can understand why a music lover who is not a God lover would have little interest in Christian music.
I am not judging Sufjan Stevens, though he oddly seems to be judging brothers and sisters who express the same faith (albeit a bit more boldly and directly). I am not sure why he “doesn’t get it”. The audience he seems to have chosen are those who seem to value art first (at least that is what I infer from his comments and the article). That being the case, I am not sure at all why he would measure music meant for a different audience by the same standard. It seems obvious to me that “Christian artists” differ in that respect. Their art is meant for a different purpose.
Art for art’s sake is a popular notion. It is not a notion informed by Christian faith. I would call that idolatry. That does not mean that music or other forms of art cannot be or should not be beautiful, but beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. The “heavy-handed” message of Christian artists that the author of the article finds “bad” is often not seen as beautiful by popular culture. For some, however, it is a beautiful daily reminder of salvation, God’s goodness and glory and hope.
The author laments the divide between faith and art that he does not see in centuries past. I do not think faith has moved. Popular culture has moved, and the art with it.The author’s observation that “today’s disdain [for Christian art] is a fairly recent phenomenon” is certainly an accurate statement, but that should not motivate faith to move with the popular culture anymore than tropical bird should fly to the arctic because other birds are going that way.
The author suggests that faith should be more stealthy, but I am reminded of Jesus’s words that we are to be cities on a hill. We are not to hide our light (faith) under bushel. When faith is obvious, many will reject it. In fact, most will. Popular culture is tolerant of faith as long as we keep faith to ourselves. That sentiment informs this article.
Meanwhile, Stevens feels absolved “from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do” by focusing on the art which he believes his faith inhabits. I wonder where worship fits into that worldview. “Religious content” is not something to be imposed, though it is often perceived that way. I suppose it is either embraced or it feels like an imposition. Naturally, where it is seems like an imposition, the person feeling imposed upon will simply move on. And, so it seems to me, is the reaction of popular culture to “Christian Music” – but the reaction really has little to do with art.
I do not, personally, like “popular”, kitschy music that seems to draw the masses like some pied piper. What the author calls kitschy (Christian music) is much preferred to me than what I hear on popular music stations. I appreciate Christian music for what it is and listen to it to be uplifted, edified (as “we” say) and even to worship God through it.
I do like music, many forms of music, both “secular”and “Christian”. I tend off the beaten path. I genuinely love the blues. I have spent several years digging deeply into Indie music and retracing steps from decades ago and going down rabbit trails I did not explore the first time through. I still like what some people would call, apparently with a sneer, “Christian music”; but then, I embrace the message, and it resonates in me.