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The Minister of Aesthetics

But in a Christian music market that rewards mediocre musicians just because they convey familiar ideas about Jesus, true Christian art — art that explores, tries to open new windows on a divine vastness that remains opaque to most of us — is a rare commodity. As worship scholar PaulWestermeyer The Asthmatic Kitty Records staff roster lists Sufjan Stevens as the “Minister recently wrote, “The church’s estabof Aesthetics,” and I have to wonder lishments are often nervous about musicwhether it’s a tongue-in-cheek salute to making and musicians. The reason is millions of fans who count him among because music and musicians have to those rare artists whose music doubles do with a kind of remembering that both as Christian ministry and as some- will not fit categories that can be easily thing notably beautiful. Writing in The controlled.” Art can be dangerous, which explains Other Journal a few years back, Seattle musician John Totten told of a friend why the church has sometimes rejected who introduced Stevens as a “Christian bands like U2 and Over the Rhine for the doubt and carnality that humanize artist who is actually good.” “The madness of this claim motivated their music. In Stevens’ case, he uses lofty, high-minded string, brass, woodwind, and me to buy the album,” Totten wrote. Now, I can appreciate this sentiment; vocal arrangements or emotively played it has been better than a decade since I folk and rock instruments to convey some got excited that Third Day sounded like of the most distasteful experiences of Hootie and the Blowfish on one album human existence. Take his song “John Wayne Gacy and Pearl Jam on the next, or that Jars of Clay was getting radio airplay. I share Jr.” for example. He coaxes tension, the widespread belief that the CCM dynamics, and energy out of a spare folk ending up on evangelical teens’ iPods arrangement of acoustic guitar and piano. arrives there because it rips off whatever mainstream music is popular at the time, wrapping rote Christianese in contemporary packaging. Seeking something deeper, I find spiritual sustenance in the music of U2 and Over the Rhine, songs that puzzle over Jesus as much as they praise him, or even Death Cab for Cutie, with their curious tales of heaven and hell, soul and body. Enough with the disclaimer.Why all of this matters in a column about Sufjan Stevens is that this guy has managed both to articulate a clear gospel message in a manner that doesn’t seem trite and to make music as brilliantly beautiful as anything on the new century’s pop landscape — and, in fact, to combine those two godly goals in the same songs. If I were talking about Bach 300 years ago, that would be a pretty ho-hum statement. PRISM 2 0 1 0


The guitar’s steady bass line rises and falls in volume, like an ocean wave that lifts you off the sand and threatens to drown you all at the same time.The high guitar arpeggio mimics a person running — which is what I want to do: run toward the source of this music and run away, all at the same time.You see, John Wayne Gacy was a serial killer in Illinois, the Midwestern state whose stories fill Stevens’ signature 2005 album, Come on, Feel the Illinoise. Stevens and background singer Shara Worden deliver his lyrics in soaring harmonies: “Look underneath the house there, find the few living things rotting fast in their sleep, oh the dead, 27 people, even more.” Random, sometimes dissonant piano notes grow more frantic and then fall silent as their voices climb in desperate prayer, his in a clear, throbbing falsetto he holds longer than most pop singers can. “They were boys, with their cars, summer jobs, oh my God.” The song is a factual account, almost journalism as poetry. “He took off all their clothes for them. He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth.” While I’m torn between the beauty of the music and the savagery of the images, Stevens hits me with the moral of his fable, the truth that suddenly has a name and a face: “In my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floor boards, for the secrets I have hid.” The song ends in a low, rumbling piano chord, the tension resolved; Stevens’ mea culpa is the last word. Herein lies his lyrical evangelism: revealing the dignity — dare I say, the divine image — in our weaker brothers, or at least the depravity we all share. Greetings from Michigan (2003) includes songs with these titles: “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)”; “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti”; “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon).” In a Doors-like rock arrangement, “The Upper Peninsula” tells a working-class

