Tag Archives: Sufjan Stevens

Suffering, Sufjan and “Saturday Art”

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In the Christianity of my childhood, Easter Sunday was Cadbury eggs, brunch and celebratory church services full of rollicking hymns like “Up from the grave He arose.” In my adolescence and twenty-something years I became fond of celebrating Good Friday, a part of Easter weekend largely bypassed in my childhood. With its mournful tone and quieter focus on the cross, Good Friday was almost more compelling to my melancholy self than the joy of Easter.

Yet for Christians, Friday and Sunday are equally crucial. The horror of death and the beauty of resurrection are both essential. The tension of Saturday, between death and life, loss and victory, suffering and healing, is where we live. We are mortal, decaying, sin-sick creatures. Yet our redemption is secure in the resurrected Christ; we will be made new.

Art is a gift that God gives us to help us cope with Saturday life. In Real Presences, Jewish literary critic George Steiner wrote about this “Saturday” approach to art: “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

In the face of the unspeakable horrors of Friday, “even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless,” wrote Steiner. But likewise “In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.”

The arts are fundamentally “Sabbatarian,” argues Steiner. “They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?”

Indeed, the arts are fundamentally about navigating the inherent restlessness of human existence–a grasping after shalom, equilibrium and peace in the midst of a chaotic, tortured and lamentable world.

For Christians who make art, the temptation is often to move too quickly to Sunday. Thomas Kinkade is the easiest example; but we see it as well in the predominantly cheerful genre of worship music and the notoriously saccharine positivity of evangelical-made movies (e.g. Fireproof, God’s Not Dead). Christian films do an injustice to the gospel when they present a kumbaya world where all believers are happy and life is a nicely wrapped package with a heavenly bow on top. Certainly hope is central and the resurrection is a paradigm-shifting lynchpin for those who follow Christ. But so is the cross. The humility, the pain, the shame and the struggle of Christ on the cross is not to be shunned or avoided by Christians; it’s to be embraced and imitated. And what a beautiful thing that is.

A Jesus who suffered is a Jesus we can know, because if we know anything in this world, it’s suffering.

I like how poet Christian Wiman describes his faith in My Bright Abyss:

“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? … He felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”

Jesus was not a powermonger who established a religion with a sword; he established it by being shamed on a cross. He was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The best Christian art is right there with Jesus.

“Lord, why? …Where were you? Who are we to you? Answer me.”  (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life)

“What did I do to deserve this? … How? God of Elijah. How?”  (Sufjan Stevens, “Drawn to the Blood”)

Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell is an album that embodies a Saturday aesthetic.

On one hand the album seems to be decidedly “Friday” oriented, fixated as it is on the death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, who died of cancer in 2012. Yet the album isn’t named only after Carrie. It is also about Lowell, Sufjan’s stepfather who become one of his most valued friends (these days Lowell runs Sufjan’s record label Asthmatic Kitty).

We see the tension of Saturday both in the album’s title and in its individual songs, which speak of Friday–death, blood, drugs, vampires, driving off a cliff–but give hints of Sunday in its pastoral reminiscences of childhood in Oregon and associated bursts of love, wonder and hope. In “Carrie and Lowell” Sufjan sings of a “season of hope (after the flood).” In “The Only Thing,” Sufjan suggests that God and faith (“signs and wonders… blind faith, God’s grace”) keep him going in the midst of despair. In “Fourth of July” a deathbed conversation between Sufjan and his mother focuses on the heavens: birds of various sorts, fireworks, stars, the moon.

There is a sense in the record that Sufjan, like Christian Wiman, resonates with the idea that in Christ, “God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.” In his song “John My Beloved” Sufjan identifies with the bittersweet emotions John (“the beloved disciple”) must have felt as his intimate friendship with Jesus mixed with the reality of being separated by death. Yet even as he seeks comfort in Christ (“Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me”) he also makes no claim that faith is the solution to all pain. The song “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is all about Friday, skeptical as it is that the “shadow of the cross” brings meaning to the previous song’s “shadow of me” musings.

And yet the album’s closing song ends with an eschatological nod to Sunday. “My Blue Bucket of Gold” uses the imagery of a fabled Oregon gold mine to channel the pain and longings of the album toward a search for something higher, something heavenly: “Search for things to extol… Lord, touch me with lightning.”

Oh that more of our art would hold Friday and Sunday in such elegant tension, helping us through the fog of this liminal, Saturday space; the heartache and hope of the “now and not yet.”

