Sunday, October 16, 2011

You Came to Take Us (All Things Go, All Things Go)

Yesterday, on the way home from the Cross Country Meet, I listened to one of my favorite artists, Sufjan Stevens. Since my bike ride to school is so short this year, I no longer listen to my iPod on the way to and from school. As a result, it had been months since I'd last listened to Sufjan. His style takes some getting used to--lots of banjo and a unmistakably indie feel (though folksier than most indie). However, once the music grows on you, it's pretty powerful. Sufjan is Christian, and I actually appreciate him way more than most Christian artists because he understands that all music can be an act of praise and worship to God and not every song needs to be a cliché love song to God in order to be an offering of worship and truth. Plus, Sufjan tackles the challenges of the Christian life as well: dealing with loss, dealing with doubt, dealing with sin.

Yesterday as I rode home, I listened to his cover of a few classic hymns: "Come Thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing", "Amazing Grace", "Holy, Holy, Holy". By the end, I had tears in my eyes as I was reminded of God's goodness and mercy in my life, a goodness and mercy that I discount far too easily especially during a busy week like the one I had.

After that, I listened to the seemingly more secular album "Come on and Feel the Illinoise" (part of Sufjan's ambitious 50 states project--in an interview 5 years ago, he'd expressed his desire to produce an album for each of the 50 states. With only Illinois and Michigan released currently, he's since said that he was joking about doing all 50). On the surface, "Illinoise" feels like a tribute to the state of Illinois and nothing more--references to major cities, industries, holidays and people who are from/have lived in the state. This is where Sufjan's talent really shines, however, as he uses a musical report on the state to point to greater truths about sin and redemption.

Consider the lyrics to his song "John Wayne Gacy", which tells of the life of the titular professional clown/serial killer who kidnapped and murdered a number of young men during the 70s. Although it strikes one as a haunting and somewhat creepy song at first, take a look at the words (particularly in the last few lines):

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swing-set hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took off all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

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

It would be so easy to revile someone like Gacy if tasked with writing a report on him (or including a song about his life on an album like this one). Stevens doesn't ignore Gacy's crime. In fact, the amount of detail he chooses to include makes this song somewhat uncomfortable--this is not a song that most people would start singing to themselves in public. Yet, Stevens reminds the listener of something terribly important in the end: he's no different and by extension, we, the listeners are no different. This echoes the truth of Romans 3:23: "...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." Sin is a matter of the heart rebelling against God and we've all done it--all rebelled. Maybe we aren't serial killers, but our hearts have rebelled all the same. We've got some nasty stuff under our floorboards when you start digging because all sin is nasty in God's eyes (we just tend to have a stronger visceral reaction to certain sins when others commit them. Perfectly natural, but not an excuse to justify, excuse or forget our own sin). Wow. I wonder how non-Christian listeners have been affected by this song? The lyrics never mention God (save for a shocked "Oh my God") or Jesus, and yet there's a lot of truth here.

Another great example of Sufjan's unique style shows up a few tracks later in "Casimir Pulaski Day". This song is not about Casimir Pulaski or the holiday attached to him save for the fact that the final moments of the song take place on Casimir Pulaski Day. Unlike many other songs on the album, this song directly mentions God, but it hearkens back to Psalms of lament and the anguished bewilderment of Job. The premise of the song is the singer reflecting on his relationship--from friendship to flirtation to romance--with his girlfriend, who has just died of cancer ("on the first of March, on the holiday"). Consider these words, the last few lines of the song after he tells of his girlfriend passing away, staring out the window of her hospital room:

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

Powerful stuff, and not your standard fare for Christian pop music. However, this addresses the anger that people (even Christians) feel in the face of loss and places it in the foreground. Being angry with God is part of the Christian life. Does it mean we're right when we're angry at God, or that we can blame God when troubles come? Not at all. However, it's best to acknowledge these feelings, to cry out when we're hurt than to try and suppress the feelings and pretend that they don't exist. With the juxtaposition between awe at "the glory that the Lord has made" and the frustration of "He takes and He takes and He takes", I can't help but be reminded of Job's cry in Job 1:21: "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised."

So, if you're looking for a new artist to listen to, looking for music that will make you think and will challenge you... I highly recommend Sufjan Stevens. This was what I needed to listen to on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and it definitely gave me occasion to think.

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