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Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Planetarium’ Charts a God-Sustained Cosmos
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.
In other words, Bonhoeffer critiqued both the classical-scholastic and the modern-rationalistic traditions of theology for treating the gospel as investing life “with a particular quality or a particular value” on top of a mankind already founded on natural structures of existence. Evangelical theology, meanwhile, aims to set the gospel of Jesus Christ as its foundation and contrast to all the other frameworks that humanity has built up for itself.
As a theology that attempts to get its ideas about God, man, and the world solely from the Bible, the key to any evangelical environmentalism must be Scripture itself. However, we must be careful: Since Scripture begins with Genesis, it can be tempting to keep our thoughts on Creation stuck to the Creation narrative and the beauty of Eden.
But the fact is that Eden did not last. Eden may perhaps describe how the innocent world was, but the Fall means that it cannot describe how the world is. For that, we might better look to a book like Job. The world of Job is a broken one, though still reflecting the Eden story. There is a first peace and blessing—but then the Fall happens. God is in control, but he also allows terrible evil to happen—this time to the righteous—and seems all the more distant and silent for it while Job and his friends lament and debate.
Planetarium begins in a similar chaos. The album is a seemingly random assortment of songs; not even the listing of planets is in order. The first tracks speak of lust (“Venus”), guilt (“Neptune”), war (“Mars”). A strange irony permeates all of them, most obviously in the track “Saturn,” which contains a party anthem (“tell me I’m evil / tell me I’m not love / tell me I’m evil / tell me I’m not the face of God”) played to a roaring electronic pulse fit for an EDM festival. But the bridge reveals this all as a goading farce: “Where there’s joy / I bring trespass / Where there’s light / I bring you darkness.” What seems to be the rapturous debauchery of the Greek gods is only a mask for the demonic.
In all these songs, we never know exactly who—Greek god or human pride—is speaking, which may confuse the listener. We are tempted to treat it all as a puzzle to be worked out, to almost ignore the instrumentation which layers further ambiguity onto the already confusing lyrics. (We may even commit the grievous sin of skipping the instrumental tracks, too concerned with meaning to simply enjoy the music itself.)
All this confusion is answered by the album’s climactic track “Earth,” which brings together the truths of Creation and the follies of our modern world. Beginning with an ethereal ambience that recalls the Spirit of the Lord hovering over the waters, the first verse then comes in the fluttering of a melody that matches its lyrics: “Innocence was never lost / though it may have been insulted.” Creation is not without foundation or meaning, but beckons to its original innocence of Eden. It may have been insulted, forgotten, but it was not lost.
In constant tension between true hallelujah and “contradiction, ceremony,” humanity in particular tries to reach back to that first paradise. We see an order, but it is not ours—“there are no more accidents / living things refuse to offer / explanations of their worth.” We try to return to Eden, but we find only that original sin to become like gods. Our expansion and organization brings “paranoia and prediction / exploration, competition,” and our attempt to become gods clashes with our place to live as people.
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.