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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

No Evangelical Artists Need Apply?

Here's another example in support of my earlier claim that it's the arts and other pages, not the news pages, of the New York Times that give rise to the worst instances of political bias or thoughtless illustrations of the effects of the Timesian social class on the writer's worldview.  Yesterday's review of a concert by Sufjan Stevens* contains this gem:

Song by song, Mr. Stevens's compositions are fragments of autobiography, history, folklore, geography and anecdote sewn under an umbrella of Christian devotion (not evangelical, I hasten to add, but benign, all-inclusive and nonjudgmental).

Well, "not evangelical" -- heaven forfend!  It's not clear whether the reviewer, Stephen Holden, reflected on the possibility that evangelical Christians can be "benign, all-inclusive and nonjudgmental" in roughly the way Holden means, or that non-evangelical Christian devotees (like everyone else) can exhibit none of these qualities.  Nor is it clear whether Mr. Holden thought about whether he really wants Christians or anyone else to be utterly "all-inclusive" or "nonjudgmental" -- is it even possible to possess a moral compass that points anywhere useful at all without some judgment?  I assume that in using these words, he really means, "I assure you that Stevens would exclude the same people you and I would, dear reader, and make roughly the same judgments that we would." 

I find this little throwaway sentence disappointing for its failure to engage what evangelical Christianity means beyond some general stereotype, and because he's so eager to disclaim any possibility that Stevens is a certain kind of Christian that he ignores the possibility that he could have simply said "Christian devotion" and left it at that.  Mostly, though, I find it disappointing precisely because it's such a throwaway sentence.  Whether the Times does a good job on religion overall or not, you'd certainly never read such a lazy sentence in the work of Peter Steinfels, David Kirkpatrick, or at least some of the other writers in the news pages of the Times.  Which leads me to wonder whether the arts writers and editors, book review staff, and some others actually read the news pages of their own newspaper.

P.S.:  Although I'd certainly heard of Sufjan Stevens before, I was finally moved to pick up Illinois, his most recent album, because of a review in Commonweal this past fall.  Natch; where else does one get one's musical advice if not a Catholic "review of religion, politics, and culture?"  A good album, I think.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 18, 2006 at 05:23 PM in Religion | Permalink


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You bought the Stevens CD? The things I learn by reading your blog. A useful means of tracking our household expenditures.... So long as I don't first read of a Boxster purchase here.

Posted by: Kelly Horwitz | Jan 19, 2006 12:54:47 PM

I'm not sure we disagree, Kleczek.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 18, 2006 11:08:57 PM

Christ did not condemn. He did not judge. He loved. My brother is an evangelical pastor at a church in Oregon, and he beleives the evangelical church has an image problem. I grew up in an evangelical church, and it was extremely judgmental. Now, one of the pastors of that church is in jail for defrauding the church out of money. People will generalize, and use the term 'evangelical' to reference a type of person, rather than a type of belief. Don't you think that is best remedied by turning the other cheek and 'loving our neighbor'?

Posted by: Kleczek | Jan 18, 2006 9:07:05 PM

It's because of questions like this that I suspect, as I write, that what Holden really means is that he believes Stevens is only judgmental and inclusive roughly along the same sociopolitical lines as Holden and his readers, so no one reading the review need get his or her back up. Of course the judgments and exclusions you cite above are at least one example of the irreducibile need for judgment and exclusion in at least some forms of Christianity -- and, as I wrote, I think that irreducible need to judge and to include and exclude are part of just about any meaningful moral system, whether religious or secular.

Your comment does make me think back to the hostile reaction, in some quarters (but not all -- and I would say some politically liberal individuals were not hostile to these remarks) to then-candidate Bush's suggestion that not every American will go to heaven, and that non-Christians risk eternal judgment. (I am paraphrasing at the very least, so feel free to correct me, but I consider any such corrections friendly amendments.) I had no problem with such a statement, I should add; but that story does strike me as relevant to and reminiscent of this discussion.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 18, 2006 6:34:57 PM

I'm not quite sure what he means by "nonjudgemental," still less "all-inclusive." Isn't one of the defining tenets of the Christian faith its exclusivity, viz., that "nobody comes to the father but through me," Matt. 11:27 (accord John 14:5)? Isn't another fairly important tenet that those who are not the followers of Jesus will not inherit eternal life, a fairly judgemental thing to say?

What is left of Christ and the Kingdom of God in an "all-inclusive and nonjudgmental" Christianity, shorn of the beliefs above?

Posted by: Simon | Jan 18, 2006 6:14:17 PM

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