Monday, 23 June 2008

Theology with Sufjan Stevens: heaven in ordinary

At the moment I’m absolutely infatuated with the music of Sufjan Stevens. Commentators have often talked about Stevens’ creativity as a musician and composer; but he’s also an extraordinary lyricist. Many of his best songs are ballads, stories that relate, with simple poignancy, the everyday dramas of friendship, love and family life. And it’s here that Stevens’ poetic gift really lies: the ability to evoke, with just a few words, the tragic and beautiful ambiguities of personal relationships. Take for example the opening lines of his song about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr:

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed


We are brought immediately into a relation of startling intimacy to this troubled child who would become a killer. Or take the delicate opening line of “Flint (for the Unemployed and Underpaid)” – “It’s the same outside” – a line that subtly evokes all the sadness and disappointment of a life that has not gone according to plan, a life stripped of hope and promise.

Or, again, take “Romulus”, a song about children growing up with their grandfather, unloved by their own mother. When their mother moves interstate, Stevens sings:

She moved away quite far
Our grandpa bought us a new VCR


In my opinion, this couplet is one of Stevens’ most perfect accomplishments. The contrast between the mother’s neglect and the grandfather’s tenderness is almost unbearable. The grandfather’s simple gesture – so understated, so gentle in its helplessness – evokes the man’s whole character in just a few words, capturing perfectly the shape of his relationships to the grandchildren and to his uncaring daughter. With these lines, the grandfather immediately becomes the truest and noblest of all the many colourful characters who people Sufjan Stevens’ albums.

Together with this gift for evoking human relationships, we must add Stevens’ exquisite sense of place: with a single phrase, he can capture the precise atmosphere of a place, its peculiar flavour and character. Take for example the lines from “Holland”:

Sleeping on Lake Michigan
Factories and marching bands


Or the description of a road trip in “Chicago”:

I drove to New York
In a van, with my friend
We slept in parking lots


Such descriptions of people and places are like the brush-strokes of an accomplished artist: just a few strokes, deceptively simple, and everything comes to life. The most mundane and unexceptional things – a roadside parking lot, a video player – become full of life and colour and beauty. In a word, they become glorious. The English poet George Herbert has spoken of “heaven in ordinary” – and I think this could also serve as a fitting summary of Sufjan Stevens’ poetic vision.

In particular, the evocation of the beauty of the everyday is characteristic of the religious dimension of Stevens’ songs. Let me focus here on one of his most remarkable songs, “Casimir Pulaski Day”. It’s worth quoting the lyrics in full (but you should really listen to it):

Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning, through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulderblade
I could see what you were reading

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael’s house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

All the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I found the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of you mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window

All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes


The story is plain enough: an adolescent boy loves a girl with cancer; she dies; years later, he finds a card which reminds him of her, and he is again brokenhearted. But throughout the song, there is a peculiar chorus: “All the glory that the Lord has made.” In the first place, it seems strange to speak of God’s glory in a song like this, where God’s own role appears to be a purely passive one. God is distinguished in this story precisely by his absence and inactivity: they pray for healing, but nothing happens; when the girl finally dies, even the cardinal strikes out in confusion and frustration. The God of this song is a God who does not intervene – and yet each moment, each memory, remains charged with God’s glory.

Indeed, as the song progresses we realise that the speaker’s relation to God is marked by a deep ambivalence. What kind of God is this, who lights up even our losses and griefs with beauty? What God is this, who shines on us even in the hour of death, so that our most painful trials are achingly transfigured? When the adolescent boy sees the girl dead, he is struck even then by her beauty, by the light and shade of the scene:

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing


And turning from the girl’s face, he looks out the window – only to be confronted by the face of God:

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window


Here is God’s glory, lighting up the world, transfiguring an ordinary day into a “holiday” (literally “holy day”). Here is God’s glory even in the midst of death and abandonment. It is indeed a “complication.” In this song, God is not the opiate that makes it easier to cope with death and loss. Death becomes more “complicated” when God is there.

But we’d be misunderstanding the song if we imagined it to be depicting some cold, unfeeling deity who stands at an impassive distance from our pain. On the contrary, we are confronted with the true paradox of God in the final verse. God is the one who displayed his glory “when He took our place” in Jesus Christ, entering into our deepest griefs from within. And yet this same God is now encountered as the one who “took my shoulders and He shook my face / And He takes and He takes and He takes.” The same God who took our place now takes life away. He is there with us in death, and we encounter his presence both as a weight of “glory” and as an unbearable wound.

This is an extraordinarily vivid depiction of grief and loss and memory. But it’s also – and above all – a remarkably hopeful song, full of light and beauty and the freshness of morning air. If there is confusion here – “the complications you could do without” – then even this confusion itself is finally taken up into the light and shade of God’s overcoming glory. The God encountered in grief and loss is the God who has already gone ahead of us, already taken our place in Jesus Christ. And so this God gathers up all things into glory: even in the hour of death, it is his face that turns towards us in the radiance of glory, and in the beauty of grace.

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