Sufjan Stevens: A Hidden Gem of Christian Music

Sufjan Stevens in concert

Ben Stas

Sufjan Stevens in concert

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a song called Casimir Pulaski Day. The first few times listening to it, I thought, this is a very sad song. A few times more, I realized it wasn’t only a song of grief, but a song of praise to God, not in the traditional sense, but in a very human sense. It tells a story of grief about a friend who gets diagnosed with cancer and ends up passing away. The lyricism in this song is so vivid, using very specific details to set the scene like how a “Goldenrod and the 4h stone” were the things he had brought his friend when he found out she had cancer and how the light hit her shoulder while she was reading. He sings:


Tuesday night at the bible study

We lift our hands and pray over your body

But nothing ever happens


Throughout the whole song, there is a prominent theme of religion and a constant inner battle between the realities of life and the idea of a higher being. At the end of the song, he sings:


All the glory that the Lord has made

and the complications when I see his face

in the morning in the window

All the glory when he took our place

But he took my shoulders and he shook my face

and he takes and he takes and he takes


Stevens touches on a very human struggle: the struggle to understand how an all-loving God can allow a world of suffering. These are the “complications.” On the one hand, there is his religion, and on the other, there is the incomprehensible death of a friend. He gives “glory” to the God who “took our place” as Jesus, but even though he knows that God gave everything to us on the cross, it can feel like he only “takes” and “takes” when we look at the world around us. I think this song encapsulates the will’s desire to praise God, however time and time again, we are faced with difficulties that shake our faith. 

The song ends with a glorious brass section which I interpreted as a simple resignation to peace in one’s grief.

His music is heavy, hopeful, meditative, modern, and not for the faint of heart. His lyricism is rich with biblical and mythological allusions which sometimes sound like an unedited stream of consciousness, which is part of why his music caught my eye. That, coupled with the way he unabashedly writes about the ups and downs of his faith makes him one of those artistic gems.

I will say, though, take his music with a grain of salt, especially when it comes to the more theological-based songs. And I’m just now looking through his twenty-one albums, and he definitely has some wonky stuff (straight-up albums of weird electronic instrumentals?)… But I’d recommend Carrie and Lowell or Illinois or Michigan, or his Christmas album. 


By Elyza Tuan ’23, Editor-in-Chief