Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Planetarium’ Charts a God-Sustained Cosmos
Image: Courtesy Asthmatic Kitty Records

Theologians often look to artists for inspiration—and, so long as the artist and the inspiration are right, this relationship can greatly benefit Christian thinking. Karl Barth’s emphasis on sin, for instance, would make his work morose if not for his constant rejoinder of God’s delight in creatures and our utter joy in the face of grace—an insight he gained from his love of listening to Mozart.

What artist might theologians in the 21st century look to for encouragement? Perhaps one of the best is the musician Sufjan Stevens, whose instrumentation draws from folk, electronica, and classical, and whose lyrics involve a deep explication of Greek myth, personal existence, local geography and history, and Christian theology.

Of all the themes Stevens has emphasized, the most current muse is Creation. He recently offered some of his thoughts on the orders of Earth and life around us in an interview for NPR; more significantly, though, his recently released Planetarium—a collaborative album with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister—presents an electronic symphony dedicated to the solar system.

Those familiar with Stevens’s earliest work know that Creation has been one of his concerns since the beginning. Throughout his music, Stevens does not merely consider the beauty of nature and then mix it with a few scriptural references, nor does he sing a contemporary environmentalism sprinkled with Christian blessing. Instead, he has something deeper—and more evangelical—in mind.

When tackling the topic of Creation, Christian theologians and political thinkers often err in two ways: They either muse on the natural orders of the world or advocate a worldly politics, only adding some reverent words to God out of respect. The two pillars of 20th century evangelical theology—Barth and Bonhoeffer—spent much of their work critiquing this tendency to base Christian thinking on alien philosophies rather than upon the Word of God.

Barth, for instance, critiqued scholastic Protestants and Catholics for beginning their theology from a traditional metaphysics of “natural” reason as founded by Aristotle, then synthesizing it with Christian revelation. Likewise, he critiqued even more fiercely the modernist liberal theologians who began with that same presupposition of a “natural theology,” but only used the language of Kant, Hegel, or Marx rather than that of Aristotle.

Bonhoeffer, meanwhile, put the evangelical contrast to all these presuppositions succinctly in his Ethics:

Jesus’ saying binds every thought of life to his person. “I am the life.” No question about life can go further back than this “I am.” The question of what is life gives place to the answer who is life. Life is not a thing, an entity or a concept; it is a person, a particular and unique person, and it is this particular and unique person. … [I]t is the I of Jesus. Jesus sets this I in sharp contrast with all the thoughts, concepts and ways which claim to constitute the essence of life. He does not say “I have the life” but “I am the life.” Consequently life can never again be separated from the I, the person, of Jesus. … This is not intended figuratively, as conveying that my life would be no worth living without this other, or that Christ invests my life with a particular quality or a particular value while allowing it to retain its own independent existence, but my life is itself Jesus Christ. That is true of my life, and it is true of all created things.

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Planetarium
Planetarium
4AD
2017-06-09
$9.49
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Christianity Today
Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Planetarium’ Charts a God-Sustained Cosmos