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Sufjan Stevens' Insight Not to Be Missed

A Lot Under the Bus

Author David Roark has published a well-written article about Sufjan Stevens vis-à-vis the "Christian Music" scene. Roark has located the turn from Christians-as-artists to "Christian artists" in the 1960s, with the Jesus Movement's evangelistic objectives and youth culture targeting. The bulk of the article is focused on the dichotomy between what artists like Sufjan are trying to do and what the "Christian Art" world is doing. I appreciate the article, but at the same time I've become weary of such blanket diagnoses that appear to file everything coming out of "the industry" as "bad" and "kitschy." I understand that the need for brevity and clarity in such forums drives the thinking to sharp distinctions, but for me its black-and-whiteness throws too much under the bus that doesn't need to be thrown there. Not all produced within the cubicled four walls of a fabled Nashville office needs to be so blanketly dismissed. Still, I don't want to discount the need for us to charitably make some of the observations that Roark is making.

The Easily-Missed Punchline

People who read the article will probably either take offense or cheer it on. The polarizing nature of its content might cause either party, though, to miss something VERY profound at its end. In many ways, what is said here is THE fundamental insight for Christians in the arts (and, in fact, humans everywhere doing anything):

 “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.”

Please, please don't miss this. Here we have bedrock theology packed into what feels like a simple response. Stevens is making a few distinctions worth chewing on. First, faith is less a part of our life and more like an alien living inside of us. Second, this faith "absolves" artists from having to "impose religious content" on what they do. This is profound.

Sufjan Probably Isn't Afraid of Modern Art

It reminds me very much of what made Dan Siedell's Who's Afraid of Modern Art? so unique among conversations about Christianity and the arts (please read my review here). It drills down deep, beyond the conversations about what is "appropriate" or "Christian." It finds that subterranean core that echoes up to the surface its cries to be justified.

Stevens and Siedell remind us that many of our attempts as Christians in making art are really an "embarrassing effort to gratify God." It is always the case that when we are attempting to justify ourselves before God, we end up instrumentalizing, rather than receiving, God's good gifts, whether they be people or art. Perhaps the reason why some Christian art feels so cheesy and kitschy is because we can see through its all too thin sheen, recognizing it as an instrument for something else. When art is so wholeheartedly used for religious purposes (i.e. evangelism or persuasion to a Christian worldview), it forces us to look through it and past it, rather than, as Siedell says, "receive" it. Instruments don't speak; they are used

The Gospel, though, tells us that all our instrumentalizing efforts can cease because God has been gratified. We no longer have to make such embarrassing efforts, extracting art's art-ness to construct a platform to serve our self-salvation projects. God, in Christ, has declared us justified. We don't need to use art to satisfy our evangelism quota so that God will like us. We're free to receive art as a gift, and we're freed to make art from its gifted nature. 

Sufjan's Unlikely Bedfellow

Stevens said, "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.” I find the freedom of this strikingly similar to how Siedell describes 17th century Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez:

Velázquez not only refused to solicit or accept commissions, but he also refused to paint the historical and religious subjects that featured heroes from classical and biblical literature and which traditionally established an artist's reputation.*

This anti-establishment spirit (the same one I sense in Stevens) doesn't seem to be for rebellion's sake (another veiled form of self-justification), but out of a freedom granted from outside oneself. Siedell notes that Velázquez didn't take his paintings too seriously, evidenced by his odd practice of cleaning his brush on the corners of the very canvases on which he painted. I see that same kind of playful spirit in a man who performs quirky folk arrangements on a banjo while wearing bird wings. Siedell asks then answers:

How could a human being so gifted care so little about his gift? Certainly, a human being whose identity is received as grace, whose relationship to God, the world, and himself was not defined by his work as an artist and the paintings he painted.*

Would to God that we could all do our art-making from this starting place. From here, art would be simultaneously free and (most deeply and profoundly) Christian. Indeed, Lord, have mercy.

*Dan Siedell, Who's Afraid of Modern Art (Eugene: Cascade, 2015), 80, 85.

Two Posts Not To Miss

So, I've been doing a lot more guest-posting, especially over at LIBERATE, but you'll also see me writing articles a few other places, like Reformed Worship and Doxology & Theology. For those that follow my blog, I wanted to make sure you didn't miss these articles.

