Outside the Christian Artist Camp

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Charlie Bertsch discusses Sufjan Stevens:

Stevens sings as a Christian. At first, members of his audience brush this realization aside. They are among hipsters, after all. Most of the people in this room devote their Saturday and Sunday mornings to servicing hangovers, not attending services. If they do believe in a higher power, it is a belief locked deep inside them, like a memory of early childhood that only comes out when they are mad or frightened or stoned. But as the clues pile up—references to divinity, righteousness, Bible study, Emanuel—they become impossible to ignore.

That the impulse to look for hidden meanings should seem incompatible with Christian art is a sign, both of how far Fundamentalism has dumbed down the religion it claims to represent, and how much intellectuals’ defensive response to Fundamentalism has left them deaf to the spiritual traditions it distorts and suppresses. If Stevens does have an agenda, aside from making beautiful and moving art, it may be to wake his audience up to the dangers in that brand of mutual ignorance. Interviewed last summer by the Internet music site Pitchfork, he addressed the resistance that many people feel to the religious content of his work.

“I think an enlightened person is capable, on some level, of making the distinction between the institution of the culture and the culture itself. The institution of Christianity, the way that it’s set up, it’s institutionalized and commodified, and anytime that happens, anytime it’s incorporated, it leads to disaster.” He notes, “I have the same knee-jerk reaction to that kind of culture. Maybe I’m a little more empathetic to it because we have similar fundamental beliefs. But culturally and aesthetically, some of it is really embarrassing.”

The real power of Stevens’s work, particularly in a live setting, is to take this embarrassment and turn it on its head, leaving the hipsters in his audience embarrassed at their own discomfort with religious conviction. In the process, he reveals their desire to remain non-committal as a reflex that retards both thinking and feeling. Commit to the music and you just may learn to commit to the spirituality that motivates it. It would surely be a lot more rewarding than
sleeping off hipster hangovers.

http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/tik0511/bertsch Charlie Bertsch(cbertsch@comcast.net) is an assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona, where he specializes in twentieth century American prose, cultural studies, and the history of aesthetics. He also teaches film.

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