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Hipster Church Tour: Resurrection Presbyterian

Church Name: Resurrection Presbyterian

Location: Brooklyn, NY

Head Pastor: Vito Aiuto

Summary: Resurrection Presbyterian is a noteworthy hipster church for a number of reasons. Launched in 2004 as a plant of the Redeemer planting network, Resurrection is situated smack dab in the heart of worldwide hipster culture: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Not only that, but the church is pastored by Vito Aiuto, a full-blooded Christian hipster who is a reverend by day and indie musician by night. He and his wife Monique moonlight as The Welcome Wagon and released their Sufjan Stevens-produced debut album on Asthmatic Kitty in late 2008. The church itself bears many of the typical marks of a vibrant hipster Christian community: liturgy, pews, communion out of a common cup (with real port!), and a strongly infused mission-mindedness that includes local social justice work, HIV/AIDS ministry in Africa, and a leadership development/church-planting initiative known as the Brooklyn Church Project. I attended Resurrection on a steamy, stormy May evening in 2009.

Building: The church meets at St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Williamsburg. St. Paul’s meets in the morning, and Resurrection Presbyterian meets in the evenings. It’s a beautiful old building, with stained glass, organ, and dark wood pews. It’s a creaky, humid structure that fits well with the liturgy, read prayers and quirky renditions of ancient hymns that make up a typical Resurrection service.

Congregation: There were about 100 people in worship on the Sunday I attended (granted, it was Memorial Day weekend), and the crowd seemed to be mostly twentysomething singles and a few young families, with a smattering of older folks here and there. Naturally, there were a LOT of hipsters in attendance, with tattoos, scruffy beards and skinny jeans galore.

Music: The music reflects the style of The Welcome Wagon: pared down, acoustic, vintage, thoroughly hipster but totally reverent. On the day I attended, there appeared to be only two musicians in the worship ensemble—a woman who sang and man who alternated playing guitar, piano, and a number of other instruments. The worship songs were entirely old hymns, including “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” and “Fairest Lord Jesus.” There were also a number of purely instrumental songs—a tenor sax prelude, a jazzy ragtime-sounding piano solo during offertory and communion, etc. The music was quiet and worshipful and fit the building well. It was about the farthest thing you could get from your typical megachurch rock band or praise team.

Arts: Many artists and aesthetically-minded people attend the church, and the fact that the pastor is an acclaimed indie rock artist indicates that this is a congregation quite naturally and organically “artsy.”

Technology: Almost nill. There are no overhead projectors of any kind, and the music has no bells and whistles whatsoever. It’s a slap in the face to technophile churches everywhere.

Neighborhood: Williamsburg: the epicenter of hip. Though increasingly gentrified, the neighborhood still has its rough edges, ethnic diversity and pockets of poverty, which makes it even more appealing to hipsters. This area of Brooklyn—bordered by Greenpoint, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick—is packed with trendy bars, concert venues, vegan restaurants, record stores, vintage clothiers and used bookstores, especially along Bedford Avenue. The arts and indie music community in this area of New York is particularly strong, with new Pitchfork-heralded bands emerging seemingly weekly from the lofts and dingy flats of the Brooklyn scene.

Preaching: Vito Aiuto speaks mosts Sundays, though on the day I attended he was absent and associate pastor Chris Hildebrand spoke on the topic of Christ’s ascension (the last part of the “He is Risen Indeed! Stories of Resurrection Life” series). Hildebrand’s sermon, which incorporated quotes from N.T. Wright and references to Google Maps, focused on Christ’s kingly authority and the implications of the ascension on our lives—that Jesus calls us to both humility and hope. In subsequent weeks I also listened to sermons online that Vito preached on a Farmer’s market-inspired sermon series about the fruits of the spirit: “Organic, Local and Beautiful: Bearing the Fruits of God’s Spirit.” It was a fascinating series of sermons because it seemed entirely appropriate and directed toward the hipster Christian audience, and yet thoroughly Biblical as well.

Quote from pulpit: “We don’t want to be the man. We want to be as far away from that as possible. We know what we don’t want to be. But the question is: what do you want to give your life to? What will this church look like? We have a pretty good idea about what church we don’t want to belong to, but what kind of church are we going to be?” (5/31/09)

Quote from website: “A look at our liturgy—the pattern of our worship together—shows that worship begins with God’s gracious movement towards us: God calls us to worship; he tells us of the forgiveness of our sins; he speaks his word of comfort, rebuke, and encouragement; he feeds us at Holy Communion.”

Hipster Church Tour: Jacob’s Well

As part of the research for my book, I’ve been visiting churches all over the country over the past year—a tour of “America’s hippest churches,” you might say (though soon to expand to Europe as well). The goal is to gain a good bit of qualitative data on the subject I’m writing about, to understand firsthand how various church bodies are fitting in to this whole thing. I have stopped at dozens of churches in many states and talked with countless people, and every now and then on my blog I will describe in depth my various observations about these churches.