A Review of Dan Siedell's
Who's Afraid of Modern Art

"Hearing Art Tell Me Who I Am"

First, and most importantly, I want to commend to my readership an unparalelled book that weaves together art and theology like nothing I've ever read. It exposes how the art world, like all of our other "worlds," is a place where human beings struggle for self-justification, identity, and meaning. It asks probing questions about the way Christians in particular have thought of modern art, and it does all of this through a thoroughly strong Reformational lens that I buy hook, line, and sinker. So, if you might be on the fence about obtaining the book, please go read my post and be convinced!


The Story Behind Our Title Track

"Why the Church Should Sing About Prostitution, Slavery, and Addiction"

Our modern confession hymn, "Come And Make Us Free," serves as the thematic crown jewel of our new album by that title. This song is full of many scriptural allusions and was written through the process of an honest, personal journey. It dives into the theology of sin, particularly as the Scriptures expose sin as prostitution/adultery, slavery, and addiction. 


Eminem the Theologian

I recently posted over at LIBERATE on Eminem's brilliant new album, The Marshall Mathers LP2. Art historian and cultural analyst at King's College, Dan Siedell, has encouraged me of late to more honestly listen to the way art deals with dark themes. And Andy Crouch, who spoke at this year's Liberate Conference, encouraged much of the same.

I was blown away by the artistry and poignancy of the first song on Eminem's album, and I quickly realized that it was a kind of umbrella to the themes explored throughout the rest of the record. I encourage you to go hear what I have to say!

Read the post HERE.


"Art Diagnoses Me" and Other Fabulous Thoughts

I recently watched this 45-minute lecture by my friend, Dan Siedell, and I found it challenging, compelling, and fresh. He gives a very different angle on how Christians think about art and its purpose(s). I don't hear others talking like this. It's vulnerable and autobiographical, but its points aren't just subjective musings.


  • What Dan describes as "art interpreting me" gets at art's prophetic role in our lives, causing us to question ourselves, analyze ourselves, as it forth-tells truths to us about us.
  • He graciously challenges the understanding of some of the seminal works on art that have influenced evangelicals


The work of art...makes a claim on the viewer: "You, whom I see; you, who stands before me; you must give an account." And I have felt that claim. Theologian Oswald Bayer simply but provocatively states: "We must be told who we are." A painting does something like that to me. It diagnoses me, tells me who I am and who I am not. And one of the ways it does that is to disclose the present moment. As sons and daughters of Cain, we live our lives as restless wanderers and enveloped in a fog of discontent. We find comfort in the past with our nostalgia or regret and in the future with our fears and ambitions. We reign as kings in what David Foster Wallace once called "our tiny, skull-sized kingdoms." The work of art jerks us out of that fog back into the present moment where I stand being looked at by another, spoken to by another, reminded by what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians: "What do you have that you did not first receive?" The painting, when I happen upon it at a museum, exists at that moment for me. I am the intended audience for that work, and it speaks to me. What do I hear? That is the challenge and opportunity of art criticism and theology.

One of the things that compels me most about this lecture is that it seeks to understand (especially modern) art from the motivation of love, first and foremost. I don't hear that preeminent motivation in the way other Christians sometimes speak of modern art. Also contained in this talk is some very important reflection on the how the law and the gospel play out in life, particularly through art. 

The lecture begins at about 4:30 and ends at 46:00, after which begins a time of Q & A.


How One Worship Pastor Prepares for a Performance of Handel's Messiah

This Friday, at Coral Ridge, choirs from our church and and school (Westminster Academy) will join some of South Florida's finest soloists, some of the best players from Miami's musical scene, and organist Chelsea Chen to perform what will no doubt be a stellar interpretation of G. F. Handel's Messiah. They will be conducted by Renee Costanzo, director of the choral program at Westminster Academy.

The longer I dabble in this field of "Worship & Arts," the clearer sense I get of the kinds of things that go into being uniquely called as a worship leader who functions in a pastoral manner. One of my most viral posts ever was my comparison of the difference between a "lead musician" and a "worship pastor."...and for good reason. New and rising worship leaders are hungry for a model that transcends the relatively thin and non-lasting allure of rock-star-dom (just ask my friend, Stephen Miller). 

Our church's preparation of Handel's Messiah has given me a chance to stretch my wings when it comes to be what some call an "Arts Pastor," and here are three things I have learned and am attempting to do to be pastorally engaged in this moment.

