When the messenger has a message

sufjanPitchfork is an online site with daily reviews, news and features about indie music. Chris Dahlen writes an interesting and well-written piece this week about why the indie music community has such trouble with Christian themes:

I don’t know why hipsters hate Jesus. I’m not here to explain how the guy behind the Sermon on the Mount turned into a symbol of our blue- and red-state divide, or to narrow down why it’s desperately unhip to admit you’re a Christian and then get on stage at a rock club. Almost no strain of music is as secular as indie rock: It’s quaint when old men on 78s sing spirituals, and a rugged legend like Johnny Cash can pray however he wants, but if you’re a scrawny songwriter with a 4-track, siding with Jesus makes you a leper.

Dahlen looks at Michael Nau, the voice behind Page France. Nau sings about Jesus and other religious themes in some of his music but doesn’t consider himself a Christian artist. This confuses both Christian and non-Christian listeners. Sufjan Stevens, whose album was one of the most critically acclaimed of last year, has the same trouble. Everyone loves him but many of his fans don’t know how to take his religious themes. Dahlen says this is silly:

But the shame here isn’t that people made the wrong assumptions about Page France, but that they would ever have dismissed him over his beliefs in the first place. Even a religious performer can convey doubt and conflict. Sure, the bands that rocked the Christian festival at your local speedway stick to celebration and sin, but consider the work of people who are described as “thinking Christians” — a term that’s about as patronizing as “intelligent dance music,” but let’s go with it for now. Take the quest for spirituality on Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, or the piety and humility of Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, or to widen the circle, the furious morality of the abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or the scene in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me in which the reverend asks Mark Ruffalo’s drifter if he considers his life important. If we shun the religious content of these works, we’re missing their emotional and intellectual power.

You can disagree with the church of your choice, but to dismiss religion altogether — and to write off the best ideas, the best people and of course, the best indie rockers — that come out of it, seems pointless. Why shoot the messenger just because you’re scared he has a message?

This is a surprisingly open-minded piece from an unlikely source. It’s also a great idea for further study by reporters. Someone should even consider writing a book about pop culture and religion.

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  • Ethan Cordray

    I’m no by any means an expert on the indie music scene, but might it have something to do with opposition not simply with Christianity, but with the mainstream Contemporary Christian Music scene? The term “Christian artist” has two meanings. Properly, it ought to mean any artist who’s a Christian, but usually it’s shorthand for the hacks who churn out crap for the Evangelical ghetto.

  • http://ariston.livejournal.com/ kbh

    I’m no by any means an expert on the indie music scene, but might it have something to do with opposition not simply with Christianity, but with the mainstream Contemporary Christian Music scene?

    As a Christian, as someone who travels in indie and hardcore punk circles and as someone who thinks too much about them, the answer is, “No.”

    There is a lot of outright hostility towards Christianity–not just CCM. Sure, CCM is hated, but it is hated for many reasons. A lot of people were visibly made uncomfortable by the doubt of Beulah’s “Me and Jesus Don’t Talk Anymore” and those people weren’t Christians.

    I cannot count the times I have heard anti-Christian speeches at indie or punk shows. Most are somewhat mild, but I remember one so hate-filled (by the singer of From Ashes Rise, a band that–oddly enough–are label mates to another “Christian indie band,” Pedro the Lion) that I left the show and did not return until their set was over. I have never done that before, but the next time I was at a show where that band was, I politely left before they played. I didn’t want to think uncharitably of them any more.

    One notable “very uncomfortable” moment I had was when a local band’s singer ranted against people bringing their “religion” into the scene. Politics, identity crises, everything else. But not religion. And the funny thing is, I didn’t even know what the heck he was talking about. It’s as if there is such a fear that it might happen that it has to be pre-empted.

    When I saw Sufjan Stevens live, it was a pretty standard crowd for a large indie show. Mostly 20-35 year olds drinking too much and trying their best to talk over the band. They loved and reacted well to the songs from Illinois and Michigan, but there was a distinct discomfort notable when he played some songs from Seven Swans. As an encore, Sufjan played “To Be Alone With You” by himself–the audience pretty much vocalized their disconent. They didn’t get “John Wayne Gacy” (which is actually a song with a Christian message, too) or one of the more fun-loving Sufjan songs. They got, for their applause… Jesus. And you could cut the tension with a knife.

