Sufjan Stevens

The Heavens Declare

The Heavens Declare

"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1). The heavens declare. The stars speak. They bear witness to the glory of God. But what do they say? Our gaze is naturally drawn upward. We are curious about what's up there. Beyond us. Both discoverable and undiscoverable. Our frontier longing beckons us to the telescope. To search the vast heavens. To know what we can know, but maybe moreso to know what we cannot know.

Suffering, Sufjan and "Saturday Art"

Suffering, Sufjan and "Saturday Art"

In the Christianity of my childhood, Easter Sunday was Cadbury eggs, brunch and celebratory church services full of rollicking hymns like “Up from the grave He arose.” In my adolescence and twenty-something years I became fond of celebrating Good Friday, a part of Easter weekend largely bypassed in my childhood. With its mournful tone and quieter focus on the cross, Good Friday was almost more compelling to my melancholy self than the joy of Easter.

Is Christianity Cool?

This is the title of chapter one of the book I am writing, and it’s the underlying question of the whole thing. I don’t expect to answer it definitively in the book, but it’s a question that begs to be explored, because it’s a question that is at least latently present in all the major movements and expressions of contemporary Christianity.

Incomprehensible Incarnation (Merry Christmas)

Incomprehensible Incarnation (Merry Christmas)

One of my favorite Christmas traditions has always been the Christmas Eve candlelight service. As a child I probably liked it most for the getting-to-light-a-candle aspect (who doesn’t like playing with fire and wax?), though even then I felt the mystical power of seeing one light pierce the darkness and gradually begin to spread throughout the congregation, illuminating and warming the church sanctuary. It was a marvel to behold, especially when—as “Silent Night” or “Oh Holy Night” echoed throughout the candlelit room—I began to fathom the symbolic significance of the whole activity. It was the image of a world-changing light that spread everywhere from one humble little plastic-cup-encased white wax candle. The Incarnation.

The Christian Hipster Revisited

Two years ago today, I published an article on Relevant entitled “A New Kind of Hipster.” The article (the title of which is a play on Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christian) definitely struck a chord—to this day I still meet people who read it, remember discussing it, etc. The article basically examined the phenomenon of “hip Christianity,” a reactionary movement (corollary to, but not the same as “the emerging church”) that has strived to paint Christianity as cool and Christians as hip. Relevant is probably the most visible manifestation of this trend.

In some instances, hip Christianity has been an organic phenomenon (that is, it hasn’t consciously striven to adopt some trend or characteristic of cool from the larger culture, but rather it has been a “first generation” cool that sets the trends of the larger culture). Examples might be Daniel Smith (of the band Danielson Famile) or Sufjan Stevens—totally original artists who have embodied a certain strand of “indie/arthouse” style and subsequently launched many other talented, original Christian artists. I also think of people like Shane Claiborne, who—in efforts to live the humble life among the poor and downtrodden, Mother Theresa-style—has inadvertently framed Christianity in a “radical,” “progressive,” cool light.

But the majority of Christian hipsterdom is self-consciously so. This includes people who believe that in order to make a difference or be significant in culture, one must have wicked style. This includes the churches that have candles everywhere and serve micro-brewed beer and cognac at potlucks. These are the Christians who emphasize how God is all over things like The Sopranos, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course, U2. These are the Christians who like to speak of Jesus as a hippie countercultural activist who was a Che-esque revolutionary, and who probably would have smoked pot and listened to Radiohead were he on earth today. Essentially, this is a Christianity that bends over backward to be incredibly cool.

And so, two years later, the question is still on my mind: Is Christianity Cool? In some ways it’s the leading question of our time, as evangelicals desperately try to keep their faith relevant in a rapidly changing culture. And most probably this question isn’t being explicitly asked, because to ask if something is cool automatically negates its coolness. Everyone who is or has ever been hip knows that coolness isn’t ever analyzed or spoken of in any way by those who possess it. Coolness is understood. It is mystery. It is contagious. And that last word is the key for many—especially those looking to sell something—seeking to tap into hip potential. Bridled cool is an economic cashcow. Translated to Christianity, cool is the currency whereby we must dispense the Gospel.

But what is cool? If I had to succinctly define this incredibly complicated word without use of synonyms, it might be something like this: Cool: An attribute that is attractive because it embodies the existential efforts to be supremely independent, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.

It is enormously interesting to me that we are so attracted and desirous of this thing called “cool,” but what is more intriguing to me is how exactly the search and adoption of coolness affects our lives. Is our longing to be fashionable, hip, stylish, and “ahead” of our peers benign? Or, if not, how does it affect our personhood (and, by extension, our Christianity) for good or ill?

The relative goodness or badness in the nature of “cool” is of utmost importance. Being stylish/trendy is certainly our society’s highest value, so the question we must ask as Christians is this: can we sustain integrity and substance in a world so driven by packaging? Must every work, every person, every message that seeks mass acceptance be form-fitted to the hieroglyphics of hip? Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity?

If it is true that our culture today is most effectively reached through the channels of cool, does this mean Christianity’s message must be styled as such? What does this look like, and are there any alternatives? How does the Christian navigate in this climate without reducing the faith to an easy-to-swallow, hip-friendly phenomenon? Is the church’s future helped or hindered by an assimilation to cultural whims and fads?

We can all agree that the ultimate purpose of the church on earth is, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “nothing else but to draw men into Christ.” But the challenging question is this: to what extent do we assume that men are drawn to Christ by the way in which He is presented to them? In other words, as the messengers of the gospel, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we adapt and package it for a specific context?

It is certainly appropriate that “packaging” is at the forefront of many church discussions today. In a world so obviously obsessed with style as a gateway to substance, we are right in viewing this as an important issue. But what are we losing when we start to sell Jesus as the ultimate in cool commodities?

As I noted at the beginning of this article, there are really two distinct categories of “hip” in today’s world: 1) The natural hip, and 2) The marketed hip. What I am speaking of above—about Christianity harnessing the horses of hip to help spread the message—is definitely the latter. If Christianity is naturally hip, then, well that’s a horse of a different color.

And that is the question we must wrestle with: is Christianity naturally cool? As in—are people attracted to it on it’s own accord? Or must it be cool in the marketed, presentation sense? Or perhaps there is a third option—a much more insidious, counter-cultural idea: perhaps Christianity is hopelessly un-hip; maybe even the anti-cool. What if it turns out that Christianity’s endurance comes from the fact that it has been and continues to be the antithesis and antidote to the intoxicating drive in our human nature for cool (for independence, for survival, for leadership, for hipness)?

What are Christian hipsters, then, except an unnatural, paradoxical embodiment of the faith?