Keep in mind a few things: 1) I love Christians and have greatly enjoyed all the services I’ve visited. They are all genuinely worshiping God. 2) Calling these “hipster” churches does in no way elevate them above other churches nor does it denigrate them; It is not meant to be any sort of value judgment at all. “Hipster church” is simply a designation for a particular type of contemporary church that, above all classifying criteria, tends to attract large numbers of hipsters.

With that said, I’d like to start this series with Jacob’s Well—a church in Kansas City which exceptionally high hipster cred. Because I’m from Kansas City, I think it’s fitting to start this journey there.

Church Name: Jacob’s Well
Location: Kansas City, MO.
Head Pastor: Tim Keel

Summary: I’ve attended services at Jacob’s Well on three occasions, which is more than most of the churches I’ve visited (simply because I’m in Kansas City a lot). Jacob’s Well has been a fixture on the “emerging church” landscape since the early 00s, largely because pastor Tim Keel is on the board of directors for Emergent. It’s a church that feels totally new and fresh, but which upholds tradition and history and all things “vintage.” It’s a hipster church because it has a large, young hipster contingent in the audience, but also because it fits firmly within the hip tradition of usurping the establishment. As described by Christian Century, Jacob’s Well is “a rebuke to those churches that, in imitation of cutting-edge 1970s evangelicalism, deliberately strip themselves of historical symbols, creeds and practices in an effort to grow. [Jacob’s Well] is succeeding by moving in precisely the opposite direction.” For example, JW embraces things like read prayers, weekly communion (by intinction, and with the option of gluten-free bread!), and lectio divina. It’s all very mystery-minded and aesthetically pleasing.

Building: A formidable old Presbyterian structure from the 1930s, renovated but retaining many traditional and ancient elements like stained glass, pews, candles, and churchy vaulted ceilings. On one wall in the building you will see this quote from Stanley Hauerwas: “The work of Jesus was not a new set of ideals or principles for reforming or even revolutionizing society, but the establishment of a new community, a people that embodied forgiveness, sharing and self-sacrificing love in its rituals and discipline. In that sense, the visible church is not to be the bearer of Christ’s message, but to be the message.”

Congregation: Granted, I’ve only ever visited the evening (5:30pm) service, which probably skews especially young, but the JW congregation is remarkably youthful. There are some older people scattered throughout, but for the most part the crowd seemed college or twentysomething. Lots of guys with beards, girls with tattoos, and skinny jeans everywhere. Mix of yuppie-type hipsters and more organic, indie types. Not particularly high on the friendly-to-strangers scale, but twentysomethings rarely are. We all did hold hands for the last song, however, which was a cheerfully sung benediction.

Music: Led by worship pastor Mike Crawford, the Jacob’s Well band is youthful, loud, but worshipful. It seems less performance-oriented and more a facilitator of community singing, which is not to say that it isn’t good. It’s quality indie rock, and largely original. Crawford writes many of the songs himself, such as “Words to Build a Life On,” which features the lyric “Sing your freaking lungs out / Jesus Christ is King!” When they play the music of others, the JW band is more likely to do a Sufjan Stevens song during communion than any sort of “Jesus is my girlfriend” chorus. On one of the Sundays I visited, they played the Welcome Wagon version of the nineteenth century hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” mere weeks after the Welcome Wagon CD came out. Their style is a bit grungy, imperfect, and unpolished, in true hipster fashion. Slick, overproduced songs with crazy lighting and fog machines are nowhere to be found at Jacob’s Well.

Arts: Arts are huge at Jacob’s Well. There are frequent gallery shows displaying the art and photography of the congregation. During worship services, the congregation is encouraged to take one of the “community journals” to write doodles, art, prayer, thoughts, or poems, as they sit through the service.

Technology: Like most hipster churches, technology is important at Jacob’s Well, but not in an over-the-top way. They do encourage texting in questions or ideas, and the church has a large online presence (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc).

Neighborhood: The heavily hipster midtown Kansas City area—near Brookside and Westport. Lots of artists, bohemians, and Democrats in the area. Far from suburbia, which is important.

Preaching: One interesting thing about the preaching at Jacob’s Well is that the speaker preaches on the floor, at eye level—not elevated on stage or behind a pulpit—in a conversational style. The preacher invites comments and questions from the audience throughout the sermon, steering the sermon according to where the congregational conversation goes. On one of the Sundays I visited, the topic of the sermon was child sex abuse—a topic rarely discussed in church but which is a problem made all the worse because “we let dark places remain dark.”

