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Randall J. Stephens and Delvyn Case

Hidden Under a Bushel

Sufjan Stevens and the problem of Christian music.

What's your favorite band?" Youth pastors in evangelical churches from Anaheim, California, to Virginia Beach, Virginia, have been asking young people that question since Richard Nixon's famed meeting with Elvis in the Oval Office. Whenever teenagers answered with the Doors, Bon Jovi, Black Sabbath, or Run DMC, religious mentors steered their impressionable charges to sacred analogues: Resurrection Band, Barnabas, Stryper, Freedom of Soul. In the 1980s, popular Christian author J. Brent Bill created a "sounds like" music chart, an easy-to-use guide for those newly initiated into the Christian subculture. (It's the kind of tool Ned Flanders, the kind-hearted fundy on The Simpsons, would love to employ for his two sons, Rod and Todd.)

The relationship between so-called Jesus rock and secular music is as peculiar as it is fascinating. Since the Jesus People movement first swaddled the gospel in the tattered rags of the counterculture, Christian rock has grown steadily, inhabiting almost every niche in the splintered world of contemporary music. You want Christian death metal, Christian rap, Christian indie rock, Christian electronica? You got it. Part of the job of being a youth pastor today rests on being hip to the dozens of massive Christian rock festivals that take place around the country every summer, having a mental map of nearby Christian coffee houses and bookstores, and always being ready to usher teens into the safe world of Christian music.

In 2006, a youth pastor asked for a Christian doppelgänger of brooding English troubadour Nick Drake, doomed indie icon Elliott Smith, or cracked folk rocker Iron and Wine might respond with a single name: Sufjan Stevens. But Stevens is also quite original. While other artists have busied themselves chasing the latest fad, Stevens has crafted a unique, sprawling indie folk that deserves much of the attention it's received. He has also joined the ranks of a handful of other artists and bands—Danielson Familie, Damien ...

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