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.


Anonymous said...

Hey Ben,

Great post. I've been a fan of Sufjan for a long time. He most definitely creates a sort of 'structure of feeling' for me in some ways.

If you haven't heard them yet, I suggest getting his album "Seven Swans." His Christmas album is also brilliant.

- rob

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. Sufjan is truly a great lyricist (and theologian)and he is so prolific. Great analysis of some of his best songs, thanks.

Alex said...

I also recommend Seven Swans. I would say it's the most explicitly Christian of his albums. I saw him in concert over a year ago here in Atlanta and the picture you posted with him wearing the wings might actually be of that concert, which happened to be his biggest to date at the time. The most haunting line from Seven Swans goes:

He will take you if you run. Because he is the Lord.

ole amund said...

Thank you for a wonderful post on a wonderful singer and songwriter. The beauty of the Sufjan's music is immediate enough, but your post was helpful and inspirational for getting deeper into the (often theologically) charged lyrics.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post, Ben! Sufjan Stevens is a great poet in the right sense of the word.


Renée Anne Bouffard-McManus said...

Thank you, thank you for posting such a great write up about Sufjan Stevens, especially about his song "Casimir Pulaski Day". It is one of my very favorite songs and you have so well expressed it's meaning (better than I ever could). It's truly a beautiful song. I have posted a link to your blog on my facebook and will link it to my blog too. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Sufjan is a favorite of mine, I started listening to him right around the time I discovered Derek Webb and Bob Dylan. All three of these song writers have helped keep me somewhat sane.

If you want to listen to somebody else who is an excellent lyricist I highly recommend mewithoutYou, Aaron Weiss is one of the strangest people on the planet.

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks for this post, Ben. Sufjan is a wonderful artist, and I'm grateful for having seen him twice in concert. Most recently, I met and spoke with him in person when he came down to Princeton. He's such a shy and soft spoken guy. I eagerly await his next album -- it can't come soon enough!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

Some of what's been written on your blog about suffering seems to discourage people from offering or accepting any answers to the question 'Why did God allow this?' I can understand that: any answer feels like a betrayal. My problem is, not offering an answer also feels like a betrayal.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben. I've long been a fan of Sufjan and the theological themes of his music. Your reflections on my wife's favorite song are excellent.

I can hardly listen to the last line of John Wayne Gacy, Jr. without feeling conviction:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

Joanna said...

Yes - thanks, Ben - Sufjan is just amazing. Nothing gets more airtime on my iPod!

Anonymous said...

I am blessed to listen to a heart like yours.

And it is a gift to know that there might be listeners who take the songwriter's art so seriously.

Erin said...

Great post - I love his music and I really appreciate your unpacking of some of his lyrics.

David Williamson said...

What a wonderful appreciation of Sufjan's song! Definitely the best analysis of his work I've read so far.

Anonymous said...

I am a grandfather-father-singer-songwriter-(pastor--shh)-lover of God and lover of people but one who has been bruised and wounded by all.

I love the cyber-community I've found here around the young thoughtful Aussie's posts.

Thanks to all for the encouragement I receive to 'keep on keeping on' in these posts and commentary.

Anonymous said...

Great post. You illuminated what I continually find in his work - depth through simplicity.

I also concur with a few folks above - Seven Swans is his most theological and overtly Christian work. And the Christmas album is a must!

AF. Baker said...

Thanks for this analysis of the lyrics of Sufjan! I am such a huge fan! My favorite album of his is Michigan (although I have them all), and I listen to Sufjan's music all the time! Last week I caught my 5 year old singing the horn part of one of Sufjan's songs from Michigan. I was very proud!

I have recently gotten into the music of Danielson Famile. This is a band that Sufan has played with. Sufjan was a big part of Danielson: a Famile Movie, which is available on DVD. This is a band that like Sufjan plays music that is alternative/indie/folk, and is very strong in their Christian faith.

I think Sufjan is a genius!

Christopher said...


Ted M. Gossard said...

Beautiful thoughts, Ben. Full of hope and reality at the same time. Good for us to hear and think on.

Just a wonderful gift that musician has with words, and I appreciate what you say here as well. Helpful and important for us.

Anonymous said...

This was a beautiful post Ben. I don't have anything to add, but you're a great writer and I appreciate your efforts on this post in particular and the entire blog.

Anonymous said...

When he says "and the cardinal hits the window" he's talking about a bird hitting the window, not a Catholic Cardinal. Also, he refers to it as a "holiday" because it WAS a holiday - it was Casimir Pulaski Day (hence the name of the song).

Anonymous said...

I'm a listener who takes songwriter's arts seriously. Sufjan Stevens is definitely a great songwriter and a singer! This post has helped me a lot, it's wonderful. Thank You!=)

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