Denny Renshaw

Jesse James DeConto

story of Payless Shoes, unemployment, and a broken home, with Megan Smith singing an octave above Stevens, perhaps because the narrator’s estranged lover suffers just like him: “I’ve no idea what’s right sometimes. I lost my mind. I lost my life. I lost my job. I lost my wife.” The finale, an angry, confused, unfettered electric guitar solo, expresses the loss of stability, the lack of control. I’d like to think Stevens’ giving voice to the least of these, those blessed ones from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, is the thing that has endeared him to Christians these past several years. But I suspect it has been those songs that sound more like straightforward worship, those loaded onto 2004’s Seven Swans and 2006’s Songs for Christmas and sprin-

kled into Michigan. I fear they may be disappointed going forward, as Illinoise moved away from the biblical and toward concrete stories of UFOs, wasp stings, and road trips. The artist’s latest recording was a soundtrack to accompany documentary footage of the BrooklynQueens Expressway in New York— arranged not as an album of songs but more like an orchestral symphony. He recently told Paste magazine that the highly focused endeavor had “sabotaged” his creativity, causing him to dismiss the four-minute pop song and 40-minute record as remnants of a vinyl era. “I no longer have faith in the song,” he said. And, in fact, he hasn’t released a new one since 2006. It seems Stevens the artist has expelled

Ain’t I a Human? continued from page 38.

Stevens the minister, if ever he had given much thought on how to deliver the gospel to an audience needing to hear it. People do still like to listen to songs, even if their length and packaging are arbitrary. A minister would give them what they understand as a means of giving them what they need. But as an artist, Sufjan Stevens has stumbled onto a truth he needs to explore, much as he has always done; the past results were probably the outcome of who he is rather than any purposeful religious calling. Let’s hope his creativity survives the latest journey. We need a Minister of Aesthetics now more than ever. Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician living in Durham, N.C.

were heads of state, and women comprised only 8 percent of cabinet ministers.The majority of the 1.5 billion people living on $1 or less per day are women, moreover, and on average, women earn slightly more than 50 percent of what men earn worldwide.21 Poverty is not measured only in terms of monetary income. Poverty must be measured in lack of basic human rights, including safety from violence and exploitation, availability of food, housing, health, education, work, and access to the benefits of social progress — the things whose absence can indeed make prostitution seem like a tool for survival. A cruel illusion. Most people who turn tricks view it as a “temporary” thing, but “temporary” lasts forever — spiritually and psychologically — when you’re identified as a toilet or a hamburger. Ain’t we humans, too? n

and even death, can ever be seen as a rational solution. This is the crux of the issue, that these two things, “possible death” and “rational solution” are not mutually exclusive. I submit that this crucial paradox is key to reconciling current either/ or debates about prostitution. Prostitution involves a both/ and — not an either/or — dilemma. Hence proposed policy changes must equally and simultaneously address both the overwhelming violence of prostitution and the overwhelming need that drives women into the grinding jaws of the sex industry in the first place. In other words, dismantling the institution of prostitution involves much more than de-legitimizing the sex industry itself. Perhaps more challenging than implementing legal reform is the task of changing women’s sociopolitical realities — poverty, lack of equal education and work opportunities as well as equal political input, attitudinal changes about women’s roles. Further, we must dismantle the massive use of female sexuality as a major marketing tool. Art instructors who teach drawing tell us that you can get a better representation of an object if you concentrate on the spaces around that object, not the object itself. Similarly, I suggest we can’t understand prostitution by looking only at the problem itself; we must also study the sociopolitical space around it. At present, nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterates are women; during the first part of 2000, only nine women

B. Julie Johnson ( experienced, as an adult, prostitution on a full-time basis for a year and a half; she remained in the industry intermittently for another four years. Her story refutes claims that “sex work” for adults is harmless if women “get centered.” Johnson has a master’s in public health and a PhD in literature. She has taught and lectured at various colleges; worked for non-profits in animal advocacy; and consults as a prostitution expert with teachers, legislators, and nonprofit directors.   (Editor’s note: Due to space limitations, the endnotes for this article have been posted at

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The Minister of Aesthetics  

Music Notes March 2010