Divine Above Divine Below: What Sufjan Stevens Can Teach Us About God’s Character and Activity

Sufjan Stevens is an artist and musician who has captured my imagination and helped me better understand God’s character and activity in the world. A self-professed Christian from Michigan, Stevens has composed more than a dozen albums, produced short films, written a comic book, composed essays, among other things.

He shares his thoughts at sufjan.com.

Below is a seven-session video series exploring Stevens’ work, and how it has helped me engage the transcendence and immanence of God as presented in the Scriptures… For the full research paper behind this study, click the link at the bottom of the page.

Part 1: How Christians Engage Culture

Questions to ponder:

  • When you listen to Sufjan Stevens’ treatment of his own spiritual encounter with Jesus in the song “To Be Alone With You,” what jumps out as significant?
  • How do Stevens’ lyrics and presentation of the Abraham/Isaac story in “Abraham” cause you to consider this story in a fresh way?
  • In Acts 17:16-34, Paul visits Athens and the Areopagus: what do you notice about his tactic in discussing the work of God in the universe?
  • David Dark and Robert K. Johnston both contend that God is always communicating to people, even through pop cultural forms. How do you respond to that? Do you agree/disagree? Have you ever had what you would consider a “spiritual” experience in response to “secular” song, movie, or television show?

 

Part 2: The Unseen Communication of God

Questions to Ponder:

  • In A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor discuss ambient music innovator Brian Eno when they write, For Eno, “Technical advances in recording and instrumentation allowed him to realize his dream. His ambient music floated into the atmosphere, creating sonic spaces and being stored in our subconscious.” How do you feel about ambient or instrumental music? Have you ever listened to a song without lyrics that transported you somewhere? Describe that time.
  • Listen to “Year of our Lord” and “Year of the Monkey” from Sufjan Stevens’ album Enjoy Your Rabbit. How would you describe the mood of those two tracks separately? In relationship to one another? What do these songs communicate to you?
  • After reading the biblical texts, what do these texts tell us about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives? In what way does the Holy Spirit “help us in our weaknesses”?
  • Sinclair Ferguson writes, “The indwelling of the Spirit is portrayed in the New Testament as personal in nature: the Spirit himself dwells in believers as physical, bodily entities… The relationship is more intimate than that of mere divine influence, but the exact character of the Spirit’s indwelling is nowhere explained or explored.” How have you thought of the Spirit’s movement in your life? How is Ferguson’s description fundamentally different?

 

Part 3: Elevating the Ugly

Questions to Ponder:

  • Watch from the 4-minute mark to the 8-minute mark of The BQE film. First with the sound on… then off. What did you notice the first time with the music? How did that change in the second?
  • What has Stevens done by adding this transcendent tone to the ugliness of this stretch of highway? Have you ever had a period of time where something was repugnant or distasteful to you, and then something transformed it for you?
  • Read 2 Samuel 11 then read Matthew 1:6. What does it tell you about the power of God to work in the middle of the ugliness of sin?
  • Read 1 Corinthians 1:18. Why does Paul describe the cross as foolish to those who are perishing? Why is it different to those who are saved?
  • What portions of your own life have you seen God regenerate or transform? Have you seen aspects of your life that you previously considered ugly with sin transformed into good? Describe them.

 

Part 4: The Other-Worldly Creator

Questions to Consider:

  • Listen to “Jupiter.” What have been your thoughts regarding the gas giant up to this point and the Roman god it is named after? In what ways is it the “father” of the solar system?
  • This song has a lot to say about failure in the attempt to find success. How have you seen others struggle and strive for a success that never seems to come?
  • Listen to the song “Mars.” Why do you think the planet Mars has captured the imagination of humans for so long? How does that fascination relate to Mars as the god of war?
  • Stevens makes a connection with relationship between love and violence as both its antidote and potential cause. (A connection he also makes in the song “Saturn”) What do you think of that connection? In what way is that true? In what way is that false?
  • Read Genesis 1 and reflect on the poetry of the chapter. What position does humanity have in Creation and how does it get to that position?
  • Read Genesis 11:1-8. What do you notice about the people’s attempt to create something together? Why were they thwarted?
  • Read Psalm 8:3-4. How do these two verses relate to the passages from Genesis?
  • As you look at Stevens’ treatment of the planets and how he relates them to human achievements compared with the biblical narratives, what can we learn about God’s relationship to us and our success? What does it mean that God is both the Lord of the cosmos and Lord of human activity?

