Sometimes I wonder whether hipness and Christianity are inherently at odds. Early Christians were reviled as rebels and freaks, accused of burning an entire city—which is definitely punk. Now Christians are primarily seen as Ned Flanders types who go to AA for consuming one drink and burn popular books.
In college, I knew a lot of other kids who went to church after wild parties and read the Bible while dressed as pirates (in those innocent days when pirates were still novel to budding hipsters). Some were punk, some goth, some emo, some straight edge. I grew up on Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, and I was waiting for my own folk revolution. For me, the 2005 release of Come on Feel the Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens lit the path to being, at last, a genuinely cool Christian of the kind I hoped was possible—deep, quirky, and poetic.
Not every song on Illnoise is overtly religious, but most can be interpreted in light of faith. Two popular songs on the album, the gentle “Casimir Pulaski Day” and the dark “John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” deal with particularly relatable topics for Christian college students—respectively, the complexity of a God who allows very bad things to happen to young believers and the depth of our individual sins. For us, Sufjan had it all. He was bold and energetic, announcing he would tackle the monumental art project of making an album about each of the fifty states. He was a poet, he played a million instruments, he dealt heavily in irony (garbing himself and his backup singers in cheerleading uniforms and superhero outfits for shows), and he believed in the deity of Jesus.
Like every generation, we were trying to negotiate our own belief system. Of the Christian hipsters I knew in college, most ultimately rejected the faith. The rest of us were left to forge ahead, uneasily connecting the God we learned about as kids with the God we encountered as adults. No generation’s version of Christianity looks exactly like the one before it. As science and art progress, so do theology and worship. Our generation, though, had the particularly difficult job of negotiating the principles of an ancient faith with all the new stuff we learned from Google. As generations before us, we looked to artists to help show us the way.
Of the Christian artists who continue to inspire me in this process, some feel (to me) like cool great-aunts and uncles. They’re incredibly brilliant and visionary, but a bit hard to relate to. Evelyn Waugh is the cranky uncle who refuses to talk to you unless you turn off your phone. Flannery O’Connor is the sarcastic aunt who eviscerates your new boyfriend. Walker Percy is the tipsy uncle who stands in the corner, smirking and making morbid comments. Artists who speak to us can feel close as family. When I was in college, Sufjan was like my cool older brother who rarely came home from grad school, but who let me listen to the record collection he left behind. He gave me hope I too could become a hip Christian—someone kind, yet ironic and wise.
Sadly, as is usually the case, it wasn’t so easy. As Sufjan Stevens grew in celebrity, he was subject to the usual pressures. To succeed, he had been forced to cultivate his image—that of a talented artist who also had everything together. Then, slowly, the veneer cracked. His music changed, became sadder and much stranger. The fantastic Age of Adz, released in 2010, wasn’t folksy or sunny, and it offered no reverent worship breaks. Instead, it was a testament to deep suffering—mental, physical, and relational. Sufjan Stevens had serious health problems while writing these songs, and he’s admitted to struggling with addiction. Addiction, I thought? Sufjan Stevens, the good Christian boy? It was surprising, but also reassuring. In 2005, when he compared his sins to John Wayne Gacy’s, I appreciated the humility and loved the song, but I kind of rolled my eyes. Christians love to flagellate themselves over minor infractions. Now I got it. He wasn’t so squeaky clean after all.
For me, Age of Adz was a great post-breakup soundtrack. I somehow doubted that Sufjan and I were going through the exact same things, but as all good poets do, Sufjan obliquely translated his suffering so it could be mine, too. By this time, I was getting older, and so was he. The songs on Age of Adz are raw and vulnerable. You can’t listen to this album while drinking PBR and wearing a fake moustache. Of course, by 2010, the Christian hipsters I grew up with had traded in most of their ironic predilections for craft beer and tentative progressive politics.
In 2015, Sufjan Stevens released Carrie & Lowell, a widely praised album named after his mom and stepdad. In this album, he directly explored his most private pain. This was when I realized how different we really were. He didn’t grow up in the stodgy evangelical South like I did. His parents used drugs. His mom struggled deeply with mental illness. He had the roots to be a real hippie, unlike me. And he wasn’t trying so hard to be cool anymore.
The project of being a lifelong Christian hipster was always untenable. Life makes stodgy great-aunts and uncles out of us all. There’s no more pretending. New things frighten me! I worry about what the internet does to kids’ minds and morality. I’m becoming steadily more like Bea Arthur in both fashion and attitude.
Fortunately, I can still rebel against my husband’s taste in Christian music. He still rocks out to Rich Mullins and Jars of Clay sometimes, and I shake my head and hold my temples. And yet, when we met, we had one favorite musician in common. You guessed it! Sufjan Stevens. When Sufjan came to our neck of the woods in Northern Virginia in June 2016, we got good seats. As an adult, I hate going to concerts (the usual complaints—too loud, too much standing, why aren’t they playing the songs I know?), but that concert was pure joy. It took place in the midst of the election season, when we were all beginning to wake up to the deep divisions in our country. Sufjan played songs from every iteration of himself, and naturally, it brought back a flood of memories for me. He was still (to me) this quirky older brother figure, shining the way before me. The costumes, props, and staging were still artsy and edgy. When he played his old songs, I remembered how I felt as a college student, struggling to put together my identity. His new songs showed he was sadder and wiser. Multiple times throughout the concert, he stopped to say, “Peace to you, and peace to the world!” Like all effective litanies, this was simple but cutting, a statement that held a world of politics and art. After hearing the word “peace” enough times, I had to furtively swipe away a tear.
Perhaps it’s easier to love artists who are dead, because they can’t change on us. While artists live, we have to embrace their unceasing struggles as we do our own. Whatever artists speak most clearly to us in our striving, may they keep reminding us of the peace Christ promised—peace that transcends style, age, and even art.