Monday, July 9, 2007

Sufjan Stevens and the Unasuming Power of the Digital Parable

I've been thinking a lot today about the idea of digital parables in film, television, painting, dance, poetry, prose, and especially music.

I've recently been reading books by William Placher and Gregory Boyd. In both Narratives of a Vulnerable God, Letters from a Skeptic and The Myth of a Christian Nation, Boyd and Placher suggest that love is the fundamental characteristic of God and the fundamental basis of reality in the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus our freedom is extremely important to God. He doesn't coerce us into a relationship with Him and we are granted the ability to choose good or evil and thus live with the consequences of both our own and other's decisions.

In light of the cross, Jesus demonstrates what Boyd calls the "power under" way of power: the way of service, suffering and sacrifice. (I hate alliteration) Coersion, Manipulation, and Dominence are not the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. In love, we, like Jesus take up the towell of service and love.

So what does this have to do with digital parables? Well it seems that Jesus told his parables in such a way as to make people go deeper with the story, wrestle with it, take hold of it, and let it change their lives. Though they did demand an action, the parables weren't propositional commands. They were stories.

My entire life I've been bombarded with "Christian" music. I am certainly a recovering 90's youth ministry kid. Like many I was told that secular music was bad and Christian music was good. In recent years though I've bucked that trend and found that the secular music I once loathed is really incredible. At first I decided that I liked U2 because it was safe, but now one of my favorite hobbies is to find undiscovered bands on iTunes. The so called secular bands just seem to write better stories. And today it all came together for me.

In comes Sufjan Stevens. I realized today as I thought about digital parables that Sufjan Stevens is one of the best at telling a true or parabolic story through song. The Decemberist and Bright Eyes are also pretty good. But today as I thought back about why I struggled to like Christian music I found that much of the Christian music I listened to in my formative years really did the opposite of parable or narrative. I scarcely remember original narrative or even unoriginal narrative. There was talk of the cross but it was often propositional, pulling it out of the story or making it about America or something. Really though the issue I'm having is the subtle leaning in much of "Christian" music to control listeners. Like we've lost the art of telling a good story, or writing a thought provoking poem and replaced it with straightforward uncreative instruction. Believe this. Think this way. And so on and so forth. I'm reminded of Stephen Curtis Chapman telling me to "Saddle up my horses." The reason I think Sufjan gets away with so much spiritual content in his music, is because he isn't telling people what to think. He's telling a story and allowing his listeners to wrestle with and think what they want. He isn't trying to control them. Instead he gives them the kind of freedom that comes through love.

So in conclusion, as I continue to write, I feel as though the days of trying to control or command through lyrics are over for me, and days of the modern day digital parable and narrative have begun.