    (Side note: There are constant attempts to “reclaim” Sufjan Stevens for conventional indie values. Songs like “To Be Alone With You” or “The Predatory Wasp…” are re-interperted by hopeful indie kids as being about Stevens’s secret gay life.)

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Nothing can beat Stephen Holden’s jaw-droppingly patronizing aside in the NYT last Tuesday about Sufjan Stevens’ Christianity:

    “Mr. Stevens’s compositions are fragments of autobiography, history, folklore, geography and anecdote sewn under an umbrella of Christian devotion (not evangelical, I hasten to add, but benign, all-inclusive and nonjudgmental).”

    Ah, well, that’s okay then. As Fr. Neuhaus might say, “I hasten to add” is a nice touch.

  • http://www.blackphi.co.uk/webitorial.php Phil Blackburn

    Hmm, I wonder why anyone would think ‘evangelical’ meant malign, exclusive and/or judgemental? Especially with people like that nice Pat Robertson to put them straight.

    Actually, the newer generation of evangelical leaders do seem to be very different, but I suspect it will be a long time before they can change the perceptions of non-churchgoers. “The sins of the fathers …” and all that. It doesn’t help that, here in the UK at least, mainstream evangelical leaders don’t get quoted in the press nearly so often now that they say sensible things.

    Thanks for the book link, by the way – that looks like one for my ‘wanted’ list.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    I love Sufjan Stevens, and I love the fact that he is a devoted Christian. I think his faith makes the music have a richer quality. I feel the same about the “Mormon” band Low. Not to mention the several Pagan bands I play on my radio show.

    Why is Sufjan loved and CCM hated? I think it comes down to how you interpret evangelism. CCM bands strike me as those who see music as a venue to evangelise, they are “preachers” for lack of a better term. Meanwhile Sufjan evangelises by expressing who he is in his faith. This places him in the same tradition as Johnny Cash and countless blues singers. It may be a subtle difference to some but a clear one to the thousands of secular Sufjan fans.

    Why all the indie animosity? For that you would have to trace the history of punk, post-punk, and the alternative scene (the sixties and seventies had plenty of faith-friendly tunes and artists). Especially the growth of “alternative” music in the late 70s and 80s in America. Reagan, the Moral Majority, the PMRC, the stupid show-trials against rappers and metal acts, the silence on AIDs and the hostility towards homosexuality.

    If the current indie scene has an ingrained hostility towards faith is was well-nurtured by an atmosphere of hostility towards youth culture and music by the self-appointed faith-based defenders of decency. I think today that several artists in the “underground” are making their peace with faith and that hostility towards religion is nowhere near as monolithic as it was fifteen years ago.

    Finally, Pitchfork has been doing some wonderful writing that explores faith and music. Their columns and interviews are well worth the reading. One of particular interest might be their review of the infamous evangelical documentary “Hell’s Bells”.

  • http://www.katiesbeer.blogspot.com TK

    That Hell’s Bells commentary made me feel sick to my stomach remembering my fundamentalist days. I’ll never forget being told that the Beatles are satanic because of their drum beat. My heart wanted to believe it must be true, but my head told me it was nonsense. I cut out all secular music for 20 years and am now enjoying catching up on what I missed.

    Since leaving evangelicalism for more orthodox (confessional Lutheran) practice, I am able to appreciate and enjoy music for what it is – people trying to communicate their stories with others and sharing their God-given gifts (even if they aren’t using those gifts to God’s glory). I find that I am much better able to relate to people on a cultural level and, when the opportunity arises, to point them to the gospel.

  • http://aropaxnation.blogspot.com dave

    I don’t know how widespread the hostility is, but maybe that’s a result of being an Aussie. I’ve never heard an anti-Christian rant at a show and I can’t remember my indie friends having an issue with my Christianity.

    Australia is a bit of a funny case with JJJ (the nation-wide “youth” broadcaster) giving a lot of airplay to Christians operating in the indie and punk genres. These genres are typically more accepting of Christianity than mainstream music.

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    I’m no by any means an expert on the indie music scene, but might it have something to do with opposition not simply with Christianity, but with the mainstream Contemporary Christian Music scene?

    Not really. It’s a more general anti-establishment feeling. Indie music finds its roots in Seventies punk, and that carried a certain requirement to be anti-establishment.

    Rock in general had it too, though. I remember a Steve Taylor many years ago about how Chagall Guervara was expected to hold the same pro-choice beliefs as every other rock band at the time.

