What We Can Learn From Sufjan Stevens About Sacred Music

This post was originally featured on Sacred Music at Notre Dame's blog Music and the Sacred.

Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.

 - From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, 1761

So read the front of the program for a Sufjan Stevens concert I attended last week in Buffalo, NY; I had no idea what to expect upon arriving at the venue (ticketless, I might add). This program contained the lyrics to several popular Christmas songs from the sacred to the secular. Some examples included: Silent Night, Joy to the World, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman.

Being a regular fan and listener of Sufjan's music, I had known for a while about his upcoming Christmas tour/concert, but hadn't thought far enough in advance to buy myself a ticket. So finally, the semester ended, we packed our little family in the car and drove back to Buffalo to spend some time with extended family before Christmas. It was a very cold Tuesday night, and, being my hard-headed self, I decided that there was nothing that would keep me from getting into this concert. After getting denied by the people at Will Call, I did finally manage to snag a ticket and make my way in, only to be completely knocked on my behind by what transpired over the next several hours.

Sufjan’s tour, ironically dubbed “The Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice” was on its last legs with only three or four nights of shows left. This title turned out to quite aptly describe the show's production, with songs ranging from “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” sung in four-part a cappella harmony, to “Christmas Unicorn”, during which Sufjan donned a balloon animal costume rigged with lights, jumped on top of the piano, and sang verses such as this one:

Oh I am a pagan heresy
I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy with a lazy eye
And a penchant for sublime

This strange dichotomy informed the whole concert, with moments that moved from the sublimely beautiful and meditative to the outright ridiculous. The format switched back and forth between a more participatory style with familiar carols, to songs that were more aimed at featuring the band. Now these anecdotes are well and good, but maybe you’re asking what all this has to do with a blog about Sacred Music?...This is the interesting thing: only in Post-Modern America will you find a gathering of over a thousand hipsters (I’m assuming many of whom are not regular churchgoers) in an old remodeled and repurposed Methodist Church, singing songs about the Incarnation of Christ in the context of this seemingly borderline absurdist artistic presentation...here lies the genius of Sufjan Stevens.

The most interesting and relevant thing is that this concert addressed a lot of the hot topics in the debates about church music. Questions of evangelization, participation, the lifting of heart and mind to God, etc. were all addressed in his presentation, albeit in quite a different form than in a worship service. With thanks to Prof. Kim Belcher for helping us develop new skills from her class on Ritual Studies, I could look at this concert with one foot in and one foot out.


Both in the sense that Christians think of, and in a commercially beneficial sense to himself, Sufjan Stevens has addressed the issue of evangelization. I'm not really sure if Sufjan is a practicing Christian or not, but the very act of presenting and singing these songs, (many of which contain the seeds of deep theological mysteries), without doubt has the effect of drawing one to face the questions about the Christian Faith. He has also effectively drawn a fan-base that is okay with his singing about whatever he likes. Is it not staggering to think that a contemporary popular music artist, who most certainly has gained the appeal of counter-cultural movements, would be staging a month-long national tour singing the songs of Christmas with a major emphasis on the sacred Christian aspect of this holiday?


This aspect is somewhat self-evident from what I've already said, but as mentioned above, when entering the venue, every person was handed a program that contained the lyrics to popular Christmas songs. In the middle of the show, they opened the back curtains to reveal an extremely elaborately drawn wheel with titles of Christmas songs. They spun the wheel (Price is Right style), and when it landed, the band led the whole audience in the singing of the song. I recall feeling completely satisfied and comfortable with joyfully singing my heart out because of the environment Sufjan created with this concert. I think he is really on to something with his balance of music for listening and contemplating and music for participating (much of which filled the entire space with the voices of the concert attendees).

Lifting Heart and Mind

There were several instances throughout the concert that seemed like they were crafted to draw the listener to an introspective state, almost of self-examination. This was achieved by the artist's willingness to enter that place himself, and lead the audience somewhere similar. This was extremely powerful and these moments throughout were penetratingly beautiful, nearly bringing tears to my eyes.

In light of all this, what can we learn from Sufjan? I think that with excellent musicianship and a creative and fresh presentation, he shows us that our music can penetrate the ears of the most unsuspecting listeners whether it be in a concert or a Mass. Not only this, he shows us that it's possible to encourage listeners to feel good about actively participating even in situations where it was completely unexpected. Sufjan has proved that his artistic aesthetic will subvert many preconceived notions about what genre or style a listener might pigeonhole his music as, and because of this, is able to achieve the communicative goals that he has set to accomplish for himself as a musician.

J.J. Wright is currently pursuing his Master's of Sacred Music at the University of Notre Dame and expects to graduate in 2014. You can visit his website here: jjwrightmusic.com.