Sufjan Stevens is taking the “God” of America to task.
The Ascension, Stevens’ second album of 2020 following Aporia, is a direct critique of the prevailing American cultural milieu marked by consumerism, celebrity worship, social media addiction, and political polarization. There is an anguish—even anger or aggression—to this album that has not been present on his previous records. Stevens trades the introspective, melancholic guitar-and-banjo folk music of Carrie & Lowell for backbeat-driven dystopic electronica more akin to The Age of Adz or Enjoy Your Rabbit. He employs synthesizers, drum machines, and loops to create a sense of sonic urgency. Like a biblical prophet in the vein of Jeremiah, Stevens is not pulling any punches in his lyrical declarations, using candid, even cliched language to drive his point home and shake up listeners from their spiritual slumber. In this way, The Ascension is a prophetic protest album, a call for America to wake up and repent before it’s too late.
The album’s opening track, “Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse,” is an urgent plea addressed to God demanding an answer for the present chaos of the world, all set to a driving backbeat and static-imbued electronica: “I have lost my patience / Make me an offer I cannot refuse.” Much of the album has a similar insistence as Stevens sings out a series of commands, exhortations, and injunctions to both society and God. Many of the lyrics and beats are borrowed directly from popular culture, reimagining pop music tropes in order to critique pop music’s ideologies.
For instance, on the catchy “Video Game,” Stevens employs poppy, punchy beats and repetitive lyrics—“I don’t wanna play your video game”—to offer a critical appraisal of online culture’s infatuation with “likes,” “shares,” and building one’s own personal “brand.” The accompanying music video features teenage Tik Tok star Jalaiah Harmon, who choreographed her own dance moves for the video. In an interview, Stevens explained, “The main takeaway of ‘Video Game’ for me is: your worth (invaluable) should never be based on other people’s approval (ephemeral). Just be yourself. Keep it real. Keep it moving. Do all things with absolute purity, love, and joy. And always do your best. Jalaiah epitomizes all of this and I’m truly inspired by her. So I thought, ‘What if we could get Jalaiah to star in a dance video about not wanting to star in a dance video?’”
While “just be yourself” and “always do your best” may initially feel like shallow exhortations, I think Stevens really means these words on a deeper level. If we were to actually “keep it real” and do our best, what might our world look like? Probably better than it is now. So, how do we change? How can we ascend?
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By the album’s final track and first single, “America,” a sprawling 12-minute epic, Stevens’ petition to God has shifted: “Don’t do to me what you did to America.” This is a marked shift from the maker of Michigan and Illinois—part of his so-called “Fifty States Project” celebrating the vastness of America. Disillusioned with the present state of the nation, Stevens croons, “I have loved you, I have grieved / I’m ashamed to admit I no longer believe.” This professed lack of belief is not a loss of faith in the Christian God; as Stevens said in another interview, “I feel more confident in my faith than ever. That has enabled me to then make these remarks and think about these things, and have the bandwidth and the wherewithal to really question them. I think that's just part of the nature of belief.”
I think Stevens may be expressing a kind of faith for a “postreligious” age. This notion of a postreligious faith comes from philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s 1966 Bampton lectures, first published in a book with Alasdair MacIntyre, The Religious Significance of Atheism. Ricoeur describes a movement from traditional institutional “religion” to an orthodox-yet-open “faith,” which emerges on the far side of the critiques which come from a skeptical atheism. Speaking critically to the “death of God” movement of the 1960s, Ricoeur asks: which God? And who killed him? Ricoeur answers that it is the “omni-God” of power, prosperity, and providence. Instead of this “god” of predominant Western culture, Ricoeur turns to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and proposes a “tragic faith” of surrender and hearkening to the mystery of the Crucified One, who is present to us in weakness, not power. The God of such postreligious faith is not a deity promising power and greatness, but a divine Love seen in the cross of Christ, a posture of humble dwelling in mystery and in service for others, rather than cultural comforts and personal political ease.
Stevens’ postreligious faith is most clearly on display in the titular track, “The Ascension,” a hauntingly beautiful lament and my favorite song from the album. When Stevens sings in a minor key, “And now it frightens me, the thought against my chest / To think I was asking for a reason / Explaining why everything’s a total mess / And now it frightens me, the dreams that I possess / To think I was acting like a believer / When I was just angry and depressed,” I can hear the spiritual cries of so many American Christians like myself currently feeling like they are spiritual wanderers or pilgrims, struggling to hold fast to their faith when the world around us appears to be falling apart. Perhaps this is evidence of the loss of entrenched conceptions of God and religion. So, when Stevens then sings in his signature angelic falsetto, “And to everything, there is no meaning / A season of pain and hopelessness / I shouldn't have looked for revelation / I should have resigned myself to this,” this is Ricoeur’s detour through atheism, a “death” of our conceptions of God.
But this detour is not the end of the spiritual journey—there is resurrection life on the other side of death. Stevens continues: “I thought I could change the world around me / I thought I could change the world for best / I thought I was called in convocation / I thought I was sanctified and blessed.” This is a posture of confession and listening, of lamenting the loss of traditional religious comforts and the awaiting of whatever divine revelation may come next. Then Stevens offers a poetic resolve: “But now it strengthens me to know the truth at last / That everything comes from consummation / And everything comes with consequence / And I did it all with exultation / While you did it all with hopelessness / Yes, I did it all with adoration / While you killed it off with all of your holy mess.” The song concludes with a repeated, unanswered refrain: what now?
“What now?” is the question of 2020, the question we’re all asking ourselves, each other, and God. This question is equal parts faith and doubt; even in our questioning, we are searching outside of ourselves for answers from a transcendent source. For all of its despondency and urgency, The Ascension ultimately calls for a posture of hope—a hope that exists on the far side of suffering and uncertainty, as our religious preconceptions must die in order to be born again in Christ’s love.