Sufjan Stevens & The Quality Of “Christian” Art

A fortnight or so ago I read an article, entitled “How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music” written by David Rourke. As a person who loves Sufjan Steven’s music and has also done research into Christian Music, I found much of the article disagreeable. I had some trouble elucidating my problems with the main contentions early on, but I want to try and communicate them in long form now.

Rourke contends a number of things. He states that christian “art” hasn’t always been evangelical, pointing towards the Jesus Movement of the late 60’s as the beginning of a conscious divide between secular and christian music: “(Until then) There was certainly liturgical music—songs and praises created by and for the church—but besides Sunday morning hymns, there was simply music: some of it created by Christians, some of it not.”

Rourke describes Sufjan Stevens as an actively professing Christian whose songwriting “…transcends religious and spiritual subjects to tackle broader themes…Stevens sings about topics that matter to humans, regardless of their worldview.” He discusses Contemporary Christian Music, stemming from a movement (known as the “Jesus Movement”) which he feels “…didn’t anchor itself in artistic excellence or music that spoke to popular culture… (and instead viewed music) as a mere tool for evangelism, or as propaganda. Christians defaulted to writing songs that simply imitated those of the mainstream, yet with less talent and lower production values”, establishing a dichotomy with music produced by artists like Sufjan Stevens (Rourke also name drops U2, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash) that isn’t necessarily evangelical, but is influenced by spirituality.

To me, this is an egregious misrepresentation of the history behind the division between “secular” and “christian” music. With minimal research, I would suggest that the roots of this division are more likely to be found in slavery, perhaps in the use of double entendre in lyrics: “Unable to communicate openly in public spaces, slaves developed ways of sharing information that remained invisible to their white masters… ‘Wade In The Water,’ one of the most common slave songs and still a gospel standard, provided literal escape instructions for slaves pursued by bloodhounds.” One might then trace a path through the political allusions found in songs by Mahalia Jackson (“Move on Up A Little Higher”), the gospel / pop crossover music of Sam Cooke and the lyrically secular, musically gospel music (now referred to as R&B) recorded by Ray Charles 15 odd years before the beginning of the Jesus Movement. Such an argument would require far more in depth research, however cursory knowledge is enough to establish that Rourke’s narrative is reductive and neglects at least 50 years of American Black cultural history.

Another point which I feel is important to make regards Rourke’s contention’s about the quality of the Jesus Movement’s art itself:

“Trying to stay relevant amid a movement of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, they established an alternative to the popular music of the time, forming what came to be known as “Jesus Music”… Given these origins, it could be said that the whole movement was doomed from the onset. This new wave of Christians making music didn’t anchor itself in artistic excellence or music that spoke to popular culture; it viewed music—and art in general—as a mere tool for evangelism, or as propaganda. Christians defaulted to writing songs that simply imitated those of the mainstream, yet with less talent and lower production values…”

Generalising an entire movement is a dangerous move, and in this case, Rourke weakens his argument by refusing to give even an ounce of credibility to the artistic capabilities of performers operating within the Jesus Movement. I believe that Rourke’s opinion is flawed and that there can be some degree of objectivity in asserting that the quality of ‘Jesus Music’ does not consist entirely of pop culture imitation and evangelism. Larry Norman, name-checked by Rourke as a premier artist of the Jesus Movement, has been recognized by secular institutions such as the Grammy Awards for his musical influence, and the front-men of Pixies & Modest Mouse, Frank Black & Isaac Brock have both listed him as an influence. This makes for a strong argument against Rourke’s claim that “…over the last 50 years Christians haven’t appeared to make a footprint in the realm of popular culture.”

In fact, according to Jesus Music historian Bob Gersztyn, U2 (whom Rourke describes as possessing the kind of artistic integrity lacking in Jesus Music) were themselves the product of the Jesus Movement in Ireland (and don’t even get me started on the stylistic influence which U2 has had on modern Christian worship music.) Additionally, Bob Dylan – another of the artist’s Rourke describes as having “…cared more about writing good songs than converting the world through music.” was converted through the Vineyard Church – an offshoot of the Jesus Movement. While I realise these facts don’t explicitly disprove Rourke’s points about the quality of music produced, I feel it exemplifies the level of generalisation Rourke’s article makes towards the Jesus Movement as a whole, showing that he places artists in contrast with a movement partially responsible for their creation.

Rourke’s claim that those artists who did operate within the Jesus Movement were imitators of the mainstream “…with less talent and lower production values” only devalues what might have otherwise been a legitimate criticism of modern christian music. There are a plethora of christian artists who have strong claims to artistic credibility despite grounding their music in an evangelical mindset: Phil Keaggy is one of the greatest guitarists in both christian and secular guitar pantheon’s, revered by secular prog fans for his work in Glass Harp and is the subject of a rumour (he himself disputes) contending that Hendrix labelled him as the greatest guitarist he’d ever heard. As with many artists, his catalogue has ups and downs but many of his albums have an objective artistry about them. Mandolin enthusiast Mark Heard wrote some of the most lyrically poignant folk/rock songs about the the modern era including Nod Over Coffee, a song about the passage of time and the transience of humanity, & Satellite Sky, a song about an ever increasing sense of loneliness in the midst of humanities technological boom. Then there’s artists like Keith Green, whose lyrics in songs like Asleep In The Light speak of a conviction in the hypocrisy of modern christian living far greater than that which could constitute mere propaganda.

Rourke contends that Sufjan Stevens music is more authentic because it deals with “…topics that matter to humans, regardless of their worldview.” But I fail to see how that can be an accurate indictment on the artistry of those who have existed in contemporary christian music for the last 40 odd years. For many of these artists, they’re evangelising because that’s what they legitimately feel called to do – I would much rather them write songs with conviction than ignore any such a call in favour of writing from a perspective more relatable for secular audiences. Furthermore, it’s not as if christian artists of the era were the only ones using their music to further a cause they were passionate about. Much of the period’s music was marked by a distinct message, anti-war protest songs helped define the culture of the 60’s and 70’s. Perhaps it could be fair to argue that artists of compelling conviction have been under-represented by the mainstream christian record industry, but ultimately, that isn’t the argument Rourke is making. The one he does make, perhaps unintentionally, attacks the artistry and legitimacy of decades of christian music.

Rourke’s argument isn’t entirely flawed, however I feel that it attacks the wrong bases. There’s much to be said about the current lack of quality and diversity in christian music, in both the lyrical and musical sense. But sweeping generalisations about a large period of christian art is a poor way to go about it.

I very briefly want to end this by stating that I think those people who use Sufjan as a scale of quality in christian music are doing a disservice to Sufjan’s artistry itself. Stevens is a remarkable artist and those who decry the fact that there’s not more christian music which resembles his output need to remember that the same might be said of the secular music industry – artists of his conviction, talent and work ethic are incredibly rare (at least in the public sphere). In my opinion putting Sufjan into the category of “christian art with integrity” reduces Sufjan’s songwriting on the whole. Stevens once said “Art is … a reflection of a greater divine creation. There really is no separation.“ For him, art itself is evidence of divinity in creation… using Sufjan as a barometer for “good” or “bad” art seems to clash with the belief that it’s mere existence is beautiful.

  • What do you think about Rourke’s article? Does it devalue Sufjan’s music?
  • Does Sufjan’s songwriting represent christianity for you or does his music and spirituality sit separately?
  • What do you think about the christian music linked? Does it have artistic integrity?
  • What are your experiences with modern christian music? Why can it be so passé and bland?

 

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