Curse Your Branches and The Age of Adz and the Borders of Religion

A friend posted an interesting article on Facebook where Sufjan Stevens talked about his faith as openly as he has in quite some time, and after I was done reading that, I started to think and read articles about David Bazan's last album, Curse Your Branches, which is a really brilliant and mildly angry album that I read as being primarily about losing faith. Then I went for a run, and now I think I'll write a post about Sufjan's commentary on faith and Bazan's, and why they resonate.

For a quick intro if you aren't familiar, Sufjan is a great musician who just released a new album called The Age of Adz, and who sings this song:

He's apparently an Episcopalian convert, and every once in a while he sings about spiritual themes so a lot of people brand him as a 'Christian musician'.

David Bazan used to be a legit 'Christian musician', in that he was signed to a Christian record label with his band Pedro the Lion and toured lots of Christian music festivals and had a bunch of teenage Christian youth group fans, such as myself, back in the day. He was always a little 'edgy', and had a significant following outside of 'Christian circles', but he also had hymns and bluntly religious songs on his albums. He was an Evangelical Protestant, well connected in those circles in Seattle and across the US, but started to move towards giving up his faith a few years ago (which the article I linked above ties to a scenario at a Christian music festival where Bazan showed up trashed and went on stage with a milk jug full of vodka). He sings this song:

I love the music that both of these guys write because I resonate with the spirituality behind their work, but in different ways - their stories are iconic for me. Bazan, for me, is the Protestant whose faith broke down primarily due to his problems with the believability of the dogma and his struggles living up to the moral absolutes espoused within the community: I think you can read that and hear it in a short verse from the song in the video above:

Wait just a minute
You expect me to believe
That all this misbehaving
Grew from one enchanted tree?
And helpless to fight it
We should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation
For why the living die
And why it's hard to be
Hard to be, hard to be
A decent human being?

He struggles to maintain his connection to faith, loves the community and is deeply embedded in it, but just can't live up to the standards or stand the cognitive dissonance, so he leaves in a quite dramatic, decisive and public way with this last album. But in doing so tries to maintain connections and dialog - conversing directly about his religious struggles and continuing to play Christian music festivals and have difficult conversations with his fans and people who want him to be something he's not.

Sufjan was raised with a mishmash of influences, and used to sing with the really weird but also brilliant Christian band The Danielson Family. He now seems to be a typically progressive, (and Anglo-Catholic, I believe) Episcopalian who is into the religious thing for the beauty and community of it all. He's spawned a variety of internet mysteries, and lots of people argue about whether or not he's gay (Episcopalian? Male? There at least a 50/50 shot). His most overtly religious song is the video above, and it does seem to double as both Christian-y and pretty seriously homoerotic (though let's be honest, most Christian songs by male singers come off as at least a little bit homoerotic):

I'd swim across Lake Michigan
I'd sell my shoes
I'd give my body to be back again
In the rest of the room
To be alone with you
To be alone with you
To be alone with you
To be alone with you

You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
To be alone with me
To be alone with me
To be alone with me
You went up on a tree

To be alone with me
You went up on a tree

I've never known a man who loved me

Sufjan's not really like Bazan though in his belief, from what I can tell. His commentary resonates in different ways - he doesn't expect so much from religion, and he doesn't seem to get as hung up on the dogma. His songs usually only subtly hint at religious belief, but use religious imagery and often come off as somehow 'spiritual' - tapping into that weird, hard to define religious 'feeling of transcendence' you get in worship situations. When he talks about religion directly, he says things like:

"I think the Good News is about grace and hope and love and a relinquishing of self to God. And I think the Good News of salvation is kind of relevant to everyone and everything."

He's never really been the 'Christian music circuit' type, and I (as someone obviously in the know) learned about him through indie rock circles a long time before hearing about him in a religious context. He doesn't seem like the 'churchy' type, but he also certainly doesn't seem mad at the religious world in the way that Bazan does in his most recent music. He talks quite graciously about the church:

"The church is an institution and it’s incredibly corrupt obviously, but that’s because it’s full of dysfunctional people and people who are hurt and battered and abused. It’s very normal in any institution to have that kind of level of dysfunction. That’s unfortunate. I find it very difficult, I find church culture very difficult you know; I think a lot of churches now are just fundamentally flawed. But that’s true for any institution you know, that’s true for education, universities and it’s definitely true for corporations because of greed, and I think part of faith is having to be reconciled with a flawed community. But the principles, I don’t think the principles have changed. They can get skewed and they can get abused and dogma can reign supreme, but I think the fundamentals, it’s really just about love. Loving God and loving your neighbour and giving up everything for God. The principles of that, the basis of that is very pure and life changing."

Both of these guys are effin brilliant, and manage to capture elements of the zeitgeist (to use a word for pretentious people who listen to this kind of music) at the edges of the American progressive religious community in some beautiful ways. Or, I guess to speak for myself, both of these guys have expressed musically a lot of the mix of emotions that I've felt during the last few years in my wrestling matches with God and the Church. Bazan's the angry ex-Protestant who feels lied to and disillusioned, but still somehow emotionally connected - like he was really in love and really invested and wishes things were different but knows that it's not going to work out. Sufjan's the 'feelings' guy - just experience and appreciate the beauty, accept the mystery, and live at the edges of religion without becoming dogmatic about belief and without disconnecting yourself from the wider community. Somewhere in there's a set of experiences that I can identify with.


emilyandyuuki said…
This is so awesome Tim, I'm happy you posted it again.

Personally, I think all three of you are brilliant. :)

Unknown said…
Thanks Emily - the link of course being your brilliant and too effin cool husband.

Also, Congrats on your mom's re-election!
Unknown said…
Well put about both these guys. I have a whole bunch I could say in response to both of them but will just say that I generally appreciate Sufjan's approach to faith more.

As an artist, Sufjan looks for the beauty in and mystery in the world. He finds beauty in unlikely places like when he composed a symphony about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. He said his goal in writing it was to find beauty in something thats generally ugly and obnoxious, but that many of us have to deal with. In doing this he generally finds what I would say are spiritual/transcendent diminsions of whatever he is describing.

His approach to Christianity seems to be the same way. He draws on the things that are inspiring or mysterious and explores them. He doesn't spend much time focusing on things he may disagree with or dislike from Christian culture or tradition. If he commented on the uglier sides of the faith I imagine it would be in the same vain. He would try and make sense of the ugliness rather than write off the entire tradition because he disagrees with some piece of it.
Unknown said…
I really like that analysis Ryan - my own projection when I'm listening is that both of them are offering responses to dogmatic/damaging religious experiences, Bazan's based in some ways on bitterness and and anger, Sufjan's on hope and optimistic realism. (Casimir Pulaski day is about failed prayer, but there's no bitterness there.) I've been in both places emotionally, so I can't say that either is an illegitimate response, and I've always appreciated Bazan's straightforward honesty. He's writing in the Job/Lamentations vein, while Sufjan's more of a Psalmist, to make a biblical allusion.

I love your point about Sufjan being about finding beauty in unusual places - It does seem like it's been a hallmark of his work. 'John Wayne Gacy' is a great example. And 'The Age of Adz' is inspired by the work of Royal Robertson, a schizophrenic artist from Louisiana.