At our church service this weekend, we featured two animated videos of Sufjan Stevens’ work: “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!” and “Put the Lights On the Tree.” I’m not saying that I don’t like the ‘How Christian is he?’ Bono of folk-rock. If you’re under 40, white, and own an Apple product, you have to say that you like Sufjan, just like if you’re over 40 you have to tell people that you like the Beatles, because everyone likes the Beatles. You have to admit to it or risk losing your “I know what’s up” card.
But these videos are weird. (I didn’t want to look around and see our older member’s expressions.) And Sufjan–though I love him, of course!–is weird. A genius, but weird. Like Einstein, a genius you may not want to hang out with on a daily basis. You absolutely never, ever know what he will do or like or mention. Take “Put the Lights On the Tree.” It starts off generally, but then poor Grandma sitting all alone at home commandeers the rest of the song. Was the song really ever about Grandma? Did he make it up as he went?
Right now, I’m listening to Steven’s new 58-track Silver and Gold and the track “Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling,” complete with low-fi dueling guitars, bells, chimes, a piano and a choir:
Baby Jesus is the king
Jesus is the king-a-king-a-ling-a-ling
Lift your voice and sing
Lift your voice and sing-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling
‘Cause we wear the diamond ring
we wear the diamond ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling
Jesus is the king—
Baby Jesus is the king–
Even though he’s the baby Jesus
He’s the King-a-ling-a-ling King-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling King-a-ling-a-ling etc
Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ring-a-ling-a-ding-a-ling-a-ding-a-ling etc. [repeat ad nauseum]
Ad nauseum? I see what they did there.
Young people are weird, and they like weird things. I don’t understand them. You might not understand them either, but don’t dismiss”Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ing” as heretical and unbecoming to the incredible moment of God with baby-soft skin on, instead of fun and funny, which I think it’s intended to be.
Young people are weird and not shallow.
Brett McCracken has given us an insight on Sufjan and the culture of young ‘nones‘–those that have a passing knowledge of Christ, but a nebulous-at-best connection to the Church–in his blog post on Mere Orthodoxy:
Last week I attended a Sufjan Stevens concert in Hollywood at the Fonda Theater. It was Sufjan’s Christmas concert tour [called "The Sirfjam Stephanapolous Christmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Spectacular Music Pageant Variety Show Disaster"--TB] celebrating the immense collection of Christmas music in Suf’s catalogue (most recently the just-released 5-disc set, Silver & Gold, which includes no less than 58 tracks exploring Christmas from just about every angle imaginable).
The sell-out concert was memorable, to say the least. The music was alternately nostalgic, warm, absurd, annoying, jolly, kitschy, campy, somber and sacred.
So young people like Christmas–or at least they like Sufjan singing about Christmas.
The audience liked Sufjan’s more madcap moments–the dissonant beeps, buzzes, crashes and chaos that accompanied the zombie nuns, bloodthirsty snowmen and other holiday transgressions making music onstage.
Young people. Weird.
But the audience loved it when Sufjan got serious…
My generation has a hunger for substantial, unironic explorations of meaning. The self-aware meta and button-pushing avant-garde is our postmodern context; fragmentation, pastiche, and Christmas Unicorns make sense to us. But one grows weary of it. It can be, as Sontag puts it, “too much.” Perhaps Sufjan recognizes this. He seems to believe that Truth is out there; that not everything need be put in “quotation marks”; that an old-fashioned belief in narrative still has a place at the table of art.
And yet Sufjan earns the right to be sincere about these things. Millenials won’t just listen to anyone singing old hymns and religious carols, inviting them to sing along at an indie rock show. Sufjan pays his ironic dues by packaging earnest, tender narratives in the wrapping paper of DIY whimsy, vintage/nostalgia and Brooklyn-approved indie pop art.
Young people. Weird, but not shallow. Even if they unironically sing praises of Jesus:
I was struck by the crowd’s enthusiasm as we raised our voices–a ragtag band of Los Angeleno hipsters, secular and religious alike, requisite marijuana smell thick in the air–to sing of Jesus Christ: “Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.”
Or when the crowd resounded with the familiar, jubilant declaration: “Joy to the World! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King!”
I was similarly floored by the heartfelt gusto with which the crowd sang “Come Thou Fount,” corporately declaring that “Jesus sought me when a stranger / Wandering from the fold of God.”
You could say that this flirtation with the Christ in Christmas is nothing new; people have wanted the easy part of devotion to Christ since the dude who wanted to finish harvesting his crops.
Yet if you want to have the Church continue beyond the end of the Boomer generation, then a generous “What can we learn from the Christmas Unicorn?” stance will help. (You’ll have to read McCracken’s post to learn about the Christmas Unicorn.) It’s not that we have to mount Christmas Unicorns on our very Christ-centered Christmas trees, sleigh bells, wreaths, holly boughs, multi-colored light strings or shimmery garland. But if we can make space on the tree for the discussion as to add the Christmas Unicorn, then we can provide a bridge to talk about other things that older generations are (so) great at: devotion to Jesus, building his kingdom and our not-so insignificant life experience.
Or you could just reject the generation as weird and shallow, rather than McCracken’s description of Sufjan Stevens: “alternately nostalgic, warm, absurd, annoying, jolly, kitschy, campy, somber and sacred.”
Which may be the best description of the current younger generation as I have ever read.
Let’s not sell them short.