1. A Worship Pastor Can Be a Cheerleader for Artists

When our choir director and choir began preparing for Messiah this Summer, I wanted part of my role to be supporter and encourager. Throughout the journey, I tried to send texts and emails as well as offer words of encouragement to everyone involved. As any artist knows, the emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological labor and trauma that goes along with engaging, preparing, and presenting a piece of art is off the charts, and the last thing artists need is a whip-cracking dictator reminding them of deadlines and obligations. Part of my job was to attempt to be a pressure-valve operator, releasing angsty expanding gasses of stress with words of affirmation and encouragement. There have been moments along the journey where artists have been at near burn-out, and my job was at least in part to stand in the gap for them, help them solutionize creative ways to relieve their burdens, and even provide emergency-room-style moments of triage and respite.

2. A Worship Pastor Can Intercede for Artists and Encourage Them to Pray as Well

In quiet moments, when my thick skull was broken into by the Holy Spirit, I was reminded to pray for the artists involved and for the audience God would gather. It is so counter-intuitive to hard-working, do-more-try-harder, efficiency-addicted Americans like me to think that our chief work is the surprisingly passive activity of prayer. Yet releasing art-making and art-receiving into the hands of God is one of the most important things we can do.

At the same time, when we started on this journey, I reminded the choir that performing Handel's Messiah is oddly one of the most opportune moments to reach out to the city with the raw message of the gospel. When else would non-Christians voluntarily submit themselves to a barrage of musical meditations on pure Scriptural texts, hand-picked by the compiler to tell the story of Jesus throughout the whole Bible?  Then, as we were nearing the home stretch of the performance last week, I shot an email to the choir, again reminding them to pray. From personal experience, I know that it actually blesses the artists and the art-making when they themselves pray for all of that. Part of my job, when the artist is a Christian, is to remind them of this sacred joy of their art-making. It's a perennial problem for us artists that, in the frenzy and fervor of the process, we forget to pray and minimize its importance. The pastor in this moment graciously stands in that gap.

3. A Worship Pastor Can "Spiritually Curate" Artists' Work for Their Flock and City

Honestly, this has been the most exciting part of this process. I've chosen to do something for the performance which I think, though not unheard of, is quite unique. I've chosen to attempt to pastorally "curate," in a non-invasive kind of way, the experience of the art. It started, for me, with some research into Messiah--its context, origins, libretto, and composer--and then engaging in some consulting with people far more experienced than I am. Shortly after procuring Calvin Stapert's great book, Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People, I sat down for coffee and French pastries with two friends who live in this world of art- and theological-reflection far more than I--Dan Siedell, Art Historian and Residence at the King's College, NYC, and Jono Linebaugh, Professor of New Testament at Knox Seminary. My simple questions to them were along the lines of, "How do I make the listeners' experience of Messiah both purposeful for the mission of our church and honoring to the work of art?" Their insights were profound, yet simple. They encouraged me to not turn the experience into an intellectual and historical enterprise of "educating" the people about the piece. Instead, they advised me to do some simple things to help "aim" people's affections at both the intentions of Handel and his librettist (Charles Jennens) and our church's mission to "declare and demonstrate the liberating power of the gospel" so that the people would feel, through the art, the story of Jesus.

The fruit of this was to create simple "column notes" in our program which connected to various sections of the libretto, encouraging people with action verbs to "listen for," to "feel," to "hear," to "remember" various aspects of the piece's music as it connected with the text and their lives.  So, for example:


The repeated long notes followed by short notes were a Baroque device used to signify the pomp and splendor of a king. Hear His entrance, filled with glory and pain. The overture’s second half summons us to dance to its rhythms, giving a foretaste of the joy Christ will one day bring to His people.

CHORUS ("And He Shall Purify")

Following the ARIA, the CHORUS is relaxed in tempo and key. Hear how the “purification” is comforting, yet not without pain.

CHORUS ("Surely He Hath Borne")

Notice how the strings are rhythmic throughout the first section about our griefs and sorrows but contrastingly elongate with the voices in uncomfortable dissonances when the text speaks of His wounding and bruising. Pause over the injustice the Perfect One being punished for our imperfections.

The notes are meant to be simple, so that people don't tarry too long on them. They are a waymark, a pointer. They are intended to start people on the track so that they listen well with right intentions while not getting bogged down in "artistic analysis." In this way, I'm trying to "spiritually curate" the art. I have no doubt it could be better, but this is my broken attempt at being faithful to this call in this moment. 

The Hope in All of This

The hope in all of this is not for an "enhanced artistic experience." It is for people to do what I think the librettist and maybe Handel intended--to provoke awe at the story of the Baby for whom "nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you." It is to promote (in the language of James K. A. Smith) the aiming of our affections toward the ends humanity was created for--adoration of the Son, to the Father, by the Spirit.