How Sufjan Stevens Subverts the Stigma of Christian Music

The genre has had a bad reputation since the 1960s, but the singer-songwriter succeeds by focusing on aesthetics over evangelism.

In a 2003 episode of South Park, Eric Cartman sets out on a quest to make a platinum record, and decides the easiest route will be to start a Christian band. It’s pretty simple, after all. Just take a bunch of popular songs and copy them, but don’t forget to mention God a few times. Cartman does exactly that: He becomes famous by singing a number of mainstream ballads, inserting “Jesus” in place of “you”—only to discover that with the Christian music industry you can’t actually “go platinum,” you can only “go myrrh.”

While clearly an exaggeration, like almost everything on South Park, the episode underscores a stigma still surrounding Christian music 12 years later. The general consensus is that, when it comes to music, Christians tend to make, “devotional artifice” and “didactic crap," at least in the words of the singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, whose newest album Carrie & Lowell comes out March 31.

Stevens, both a Christian and musician, nevertheless stands in stark contrast to those in this category. Representing a different camp of “Christian art,” with completely different motives and characteristics, he's distinct among other artists of faith, who tend to produce bad, kitschy work—whether heavy-handed films like Facing the Giants and Fireproof, or the musical travesties on the Wow compilation albums. Instead of dealing directly with religious or biblical matters, Stevens’ music embodies what theologian Francis Schaeffer called the “totality of life,” as opposed some sort of “self-conscious evangelism"—an approach that turns the whole Christian-music stigma on its head.

Music created by Christians—and other forms of art for that matter—hasn’t always been met with sighs and sneers. In the bigger scheme of history, today’s disdain is a fairly recent phenomenon—an anomaly, even. For centuries, Christians dominated the arts and shaped culture, from Michelangelo and Van Gogh to Bach and Beethoven to Tolkien and Eliot. It wasn’t until the 20th century that a shift took place, specifically in the area of music.

The concept of “Christian music” emerged in America during the mid-century. Up until then, a divide between the sacred and the secular hadn’t yet affected the musical endeavors of Christians. 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.

That all changed in the wake of the “Jesus Movement.” In the 60s and 70s, when evangelicals set their sights on a subculture of twentysomethings, church leaders—particularly Paul Wohlegemuth, who went on to author an influential book called Rethinking Church Music—felt pressure to change in order to reach these “flower children.” 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” and, eventually, Christian contemporary music (or CCM, for short, if you were cool and grew up in the church). Some of the earliest “Christian artists" included people such as Larry Norman and Mylon LeFevre, who sought to blend gospel music with contemporary rock.

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, and more than a little Jesus name-dropping thrown in the mix. It’s part of the reason why Gregory Thornbury, president of the King’s College in New York City, noted that, “Christianity is the greatest of all nouns but the lamest of all adjectives.”

As a result, over the last 50 years Christians haven’t appeared to make a footprint in the realm of popular culture, specifically as it relates to explicitly “Christian music.” On the surface, they seem to have done the very opposite of what the leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright espouses for believers: “to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology ... a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity."

This isn't a complete picture. While many believers have been busy copying the latest radio hit (transforming Taylor Swift songs into trite melodies about Jesus instead of ex-boyfriends) others have been taking a different approach altogether. Even since the days of “Jesus music,” artists such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, who were also professed Christians, have gone another route. They didn’t see music as just a means to an end, or a way of evangelizing to young people. Instead, they focused on telling compelling stories and creating aesthetically pleasing music, while still expressing themselves personally and spiritually. It’s not as if they separated their faith from their work—on the contrary, Christian themes and ideas are woven throughout their lyrics. It’s more that their endeavors were simpler: They cared more about writing good songs than converting the world through music.

The same can be said for one of the most renowned bands of this generation: U2. As the writer Joshua Rothman noted in a 2014 story in The New Yorker, “Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band. Actually, they’re a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band.” Formed in the late 70s, the Irish rockers—led by the devoutly religious Bono—shaped music as we know it. Yet, even though most of the band are believers, U2’s success has had little effect on the perception of music made by Christians and the apparent influence of the religion on popular culture.

These bands only function as a small sample size of the many others with similar approaches that have existed over the years. Music groups that proclaim Christ have dominated the hardcore and hard-rock music scenes in recent years, from the likes of Underoath to Norma Jean to Thrice. But in the last decade especially, there seems to be a greater influx of Christians making music this way, including Sufjan Stevens.

Stevens doesn’t hide his beliefs when it comes to the lyrics he writes: from the overt Bible stories in Seven Swans to the theodicy that is “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which tells the story of a young girl who dies from cancer. Yet the gist of Stevens’ work transcends religious and spiritual subjects to tackle broader themes. Asthmatic Kitty Records, the label Stevens created, notes that The Age of Adz, his latest non-Christmas album before Carrie and Lowell, explores themes of “love, sex, death, disease, illness, anxiety, and suicide.” In other words, Stevens sings about topics that matter to humans, regardless of their worldview.

Stevens intentionally keeps his distance from the label of “Christian artist”—as if the adjective even made sense in the first place—and the likes of CCM. “Christian music (as a genre) exists exclusively within the few insulated floors (cubicles and computers included) of some corporate construction in Nashville, Tenn. Otherwise, there’s no such thing as Christian music,” Stevens told the music blog DOA in an interview.

For the musician, the gospel doesn’t just play some small, personal role in life and culture; it infiltrates and restores all of life and culture. It addresses the entire human experience, or “the totality of life” as Schaeffer described it. Stevens’ music also doesn’t alienate listeners of different beliefs. His work may seem less spiritual than that of others, given its seeming focus on “secular” rather than “sacred” things, but it actually proves more accessible to the wider world than that of contemporary Christian music—an irony given the evangelical intentions of these artists.

“Logistically I suppose my process of making art is driven less by abstractions of faith or politics and more by practical theory: composition and balance and color,” said Stevens. “It’s not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being. This absolves me from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do.”

Maybe in spite of the stigma, the historical presence and significance of Christians making music doesn't have to decline in perpetuity. It’s not so much that faith is missing from culture as much as it is living and breathing within it—and the success of artists like Stevens demonstrates how music that incorporates religious themes can thrive, while inspiring even the most secular of audiences.