    The Pitchfork article reminded me of the infamous 2002 spat between the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players and Pedro the Lion. Here’s the Stranger article:

    http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=11052

    I am still shocked, by the way, that Illinoise topped so many best of lists last year despite Sufjan’s overt Christian theme, and that the anti-Christian criticism has been fairly quiet.

  • Nick

    It’s not that surprising–the Christian theme on the album’s fairly overt, but only if you know to look at it. It’s rather easy to get caught up in the melody and harmonies of the album without giving too much thought to the lyrics.

    I guarantee that if I asked the 7 or so writers who picked the album as the best of the year for the campus magazine I edit what they thought about the Christian themes on the album, maybe the one music snob would nod and say, “eh, it’s cool,” and the other six would stare at me like I’d been awake too long.

    (And I have been awake too long, which is why that last sentence is so garbled.)

  • Michael

    Mollie,

    Thanks for this article. I had been reading about Sufjan Stevens in “Paste” magazine and was intrigued, but wasn’t aware of his religious influences. I downloaded “Illinois” onto my iPod last night.

  • Tom Breen

    This was a great post and a link to an interesting article.

    The hostility in underground rock circles toward Christianity seemst to have abated somewhat in recent years, although I think it’s still present.

    It’s also worth noting that it’s not just Christianity – when members of the New York City hardcore scene began joining the Hare Krishna movement (and even founded three or four Hare Krishna bands; the popular record label Equal Vision was originally started entirely as a Krishna concern), they were regarded with intense loathing in a lot of circles.

    It does seem, though, that Christianity is accepted only in musicians who are identified as “weird”: Daniel Johnston, Paul Stringini, Sufjan Stevens, etc. They constitute a sort of outsider fringe even within the self-consciously segregated milieu of underground rock, although Stevens has gone some distance toward becoming more well-known.

    And, of course, a fact that isn’t mentioned here but deserves consideration is the role race plays in all this. Black artists who believe in God and are vocal about it get a pass, while white artists are much more subject to criticism.

    You won’t hear many hipsters complain about the Bad Brains’ Rastafarianism (or about Rastafarianism in general), or about Kanye West’s Christianity. To me, that’s veiled bigotry, but I could be overstating it.

  • Jonathan S

    Tom:
    I’d agree there might be veiled racism, but I think it’s in a different direction – I’ve seen religious beliefs treated as part of “their culture” when expressed by black artists (or black politicians, etc.), which is a patronizing attitude. In other words, in a weird way, the religious beliefs of black artists are discounted in a way as not something on the same level as white artists, so they can be safely enjoyed or ignored, almost as if “they can’t help believing that stuff.” I would submit THAT’S why black artists get a “free pass”.

  • http://vomitingconfetti.blogspot.com Tuff Ghost

    Personally I think it’s a conflation of cultural and religious issues. Another commenter stated that it’s not such an issue in Australia, where religion isn’t so promiment, and that’s true to an extent. It doesn’t make sense for Australian indie and punk bands to rail against overt Christian influence when there really isn’t that much to begin with.

    That being said, there are certain reactions that border on embarrassment when the religious affiliations of certain acts are disclosed. For example, when Jars of Clay briefly got a bit of mainstream exposure (in Australia).

    But back to the indie rock scene, and the conflation of culture and religion. A point was made above about the reaction of the NYT to Sufjan’s work, and that says it all for me; Commentators are willing to cut Christian artists some slack so long as there Christianity is socially progressive, secularly orientated (Pedro the Lion) or what you might call ‘liturgically orientated’, that is, connected to some well established tradition and using the musical form as a bridge or connection to that tradition.

    So Sufjan Stevens is in, MXPX, Jars of Clay et al are out. Similarly, when Travis Morrison of the band The Dismemberment Plan (previously Pitchfork darlings) made a few comments that were seemingly in favour of the war in Iraq, the Indie kids were all over him. The greater sin in the indie world is to be culturally and politically conservative, of any stripe. Seeing as christianity is largely equated with conservatism in the indie world, then any such religious overtones make indie kids nervous.

    I think Dahlen gets it slightly wrong when he says that Indie rock is the most secular of genres. Overwhelmingly secular yes, but the dominant theme s have always been cynicism and irony. As such, music with any message, particularly one outside of the indie orthodox, will be viewed with more than a little bit of skepticism.


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