By Carina Julig
Though he is not a ‘Christian musician,’ indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has built a cult following among Christian listeners, and his haunting music has a deeply religious quality.
Stevens’ ethereal songs frequently convey musings about faith, while at other times, he is directly talking to God. Religious imagery is especially prominent in his albums Seven Swans and Carrie and Lowell.
Seven Swans has songs about the transfiguration of Christ and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, pivotal experiences in the lives of both figures. Both songs deal with sacrifice:
‘Abraham, put off your son
Take instead the ram
Until Jesus comes’
Several songs later, “The Transfiguration” should be a joyous celebration of Christ’s arrival, but Sufjan points to the sorrow that is still to come:
‘The voice of God: the most beloved son
Consider what he says to you, consider what’s to come
the prophecy was put to death
Was put to death, and so will the son’
Over and over again, Stevens points the listener back to the truth that suffering will come into every human life—even the Son of God’s.
This theme continues in Carrie and Lowell, written about the death of Stevens’ mother. The album is a modern day lamentation; Stevens’ quiet voice cries out to God in mourning, seeking for an understanding of the pain that has entered his life. “God, of Elijah, how?” Steven’s asks in his song “Drawn to the Blood.”
‘For my prayer has always been love?
What did I do to deserve this?’
“I was recording songs as a means of grieving, making sense of it,” Stevens said of the album in an interview with the Guardian. “But the writing and recording wasn’t the salve I expected. I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness.”
The music grapples honestly with this darkness, not attempting to explain away death but simply to mourn it—a breach from some musicians who portray a prosperity gospel version of Christianity.
Not much is known about Steven’s personal life, but in a 2005 interview he said that he attends an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church. “I kind of admire it for being so traditional and sort of unchanging and unwavering in a lot of its doctrine, but also very sort of open and broad in its understanding of human nature,” he said of the church.
This Anglo-Catholic sensibility shines through in his music. Steven’s songs are rooted in a traditional faith and a strong sense of aesthetics but don’t shy away from exploring the whole range of human emotion. In his music, people feel joy, pain, and sorrow—sometimes all at once.
Listening to Stevens’ Christmas songs—of which there are dozens—is a unique experience. Advent is a season of expectation and Christmas one of joy, but Stevens carries the same sorrow-tinged beauty into this music. Melancholy Christmas music isn’t something Stevens’ invented—just listen to Coventry Carol—but he continues the trend. His rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is so quiet it’s almost pleading, begging to believe that the Christ child is truly on his way.
‘Star of terrifying effigies
when the night falls
I carry myself to the fortress
Of your glorious cost’
That’s what Christ’s birth represents: it is beautiful, but it is “terrifying” because of the change it represents for the world. And it is costly, because while Christ is still being born we already know how he must die.
Stevens’ most bizarre Christmas song is his rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a remixed, almost techno version of the original that carries on for nine minutes. The lyrics are the same, but it ends with a loop of the “do you feel what I feel?”
Ultimately, that’s what Stevens’ music makes us do: feel. His music pushes us past the saccharine and the hollow to feel the reality of a life of faith, with all its beauty and sorrow.
Carina Julig is a journalism and political science student at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studies the intersection of religion and politics. She is an editor at the CU Independent.