 

Part 5: The Dramatic Preacher of Despair

Questions to Ponder:

  • Listen to the opening song from Age of Adz. What sense do you get from Stevens about the ability to adequately communicate his emotions?
  • Watch the concert footage of Stevens from the Age of Adz tour. What connection does Stevens feel with Royal Robertson? Why do you think he feels that way?
  • Listen to the song, “I Want to Be Well.” Where does the desperation seem to be directed?
  • Watch the concert footage to the song “Age of Adz” and then listen to “Get Real Get Right”.  In the midst of the sensory assault, what message is being communicated? How does Stevens understand the relationship between despair and hope? What role does art play? What roles does service play?
  • Read Ecclesiastes 1:1-4 and 11:13. Where is hope for the “Preacher”? What are the Lord’s commandments?
  • Read Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Revelation 21:1-8. What is God’s activity in these passages?
  • How do churches tend to respond to people in despair? How does the mythological/transcendent/fantastical activity of God demonstrate we should respond to desperate times?

 

Part 6: The Melancholy Joy of Daily Life, or Inspiration in the Midst of Mistakes

Questions for Discussion:

  • Listen to “Romulus” from Michigan. What sort of story is Stevens telling here? How do you imagine he feels about his mother and the recollection of those events?
  • Listen to “Detroit…” How does this song compare to “Romulus”?
  • Listen to “Oh God Where are You Now…” Where is God? How does this compare to Moses’ assessment of God’s presence in Psalm 90?
  • Listen to “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for your Step Mother”. Why do you think Stevens takes so much time detailing the events in these songs?
  • Listen to and compare “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” and “Chicago”. What does Stevens have to say about the compulsion for more? What does he have to say about the inspiration of progress and yet the desire to run from our mistakes?
  • Read the story of Ruth. What do you notice about the details of this story?
  • What does it say about the eternal significance of this story that the line of David grows from it?
  • Read Genesis 14:17-20. Who is Melchizadek and why does Abraham pay such tribute to him? Compare this story to Psalm 110: 4 and Hebrews 5:1-10. What does it tell you about the activity of God that he would use such an obscure figure upon which to build an entire basis for Jesus’ priesthood?
  • How good are we at entering into the stories of others especially when they are difficult? Why do we shy away from being patient and intimate with others?
  • What does God’s patience with us call us to? How can we better foster the desire to be intimately present with others?

 

Part 7: Wrestling with Brokenness

Questions to Consider:

  • Listen to the song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr”. What is the emotional tenor of this piece? Given the severity of Gacy’s crimes and the delicacy with which Stevens sings, how do you feel about the closing lines to the song? In what way are they true? In what way false?
  • Read Matthew 5:21-22 and Psalm 51. Given Jesus’ statement on sin and David’s confessional cry, how do you feel about the depth of your own sin? Why is it difficult for us to understand its true impact?
  • Knowing that the sin of the world leads to death, listen to “Casimir Pulaski Day” and reflect on Stevens grief for his friend. In what way does that grief coincide with or come in conflict with Stevens’ faith?
  • Read John 11:28-37. What do you think of Jesus’ response to the death of Lazarus? Given that Jesus knows Lazarus will be raised from the dead, why does Jesus weep?
  • Read Psalm 13:1-4. What is the Psalmists’ cry here? What is his emotional state?
  • How well do we “lament” or grieve the state of our own sin? How well do we lament the effect of sin in the world?
  • Why do we move so quickly from grief and lamentation to praise? What does it tell us about the nature of God that he would not only grieve the sinfulness of the world but also enter into it?
  • How can we better respond to the brokenness in the our communities so as to demonstrate grace?

 

Full Paper with detailed Research entitled “Divine Above and Divine Below”

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