September 2, 2008
I Got the Music in Me
Last week several of us around Likewise Books participated in a little experiment, inspired by the fine folks at Word Made Flesh. Each of us would pick a song that we would listen to exclusively for an entire workday. Then we would blog about the experience--what, if anything, we discovered about the song, our workplace, our coworkers or ourselves. Keep an eye out here for those posts. This one is mine.
I chose the song "The Transfiguration," from the album Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens. I've come to think of myself, culturally if not doctrinally, as a "Sufjangelical," a term which I'm proud to say appears only once (probably now twice) on the entire Internet. Sufjan, you're welcome; please drop the restraining order now.
A Sufjangelical, as I define it, is an otherwise orthodox Christian who likes his or her faith the same way avant-garde pop musician Sufjan Stevens likes his music: quirky, multi-textured, playful yet melancholy. An example of Sufjan's complexity shrouded in simplicity comes from the song "Kasmir Pulaski Day": "Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body. But nothing ever happens." One- or two-syllable words paint a simple picture that evokes sadness and perplexity, disillusionment and yet hope. And that doesn't even take into account the music.
But that song is not this song. In "The Transfiguration" Sufjan is more arcane, more ethereal, as he recounts the story of "when [Jesus] took the two disciples to the mountainside to pray; his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame." This scene from the Gospels is a seminal moment in Jesus' earthly ministry, when the curtain was pulled all the way back and Christ revealed his glory and the fulfillment of the Scriptures that was taking place in him. The disciples were dumbstruck and comforted only when the transfiguration ended. Then they went down the mountain and everything, for a time at least, returned to normal.
But that story is not this story. "The Transfiguration" is captivating, a fitting song to listen to for eight hours straight. It's a simple rhythm--cyclical, really--that builds by instrumentation and voice as the story progresses. The melody has no real resting point, so that the end blends nicely into the beginning; the first word, when, sung on the third tone of the scale, carries the feel of an interruption, something overheard unexpectedly.
The song is in a waltz rhythm, strummed on a banjo at the start as an indication of an everyman out for an everywalk with a couple of everyfriends. Gradually, as the mystical event unfolds, voices and instruments are added, all of which carry a youthful, minstrel quality. One tinny horn plays a repeated riff; several childlike voices sing along in a unison chorus that dances back and forth between lyrics: "Lost in the cloud, a voice [a sign]: Have no fear! Turn your ear [we draw near]!" Jesus is identified in the chorus as Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, in case the onlookers and overhearers weren't aware of his identity.
The song is like a dance, and--especially when played in an eight-hour loop--the song is like an eternity. Often we hear or even sing the words of "Amazing Grace"--"When we've been there ten-thousand years bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we'd first begun"--and the faintest hint of a distressing thought might creep into our consciousness: Oh, I hope not! That sounds dreadful! But when we overhear eternity sung, when we look on while mourning is turned into dancing, the thought of ceaseless praise starts to make sense and even entice the imagination.
I hereby apologize to my coworkers for repeating the same 3-4 minutes of music some 135 times last week. Fortunately for them, "The Transfiguration" is not a whistling song, or someone might have lost it. This song won a friend and (now former) colleague of mine over to Sufjangelicalism when he first heard it, and he now counts it among the quintessential examples of what Christian music ought to resemble, and for good reason: here is theology faithfully presented, grounded in Scripture, presented in story, intended for dance. Here is a moment in time that transcended time, some two thousand years later set to a rhythm that doesn't constrain it but sets it free. Eight hours later, I still love it, and I still love Jesus. Not bad for a banjo, a tinny horn and some quirky musicians.