Quote from pulpit: “We at Jacob’s Well are trying to move away from a belief-centered community to a practice-centered community.”

Quote from website: “Jacob’s Well doesn’t have a mission; it is mission.”

Are You a Christian Hipster?

As you know, I’m writing a book about Christian hipsters and “cool Christianity.” It’s coming along, but many people have asked me: what exactly is a Christian hipster? Am I one? Are you one?

Well, first of all: it’s just a funny label, and we all know that hipsters hate labels. So if you are still reading this post, eager to know what it all means, chances are you are not a Christian hipster. Or maybe you are, and you’re just intrigued by the whole thing (like I am!). In any case, the following is an excerpt from the last chapter I completed (Ch. 5: “Christian Hipsters Today”), and perhaps it will give you a bit of a better sense as to what Christian hipsters are all about…

Christian Hipster Likes and Dislikes (By No Means Exhaustive… Just a Sampling)

Things they don’t like:
Christian hipsters don’t like megachurches, altar calls, and door-to-door evangelism. They don’t really like John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart or youth pastors who talk too much about Braveheart. In general, they tend not to like Mel Gibson and have come to really dislike The Passion for being overly bloody and maybe a little sadistic. They don’t like people like Pat Robertson, who on The 700 Club famously said that America should “take Hugo Chavez out”; and they don’t particularly like The 700 Club either, except to make fun of it. They don’t like evangelical leaders who get too involved in politics, such as James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, who once said of terrorists that America should “blow them all away in the name of the Lord.” They don’t like TBN, PAX, or Joel Osteen. They do have a wry fondness for Benny Hinn, however.

Christian hipsters tend not to like contemporary Christian music (CCM), or Christian films (except ironically), or any non-book item sold at Family Christian Stores. They hate warehouse churches or churches with American flags on stage, or churches with any flag on stage, really. They prefer “Christ follower” to “Christian” and can’t stand the phrases “soul winning” or “non-denominational,” and they could do without weird and awkward evangelistic methods including (but not limited to): sock puppets, ventriloquism, mimes, sign language, “beach evangelism,” and modern dance. Surprisingly, they don’t really have that big of a problem with old school evangelists like Billy Graham and Billy Sunday and kind of love the really wild ones like Aimee Semple McPherson.

Things they like:
Christian hipsters like music, movies, and books that are well-respected by their respective artistic communities—Christian or not. They love books like Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. They tend to be fans of any number of the following authors: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, John Howard Yoder, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, Soren Kierkegaard, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robison, Chuck Klosterman, David Sedaris, or anything ancient and/or philosophically important.

Christian hipsters love thinking and acting Catholic, even if they are thoroughly Protestant. They love the Pope, liturgy, incense, lectio divina, Lent, and timeless phrases like “Thanks be to God” or “Peace of Christ be with you.” They enjoy Eastern Orthodox churches and mysterious iconography, and they love the elaborate cathedrals of Europe (even if they are too museum-like for hipster tastes). Christian hipsters also love taking communion with real Port, and they don’t mind common cups. They love poetry readings, worshipping with candles, and smoking pipes while talking about God. Some of them like smoking a lot of different things.

Christian hipsters love breaking the taboos that used to be taboo for Christians. They love piercings, dressing a little goth, getting lots of tattoos (the Christian Tattoo Association now lists more than 100 member shops), carrying flasks and smoking cloves. A lot of them love skateboarding and surfing, and many of them play in bands. They tend to get jobs working for churches, parachurch organizations, non-profits, or the government. They are, on the whole, a little more sincere and idealistic than their secular hipster counterparts.

Is Christianity Cool?

This is the title of chapter one of the book I am writing, and it’s the underlying question of the whole thing. I don’t expect to answer it definitively in the book, but it’s a question that begs to be explored, because it’s a question that is at least latently present in all the major movements and expressions of contemporary Christianity.

It’s a very complex question, to be sure. The book I am writing will treat it as such, and will not approach it in any sort of bifurcated, black-and-white manner. But that it is a complex question does not mean we should avoid talking about it and considering the very profound implications of the issues surrounding whatever answer we might give. Part of the problem in Christianity for the last several decades, I think, is that we’ve been unwilling to not only ask these questions but to wrestle seriously with them.

