Amen to Sufjan Stevens

"People see the term Christian attached to me and they think, 'OK, he must be fundamentalist Christian, and then he must be a Republican. Oh, then he must have voted for George Bush, so he must be a bigot.' It's just like one thing leads to another. I'm sure if I were to sit down with Jerry Falwell or anyone like that it would be very uncomfortable. Yet in theological terms, we worship the same God, and that's a very awkward kind of thing to reconcile with. The religious environment is a big problem, but I don't really know how to start talking about it."

-singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens

The American media’s current spirituality boom has been a long time coming. You had hints of urgent sex-ed back during the AIDS paranoia windfall; an impeachment's worth of disapproval for Clinton’s blowjob on the conservative moral high ground; a right-wing born-again Christian in the White House; the 9/11 Muslim Patriot Act-Guantanamo backlash; the rather disturbing news that Catholic priests were actually getting off on celibacy; Delay's Schiavo euthanasia debacle; and lo and behold, the subject of spirituality has been everywhere lately, with good reason. These are challenging times, full of god-forsaken mystery working in mysterious ways.

Just when I thought the hype was dying down, Newsweek ran out of "special issue" topics and hacked out a "Spirituality 2005" issue, which focuses on the different ways in which Americans practice their beliefs, more now than ever before - at least, that’s the current trend. I yawn and wait for it to pass, because it will. No matter what’s en vogue on the fashion or video game front, faith can't be trendified - as long as people are living and dying, spirituality will always be possible. But I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this moral high ground that’s emerging from the fundamentalist elitist camp needs to sink back down into overly judgmental obscurity, hopefully to the point where the mini-percentage of the world’s Muslims who are categorized as “extremist” will no longer give the entire religion a bad name.

As the floods are vacuumed out of New Orleans and survivors keep on surviving with the help of the donation drive downpour, I’m feeling a shifting sensation of public opinion addressing class-based issues, leaving the faith to the privacy of one’s psyche, where I believe it belongs. This evening on the commute back home I heard an NPR story about a town in Mississippi where everyone’s temporarily stripped of all worth, even the wealthiest downgraded from want to need. And in this survival of the fittest, the poorest folks are dominating leadership roles, helping the community through the crisis. If that’s not a reasonable argument for burning the Estate Tax repeal and, beginning with the areas hardest hit by Katrina, addressing this rich country’s widening income gap, both on a national and international scale, I don’t know what is. Wishful, wishful thinking, full of [pat on the head] “Oh, Delia, silly girl, that’s never gonna happen” wishes, I know, but wishful thinking is how a godless citizen like me exercises her spiritual impulses, and at times like these, America’s got to acknowledge and respect all things spiritual. This I believe.

Speaking of faith-based patriotism, can you feel the flags waving in the air yet? Look around; they’re everywhere. The forces of United We Stand symbolism are growing stronger as the 4th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, on a Sunday this year. It captivates me so, I’m powerless against my next subject, folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ latest state-o-union exploration album, Illinois.

As my ear is always to the obscure-to-commercial music criticism grindstone, Stevens has been on my radar for a long while, but nothing shot me to buying-the-album-level attention like this LA Times Magazine article from two Sundays ago. Titled, “The Soft Revolution” and written by the excellent Alec Hanely Bemis (believe me, I wouldn’t have gotten as far into the article as I did without his offhand insights), the article posed the thesis that today’s folk musicians are less concerned with drug-addled sex-n-protest anthems as they are with sober, introspective testaments of faith.

I was all but prepared to pin the article up on my wall and start throwing darts at Bemis’ persistent attempts to get Stevens to own up to his identity as a Bible-spitting, Graham-revering Christian in order to fulfill the prophecy of the article's golden thesis, but then I stopped and realized something: Stevens’ faith need not be politicized. At its conclusion, Bemis’ article ends up being all about how it's impossible to corner the dynamics of personal faith. Like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, who ebbed and flowed with the drug-faith tide, it’s never as simple as our stereotypes lead us to believe.

I can admit to being a little hypocritically suspicious of Stevens before reading about him in this article. Would he try and convert me? I’d heard the rumors that he was tight with JC – and I don’t buy a whole hell of a lot of “Christian Music.” If I wanted a sermon, I’d rock the nightclubby Southern Baptist parties Downtown every Sunday morning. My favorite God-evoking musicians don’t tell me what religion train to jump; however, they do provide impressions of faith, through subjective dynamics and undeniable personal impact, not necessarily adhering to one religion but respecting the listener’s capacity to believe for himself. I don’t care if Sufjan Stevens gets baptized every morning, eats a Last Supper every evening, and reenacts the Parables in his backyard; that's his business.

My business is with the music, and Illinois is a brilliant, beautifully produced album with an abundance of faith impressions, much closer in spirit to Bruce Springsteen’s character-driven Devils and Dust than anything on the current Christian Rock Radio hit list. And if old Sufjan can get me to believe that he will someday complete his “50 State Project” and record one album for each of the 50 States of the Union (Illinois is the second installment, after his home state of Michigan), his music is a more persuasive leap of faith than the Bible’s insistence that Jesus really could walk on water. Best of all – he’s publicly modest about his faith out of respect for his own privacy. Though Illinois is deeply personal (but so is the White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan), Stevens acknowledges his fans’ right to believe what they want to believe while still finding themselves, like me, inspired by this collection and looking forward to visiting Michigan and each of the 48 states to come, especially Oregon, New York, and California.

I could delve into the album itself, but it’s late, so I’ll just leave this as an open recommendation and heap some praise on my favorite songs:

1. “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” – This piano-and-flute piece draws you into Illinois via some strange formation in the sky. Eerily engaging, it sets the supernatural tone, because life may not be about the realism of what you see but, rather, the mystery of what you believe, full of hope and doubt, never ever absolute.

2. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” Want to listen to a somber ballad that somehow humanizes a legendary clowny serial killer? Think about it. This song ain’t uplifting, but call Stevens a hardcore fundamentalist Christian and I will sic the Coalition on you.

3. “Chicago” and “Casmir Pulaski Day” – These two songs are the twin masterpieces at the heart of Illinois. Played back-to-back, the transition effect improves both tracks, if that's possible. As the triumphantly unsure, aimless “Chicago” closes with Stevens repeating (George Bush’s most feared line), “I made a lot of mistakes” over and over, the death-meditating “Casmir Pulaski Day” takes over, with its soft acoustic guitar mingling with banjo, ripe with hopeful sadness and even more hopeful complication. The last verse reveals Stevens’ God as one that doesn’t just give, but also takes. Even a secular American citizen can see what this God has taketh in the past week. If I believe in anything, I believe in the power of private faith, in the most general sense of the word, be it secular, philosophical or deeply religious, from Mormon to Shaman, in the form of worship, laughter, song, or conversation, to give hope to the spirits suffering down there.

I thought I'd never say this, but...



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