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.