Thursday, September 22, 2005

One of indie rock’s fastest-rising stars is following a trail blazed by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. His name is Sufjan Stevens (pronounced Soof-yawn). He writes songs about a God with precise features; God is big, and a little scary, and man is, pardon the blasphemy, evil.

Music about the God worshipped by John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther is not exactly standard fare for indie rock fans. But Mr. Stevens’ latest record, “Come On and Feel the Illinoise,” his fifth album since 2000, is one of the best received indie rock albums of the year. His beautiful music has defied description, while his ambitious goal to write an album about each of the 50 U.S. states (Illinois was preceded by Michigan) has provoked amusement.

But Mr. Stevens does not want to talk about his faith. He refused an interview with Christianity Today magazine and has even, at times, rejected the label of Christian. The question is, is he a cowardly Christian, or is he a savvy evangelist?

“I’m not a theologian,” the 30-year-old singer-songwriter said during a phone interview. “I’m uncomfortable speaking about sacred things in a public forum like a newspaper because it’s all misunderstood. I try to keep these things to personal relationships.”

He writes songs about Jesus appearing to his disciples with his “clothes aflame,” or about Abraham preparing to sacrifice his only son as a sacrifice for sins, but he clams up when asked about it.

“I’m sure if I were to sit down with Jerry Falwell or anyone like that it would be very uncomfortable,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Yet in theological terms, we worship the same God, and that’s a very awkward kind of thing to reconcile with. The religious environment is a big problem, but I don’t really know how to start talking about it.”

The question is, why does he care so much about being misunderstood, or as he put it, “pigeonholed”? Is it because he doesn’t want to be personally attacked or because he wants to be able to sing creative, moving, sometimes oblique songs about God to those who wouldn’t normally listen?

Is his concern for himself or for his message?

Mr. Stevens’ elusiveness about his faith brings to mind the advice of the famed Christian writer, intellectual and apologist, C.S. Lewis, who died in 1963.

About 40 years ago, Mr. Lewis wrote an essay called “Christian Apologetics,” in which he said, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent.

“Our business,” wrote Mr. Lewis, “is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age.”

Mr. Lewis was advocating subtlety in a Christian’s presentation of his faith. But make no mistake, his point was evangelistic. He was aware that Christianity teaches things that offend human pride and that it makes serious claims on its followers.

Mr. Lewis advocated making art that was permeated by a Christian outlook but soft on overt Christian teachings.

Stories were Mr. Lewis’ way of sneaking God in the back door.

Mr. Lewis’ seven-part series, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” chock-full of Christian allegory and metaphor, has continued to sell briskly since it was published in the 1950s. Disney’s film version, which is expected to be a blockbuster, will open in theaters in December.

Mr. Stevens told one interviewer about his music, “My only goal is to extend myself — instrumentally, thematically, theoretically — until I come across something exciting, something otherworldly, making the most joyful noise possible.”

Contrast that with a typical lyric from one of indie rock’s long established top acts, Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes): “And the world’s got me dizzy again, you’d think after 22 years I’d be used to the spin, and it only feels worse when I stay in one place, so I’m always pacing around or walking away.”

Mr. Stevens’ music is often soaked in the same brooding desperation felt in Bright Eyes or Radiohead tunes. Yet Mr. Stevens is distinctly different for one reason — his music is rooted in postmodern angst but takes the listener outside that angst to look beyond themselves.

Mr. Stevens has rejected a focus on the world inside himself and writes instead about a world around him that is alive with divinity.

Some wish he would go further. David Crowder, one of the edgier Christian musicians writing praise and worship albums, said he thinks that Mr. Stevens has declined to explain his songs because he is “probably trying to gain distance between himself and the visible Christian culture.”

Mr. Crowder, whose new album “A Collision,” will be released on Tuesday, said that many younger people perceive Christians in the media as being “more about dogma than about dialogue.”

However, said Mr. Crowder, 32, “I don’t necessarily agree with Sufjan’s elusiveness, simply because of the platform he’s been given and because I can tell he’s a really intellectual fella who could articulate our faith in a beautiful way.”

Mr. Stevens moved to New York city several years ago. It is possible he has been intimidated by the shrill shouts of those on the far left who have constructed a straw man and called it theocracy. If Mr. Stevens is a true evangelical, it is hard to believe that he would stay quiet forever.

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