And so: Is Christianity Cool? In some ways it’s the leading question of our time, as evangelicals desperately try to keep their faith relevant in a rapidly changing culture. And most probably this question isn’t being explicitly asked, because to ask if something is cool automatically negates its coolness. Everyone who is or has ever been hip knows that coolness isn’t ever analyzed or spoken of in any way by those who possess it. Coolness is understood. It is mystery. It is contagious. And that last word is the key for many—especially those looking to sell something—seeking to tap into hip potential. Bridled cool is an economic cashcow. Translated to Christianity, cool is the currency whereby we must dispense the Gospel.

It is enormously interesting to me that we are so attracted and desirous of this thing called “cool,” but what is more intriguing to me is how exactly the search and adoption of coolness affects our lives. Is our longing to be fashionable, hip, stylish, and “ahead” of our peers benign? Or, if not, how does it affect our personhood (and, by extension, our Christianity) for good or ill?

The relative goodness or badness in the nature of “cool” is of utmost importance. Being stylish/trendy is certainly our society’s highest value, so the question we must ask as Christians is this: can we sustain integrity and substance in a world so driven by packaging? Must every work, every person, every message that seeks mass acceptance be form-fitted to the hieroglyphics of hip? Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity? If we assume that “cool” necessarily connotes the notion of being elite, privileged, and somehow better than the masses, how can we reconcile the idea of “cool” with the idea of Christianity, which seems to beckon us away from self-aggrandizement of any and all kind?

Many will answer that making the church “cool” is simply a means to an end—a utilitarian approach to spreading the Gospel in a world where cool is the most efficient conduit of communication and transaction. If it is true that our culture today is most effectively reached through the channels of cool, does this mean Christianity’s message must be styled as such? What does this look like, and are there any alternatives? How does the Christian navigate in this climate without reducing the faith to an easy-to-swallow, hip-friendly phenomenon? Is the church’s future helped or hindered by an assimilation to cultural whims and fads?

We can all agree that the ultimate purpose of the church on earth is, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “nothing else but to draw men into Christ.” But the challenging question is this: to what extent do we assume that men are drawn to Christ by the style in which He is presented to them? In other words, as the messengers of the gospel, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we jazz it up or package it in such a way that it is salient to the masses?

It is certainly appropriate that “packaging” is at the forefront of many church discussions today. In a world so obviously obsessed with style as a gateway to substance, we are right in viewing this as an important issue. But what are we losing when we start to sell Jesus as the ultimate in cool commodities?

Here’s another wrinkle: there are two very distinct categories of “hip” in today’s world: 1) The natural hip, and 2) The marketed hip. What I am speaking of above—about Christianity harnessing the horses of hip to help spread the message—is definitely the latter. When it’s about using cool to spread a message, it’s not naturally cool. Cool can never be authentic if it is a self-conscious activity (some might say, then, it is never authentic…).

But the majority of Christian hipsterdom is self-consciously so. This includes the churches that have candles everywhere and serve micro-brewed beer and cognac at potlucks to attract the rebellious young hipsters. These are the youth pastors who emphasize how God is all over things like The Sopranos, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course, U2. These are the Christians who like to speak of Jesus as a hippie countercultural activist who was a Che-esque revolutionary, and who probably would have smoked pot and listened to Radiohead were he on earth today. Essentially, this is a Christianity that bends over backward to be incredibly cool.

But in some instances, hip Christianity has been an organic phenomenon (that is, it hasn’t consciously striven to adopt some trend or characteristic of cool from the larger culture, but rather it has been a “first generation” cool that sets the trends of the larger culture and appears “cool” without really trying). Examples might be Daniel Smith (of the band Danielson Famile) or Sufjan Stevens—truly original artists who have embodied a certain strand of “indie/arthouse” style and subsequently launched many other talented, original Christian artists. I also think of people like Shane Claiborne, who—in efforts to live the humble life among the poor and downtrodden, Mother Theresa-style—has inadvertently framed Christianity in a “radical,” “progressive,” cool light.

Lest it sound like I am praising the Sufjans of the world and criticizing the, um, Toby Macs, let me just say: I’m not totally convinced that these “more authentic” Christian hipsters are substantively different than the inauthentic kind. At the end of the day, cool is cool—whether painstakingly strived for or halfway stumbled-upon.

And so there are many questions, many complexities. I haven’t got it all figured out. But I welcome your feedback.

I’m writing the book not to position myself as some sort of expert or to make some audacious claim about anything, but because I love Christianity and the church. I want to see her thrive, expand, and be all that she can be in the world. I want to see the cause of Christ advanced and nut muddled up. And this topic—the relationship of the church to the notion of “cool”—strikes me as a vitally important topic that needs to be addressed with tenderness, nuance, and–when appropriate–constructive rebuke. I hope to spark some necessary conversations, discourse, and soul-searching. And I don’t care if it’s all hopelessly uncool.