Sing at Your Own Peril! A Review of Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Songs for Christmas’

Posted by on Dec 10, 2008 in Culture Vulture | 2 Comments

Usually at this time of year Bing Crosby is crooning out his rendition of “Jingle Bells” to anyone within earshot as they walk through their local mall. In fact, it was the day after Halloween this year that my wife and I were walking through the mall and we were surrounded by the sounds of your run-of-the-mill Christmas carol whose sole purpose of wafting down into your ears in the first place is to lull you into a retail reverie of impulse buying.

This is what the Christmas carol has been reduced to in our consumer culture: a safe, trite, and effective marketing tool. But then along comes a collection of Christmas songs, that at least for me, has the ability to rescue the Christmas carol from this Babylonian captivity.

Sufjan (pronounced Soof-yawn) Stevens’ Songs for Christmas, a 5 CD box set of traditional and original Christmas songs from one of our best contemporary troubadours of indie folk-pop, entreats us throughout to remember who it is we are singing about with time-honored carols like “Once in David’s Royal City” and manages at the same time to cut through the sentimentality of the season with the hilarious “Get Behind me Santa!”.

However, it’s Sufjan’s orchestration of the songs—that is at once so simple and at times even haunting—that makes this album what it is. It’s a Christmas album to be certain (and a fun one at that, with the ebullient “Come on, Let’s Boogy to the Elf Dance”) but it’s one that protests the warm and fuzzy harbour that Christmas has become in our time. The reason for this is that for Sufjan the singing of Christmas carols is not a harmless or innocuous business but a rather dangerous one.

Sufjan’s ability to get to the theological heart of what it is we ‘celebrate’ at this time of year is rare to find in the church, let alone in a musician. But Sufjan is unrelenting. In the liner notes to the album, Sufjan asks:

What did the angels renounce in the wake of the shepherd’s trepidation? ‘Have no fear,’ they petitioned with trumpet blasts and a garish display of constellations. But that’s like waving a gun in a bank lobby and demanding: ‘Everybody stay calm!’

What Sufjan gets is that Christmas is an apocalyptic event; it’s about the terrifying coming of God. Further along he confesses that “Christmas music poses a cosmological conundrum in requiring us to sing so sweetly and sentimentally about something so terrifying and tragic.” That’s Christmas; that’s the demand made of the church: sing about the coming of God, the coming of the One who will unsettle everything.

I’m reminded about Karl Barth’s observation about theological speech: “We ought to speak of God…. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.”

This is the same obligation and inability that the prophet Isaiah faced in the presence of God: “I am lost, my lips are not clean, I cannot speak, but my eyes have seen the King!” And what happens? God touches his lips, and Isaiah answers the call of the King, “send me!” Singing Christmas carols is possible because God has touched our lips. Like Isaiah we have seen the glory of the King, we’ve been touched by God in Christ and we are obligated to sing about it, not with sentimentality but with urgency!

And so, this album is Sufjan’s way of recognizing both his obligation and his inability; his own attempt, while waving his gun around, to tell us to stay calm. So steady yourself in this season as you sing your carols and as you await the coming of God, and by all means STAY CALM!

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Patrick McManus is a priest in the Diocese of Algoma, and contributes to the "Culture Vulture" column of this site, with reviews of film and other media.

2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Nick Brotherwood
    December 10, 2008

    Excellent review Patrick, from a self-confessed S.S. fan. Pity we couldn’t get a “listen” thing happening to give us a sample of his style.

    Reply
  2. avatar
    Ryan Sim
    December 10, 2008

    You can listen to samples at http://www.amazon.com/Songs-Christmas-Sufjan-Stevens/dp/B000HLDF0O

    Reply

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