"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

The Christmas Discord of Sufjan Stevens

Known for his unconventional instrumentation, theatrical performances and lyrical masquerades of rich Christian imagery, Sufjan Stevens is a refreshing alternative for Christian music-lovers disaffected by contemporary Christian bands. Stevens’s recent Christmas album sustains his reputation for eccentric originality, but his theological message is a product of the over-spiritualized culture young evangelicals have grown weary of. Sufjan Stevens “Silver & Gold” includes five discs containing a total of 59 songs, alternating between personalized renditions of Christmas classics like “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World”andoriginal pieces like “Lumberjack Christmas” and “Christmas Unicorn.” Stevens’s compositions swing from orchestral symphonies to folky-synth to just plain looney tunes. Between the cries of the singing saw and electronic cacophony, the arrangements on “Silver & Gold” can seem gaudy, distracting and meaningless at times. But as an artist heavily influenced by his faith, Stevens does little without meaning. The kitschy instrumental chaos paints a strong significance to his context. A skim through Stevens’s supplemental essays gives the album message clarity: Material extravagance distracts from the true meaning of Christmas. On page 11 of the box set booklet, Stevens writes:
By now, it’s no mystery that Christmas has become an incalculable commodity in our material world—an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism.
There is no doubt that Christmas lists, glitzy tinsel and songs about reindeers can be distracting. They present a serious temptation for all Christians that can degrade the meaning of Christmas if not kept in perspective. But Stevens’s critique goes further. He expresses radical anti-material sentiments, exposed through his “Christmas Tree Fetish” rant where he criticizes society, even his own family, for worshiping the Christmas tree as a pagan idol:
Our tree was a thing to behold, a patchwork pageant of kitsch and community theater, divinely inspired, no less than Michlangelo’s Sistine Chapel, a magnum opus worthy of religious worship […] which we conferred with all the glories of Christendom and capitalism.
The underyling suggestion? Stevens believes capitalism has been a major catalyst in destroying the integrity of the Christmas tree. His anti-enterprise convictions become increasingly clear when he declares commerce a sin by confusing it with greed:
Just as Adam and Eve consumed the fruit of the paradise tree, invoking original sin, so do we, in harvesting gifts, partake of the deadly fruits of Christmas: that of commerce, commodity and greed—all the flavors of the Seven Deadly Sins fashioned in various garments of wrapping paper.
His rant goes on to explain how the Christmas tree has been affiliated with wealth and power in America since the Industrial Revolution, arguing that the proliferation of the Christmas tree corresponds to all the “evil machinations” of free enterprise. In other words, capitalism is an accomplice in the cultural slaying of Christmas. Stevens’s convictions suffer from two common delusions:
  1. He confuses the market economy with consumerism
  2. He elevates the spiritual above the material
Stevens seems to hold that capitalism is evil because it necessitates materialistic consumerism. But he misunderstands the difference between consumerism and the market economy. Father Robert Sirico makes this distinction clear in “Defending the Free Market: A Moral Case for a Free Economy:”
All too many confuse a market economy with consumerism, seeing a buy-buy-buy mentality as the outcome and goal of economic liberty. […] Consumerism is wrong not because material things are wrong. Consumerism is wrong because it worships what is beneath us.
When the goodness of the material is lost, capitalism is an easy scapegoat for consumerism. Stevens’s misconception of capitalism also reflects a broader theological underpinning of all material things, reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism and some modern evangelical movements today. He claims Christmas should be about the spiritual aspects—what we feel and known inside—not material traditions. In “Christmas in the Room,” Stevens sings:
No gifts to give, they’re all right here Inside our hearts, the glorious cheer And in the house we see a light That comes from what we know inside
Stevens wisely critiques the worthlessness of placing one’s hope solely in the material aspect of Christmas, but he misses a great opportunity to distinguish between worship of the material and worship of God through the material. He fails to point out the goodness that physical things can bring at Christmastime. Advent candles, nativity sets, presents, Christmas lights and ornaments need not distract us from Christ, but exist as physical reminders that lead us to worship Christ. In a recent Relevant article, Justin Earley echoes the need for a proper balance between the spiritual and material in worshiping God during Advent:
We ought not be limited to worshiping God at Christmas through prayer, songs and Scripture reading—but also through enjoyment of His earthly gifts. At Christmas, for example: the startling white of snow, the curious texture of eggnog, the refracted light on tinsel, the warmth of slippers. It’s worship just to engage with this stuff and call it good like God called it.
In seeking to expose the true meaning of Christmas, Stevens paradoxically misses it, by failing to see the goodness in material things without making them into an idol. After all, Christ became man, and physically met us in the material world for the salvation our souls and bodies. Stevens’s Christmas message is one of massive spiritual and material discord, yet Advent embodies spiritual and material harmony that God intended for the world—and that’s the redemptive beauty in all the silver and gold adorning your Christmas tree.