August 21, 2008
You Can Tell Everybody This Is My Song
And now, for a bit of prognostication.
In the future the world will be organized not by nation-states but by corporations. We will speak not different languages but different jargons. We will carry not passports but branded gift and credit cards. We will salute not flags but T-shirts. And when we find ourselves in need of political asylum, we will run not to our embassies but to our local franchises. I, for example, in moments of political turmoil will most likely be found cowering behind the fry pit at the nearest Taco John's.
I'm not finished. In the future the Christian church will be organized not by denominations but by songwriters. Rumblings from the pews will erupt into shouts of "I follow Chris Tomlin!" and "I follow Tommy Walker!" All our debates over doctrine will rhyme, to the point where theological conferences will resemble scenes from West Side Story or Grease. There will be bitter divisions over ordination of musicians versus the use of tambourines by the laity, and the relative merits of guitars versus pianos and electrics versus acoustics--not to mention the loud shouts of "organ only!" from the fundamentalist fringe.
Oh wait, that's already the case. Music defines our faith and practice more than we might think. In recent months I've read and even edited a number of books written by what I've started to call "Cockburn Christians." They are linked by their appreciation for and even devotion to the music of West Coast singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn. I happen to like Cockburn Christians a lot. They're worldly wise, burdened but not broken, lovers of the Word and lovers of the world. They're poetic, artistic, humanistic, pietistic. They demand more from their music than the average consumer, and likewise they demand more from their faith than the average Christian.
I am, however, not a Cockburn Christian. I am closer to what I'll henceforth call "Sufjangelicals." These are people who hold to the basic tenets of the Christian faith but are linked more closely to one another by their fondness for the music of avant-garde musician Sufjan Stevens, who blew people's minds a few years ago with the second of his fifty-state concept album projects: Come on Feel the Illinoise.
Sufjan's spirituality is embedded in his music, and his music is embedded in his spirituality. He plays with the scriptures in a way that retains an appropriate reverence, and he plays just as deftly with the theology that has sprung from the Bible and with what you might call the psychology of faith. His music is quirky, textured, innocent, melancholy, playful, humble, introspective and odd--just like my faith, if I do say so myself.
So next week as part of the social experiment we announced in "I Am Trying to Rip You Off," I'll spend a day listening to "The Transfiguration" off Sufjan's Seven Swans album, a song that occasionally causes my friend and colleague Joel to burst into my office saying, "This is what Christian music should be!" And in the world of my dystopian future, this is in fact what at least some Christian music will be.