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Christians by Faith, not by Genre: Sufjan, Swithfoot, and the Nature of the Artist

February 12th, 2007 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I received a great many presents this Christmas. I almost felt guilty about this. But then my philosophical training saved the day. I began to think about the nature of giving gifts to celebrate Christmas and I could hear my Sunday-school teacher deliver s tidbit of that simple, yet profound wisdom little Christian children pick up in between goldfish snack breaks: "We give presents to each other to remember the greatest present of all: God's gift of His Son to mankind." Right. That made me think of the concept of grace. Then I realized that all the gifts abundantly bestowed upon me by spouse, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, grandparents, students, and others are images of grace in my life; human imitations of that Grace that has redeemed my nature and brought me into the glorious kingdom of heaven. (See Dr. Sanders here for a discussion of nature, grace, and glory.)

Two of these little graces in my life have flowered into big graces: CDs by Sufjan Stevens and Switchfoot.

On the face of it, these modern musicians have little in common: Sufjan's music is produced independently, Switchfoot now has a major label promoting them in Columbia; Sufjan plays banjo and about 18 other instruments in his folk rock style, Switchfoot offers consistent pop-rock; Sufjan is from the Midwest, Switchfoot consists of SoCal surfers.

Sufjan and Switchfoot, though, are both doing their best to fulfill their callings as human beings made in the image of God by making music as an expression of who they are in the form of a gift to others - in spite of their evangelical backgrounds.

Sufjan may be better at this as a pure artist. He allows his creativity almost no bounds. His Come on Feel the Illinoise album won best of the year according to NPR for its "freshness" and "ingenuity."

Where does such creativity come from? Dorothy Sayers argues that the poet is the man possessing a superior ability to express his experience. That is, his poetry, or creation or art, accurately and creatively represents to himself his experience, his life and events thereof. The best poets have the ability to delve into the depths of meaning in ordinary or extraordinary events in his life, and, since we are all men, by extension the meaning of our lives. Sayers goes on to argue that poetry is analogous to the Incarnation of Christ: as the poet enters into those places, experiences, or ideas that dwelt in darkness and brings them to light, it is as if the Son of God became flesh, walked among us and then glorified us.
Sufjan proves himself a poet of this variety in his album. He writes songs about a particular place - the state of Illinois - and his experiences there, either directly or indirectly through immersion in the art and legend of that state. He comes up with ridiculously creative ideas for his songs: track 1 draws a comparison between a UFO sighting and the Incarnation of Christ, in John Wayne Gacy, Jr. he compares his own sin to that of a serial killer, in Casmir Polaski Day he wistfully deals with death and redemption in his reflection on his girlfriend's departure from this world.

In an era of transnationalism, Stevens has bucked the trend, setting out on a bold project to record albums commemorating each of the 50 states in the next 50 years. If he keeps up the good work, we may very well find that he has surpassed even that poet-songwriter par excellance, Bob Dylan, moving beyond cyncism to reveal not just truth about America, but its beauty and goodness as well.

Switchfoot, though vastly different in pop culture measurement, shares with Sufjan the talent for exposing the corruption of our society and yet pointing to possibilities of goodness beyond it. A clear example of such an idea comes off their new album, Oh, Gravity, in the second track, American Dream. After decrying the American tendency to pursue material possessions above all, lead singer Jon Foreman belts out: "This is my American dream / to live and die for better things." This sentiment is picked up on in a few other memorable tracks on the album including 4:12, which asserts how nonsensical of an idea it is that we human beings are nothing more than material. In the clever Faust, Midas, and Myself, Switchfoot points to the fact that pursuit of wealth cannot create life. Rather, relationships are the heartbeat of our existence.

In this latest and most mature offering, Switchfoot reveals their self-awareness of the odd place they occupy. They urge the listener to take stock of their lives and reflect, quite a feat while blaring modern rock on the stereo! They urge a life of simplicity without an overwhelming drive to gain material possessions, yet the band clearly benefits from the purchase of their CD - in stores now! This tension perhaps became evident to the band in their song, Adding to the Noise, off the Beautiful Letdown album, and the theme continues in this one.

Despite the awkwardness of this position, Foreman and company seem to realize how powerful it can be for good. They have the ears of millions of youth as low-brow, highly promoted, pop-rock stars: and they present their audience the opportunity to glance another kind of life; a life lived fully and awake (cf. Awakening, perhaps the most passionate song on the album), aware of the triteness and emptiness of a self-focused life (cf. Amateur Lovers).

Sufjan and Switchfoot, by loving their patria-their homeland, yet with eternal perspective that exposes its failures and flaws, both create beautiful albums with profound cautions and insights that we would do well to take seriously. The poets are interpreting our experience to us. If we are to avoid ending up like the shallow characters in T.S. Eliot's play who "exist at a most continual impact of external events," we must follow our poets in recognizing what is bleak and ugly as well as what is rich and lovely and enrapture ourselves in the latter.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.