Advent, Sufjan Stevens, and Karl Barth: A Few Thoughts

SilverandGoldIt has taken me more than a few weeks to work through all fifty-eight tracks of Sufjan Steven’s Silver and Gold. My daughter Rachel is fascinated with Sufjan’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” So much so, that she made me play it for her five times in a row yesterday morning. Our household has received a lot of dance milage out of that track.

i_am_santas_helperSilver and Gold is comprised of five separate EP’s. Each EP contains its own moments of brilliance, but I keep returning to I Am Santa’s Helper: Volume Seven. Highlights include several stunning Sacred Harp inspired melodies and instrumental vignettes reminiscent of those found on Illinoise. It is a hauntingly beautiful representation of the artistic and theological vision of Silver and Gold.

Some of the most poignant moments on I Am Santa’s Helper: Volume Seven happen between tracks nine and fifteen. The irreverent “Ding-A-Ling-A-Ring-A-Ling” and “Mr. Frosty Man” are set beside the choral tranquility of “Ah Holy Jesus” and “How Shall I Fitly Greet Thee.” In context with each other, these tracks offer a snapshot of what Sufjan may be up to in this collection. The stark profanity of tunes like “Ding-A-Ling-A-Ring-A-Ling” and “Mr. Frosty Man” are placed in the midst of sincerity (Hark! The album as an art form is not dead!). Indeed, baby Jesus has been robbed of glory and replaced with consumer mush. Silver and Gold is anything but benign. It is disruptive, sometimes creepy, and drenched with longing. Attentive listening reveals that the progression of these 5 EP’s are important as they unfold. The Christmas that the listener expects remains just out of reach. Instead, we get an elusive (and often unsettling) progression of themes fit for Advent. This is where the radiance lies and the sermon is preached (for those who have the ears to listen). In an accompanying essay to the Silver and Gold box set, Pastor Vito Aiuto makes the point that Advent is really about death, the peace that is routinely rejected, and judgment demanded by justice.

What could easily be mistaken for absurdity and cynicism in Silver and Gold often acts as a signpost to something greater. I was reminded of this orientation today after reading a blog post from my former seminary advisor about Christmas Preaching and Karl Barth. Dr. Guretzki points out that,

…preachers (and musicians!) need to be wary of proclaiming the Nativity as if it were a lovely children’s story that highlights shepherds and donkeys and managers which gives hearers a warm, fuzzy nostalgic feeling about their childhood Christmases when the world seemed more peaceful and quiet than it really was. Rather, preachers must boldly tell the story in such a way as to heighten its significance for what it is: an unexpected intrusion into the status quo of our everyday lives–lives lived almost entirely on the safe predictability of cause and effect. The Christmas story is not yet proclaimed as Gospel if it only draws us back into the memory of “Christmases past” instead of leading us into the unknown future…

karl-barthI think ol’ Barth (master of dialectic theology) would have loved Silver and Gold. The dueling sincerity and profanity of this music confounds the status quo of cause and effect. It points beyond itself by forcing extremes upon the listener. These songs are subtle because they’re not subtle at all. If you don’t believe me, check out the artwork and activities that accompany the box set. As a work of art, the whole of this music is so “in your face” that it is hard to pin down…just like Barth.

Sufjan Stevens is not making any great pronouncements. He is pointing to great things and appropriately shrouding them in metaphors and kitsch, in order to disarm and unsettle the listener by way of Advent horror and sober comfort. This kind of artistic expression only reinforces that the Christmas revelation of Incarnation, and the mystery of the Second Advent,

…comes to us as a Novum [“new thing”] which, when it becomes an object for us, we cannot incorporate in the series of our other objects, cannot compare with them, cannot deduce from their context, cannot regard as analogous with them. It comes to us as a datum with no point of connexion with any other previous datum. It becomes the object of our knowledge by its own power and not by ours. … In this bit of knowing we are not the masters but the mastered.

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, 172.

Sufjan’s conclusion is much the same as Karl Barth’s theology. We are all victims and perpetrators of the mess and myths we have made of ourselves,

I’m a Christmas Unicorn!
You’re a Christmas Unicorn too!

However,

It’s all right. I love you.

The great “Yes” of the Incarnation overwhelms because it cannot be compared, but it can be longingly embraced, “Justice delivers its gift here on earth.”

Accompanying Essay to Silver and Gold Box Set: By Pastor Vito Aiuto

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