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In the midst of this “inner anguish,” the call of the Savior comes: “Lord I pray for us, hallelujah.” Even in paranoia and competition, praise is the consistent pronouncement of Creation, excluding any hatred of the world. The gospel assures that a hallelujah runs beneath it all, and Stevens emphasizes it with his signature falsetto.

But then it changes. Electronic sounds bubble forth, the chords shift to an unrelated measure, and slogan replaces poetry: “Run, mission, run, before we arrive.” No answer is given of either the “mission” or where we will “arrive”; it’s only repeated as a vacuous march to the objective, to progress. We hear all the calls for prettier bodies, smarter phones, longer lives, more social media followers, better sex, higher knowledge, greater freedom, and all the more of whatever we desire, accompanied by bells and synthesizer.

Eventually, though, what sounds like a dropping bomb appears in the background. This insatiable appetite and banality of clinging electronica cannot last—until, finally, the bomb hits. The instrumentation falls into a contemplative dystopia familiar to fans of Stevens’ music, the space narrated by a speech almost unrecognizable, so muffled by intentional effect: “I see it. The beauty of the Earth. On my deathbed. But it’s too late. I'm such an idiot.”

What began as a meditation on Creation and its fall into frustration and grace thus ends as a warning of modern arrogance, vain hope in human progress, and resulting ruin. Modern man now stands in a dread similar to Job’s, questioning how existence could be so cruel.

When God finally answers Job out of the whirlwind, he overwhelms him with declarations of his transcendence. He feeds predators (Job 38:39–41) and acts as midwife to prey (39:1–4). He reserves snow and hail “for the days of war and battle” (38:22–23)—snow made warring rather difficult for the ancients. And he commands the dawn to “take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it” (38:12–15). In all this, care is explicit—for great and small, man and beast. It is a mysterious order that appears as chaos or competition, but it is truly his intimate Providence.

For Christians, to see the world as Creation is a leap of faith itself. We choose not to treat the cosmos as a system—whether of natural laws or empty competitions. Both attempt to master Creation through understanding, and both end in failure. Instead, we allow God his role of Master and simply accept the world in faith as the miracle it is.

Job’s own answer comes in giving up his knowledge to God: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. … I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:3). That the world moves by the hand of God, not ours—and, as Paul later adds, in Christ “all things hold together”—is the lesson of Job, and it is the lesson to us.

Planetarium ends with the track “Mercury,” its chorus asking us, “Where do you run to?” Stevens ends this electric symphony with the same question he has been asking us—and himself—throughout his career, the same choice Job was faced with: Will we fleetingly attempt to make our own order and understanding, or will we join the chorus already here, already singing to a higher God?

Casey Spinks is a seminarian at Baylor's Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, TX. He is a native of Baton Rouge, LA.

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