Thursday, 14 October 2010

Finding God in the Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens’ new album, The Age of Adz (pronounced “Odz”) is an intriguing proposition. More electronic and experimental than its predecessors, it is also based (in part at least) on the work of schizophrenic outsider artist “Prophet Royal Robinson”, whose art drew heavily on themes of apocalypse and alien abduction. It’s an absurdly rich album (musically and lyrically) and I’m still trying to get my head around it. The highlight so far for me is “Vesuvius”, in which Stevens appears to use the titular volcano as an allegory for God. I’ve been lecturing on Augustine this week, and Stevens’ approach to the mountain mirrors the Bishop of Hippo’s own uncertainty when coming to God. Like any experience with the divine, Stevens’ emotions seem to move in wave of certainty and joy, distance and despair—shifting from clear sights of heaven to the total absence of God. The characterisation of God as a volcano (unstable, frightening yet alluring, “fire of fire”) is a powerful one, and as Stevens approaches the burning mountain he declares his own insecurity in its presence: “Vesuvius, I am here\You are all I have\ Fire of fire, I'm insecure\ For it has all, been made to plan”. Despite the fear that this encounter generates, he is resolute throughout. Seeking the “fire of fire” is fundamentally worth it: “For in life, as in death\ I’d rather be burned than live in debt”.

The song seems to proceed (again in startling Augustinian fashion) as an inner dialogue, with Stevens considering how he might relate to God. “Are you a ghost, or the symbols of light?” he wonders, as he eventually implores the volcano to “oh be kind”. It is here that he switches to addressing himself directly: “Sufjan, follow the path\ It leads to an article of eminent death\ Sufjan, follow your heart\ Follow the flame\ Or fall on the floor”. The reference to an eminent death, mixed with a number of references to the “host” throughout the song appears to point towards either a recollection of Christ’s sacrifice (an eminent death) or the fear of literal or metaphorical martyrdom. Yet just as he reaches the point of certainty, new doubts overwhelm the singer. He is faced with the reality of his inner life: “Sufjan, the panic inside\ The murdering ghost\That you cannot ignore”. This stark assessment of his attitude is not something new to this song. It reminded me of “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” on his 2005 album Illinois, in which Stevens ended the stark tale of a serial killer with the razor sharp statement: “Even in my best behaviour\ I’m really just like him\ Look beneath the floorboards\ For the secrets I have hid”.

Yet the existential crisis isn’t resolved at the end of the song. The murderous ghost fighting within Stevens continues. Where he had initially come to the volcano in person and announced that he was “here”, now he implores Vesuvius to follow him. The seeking is now out of his power. Seven times he repeats a call to “follow me now”, a number that I doubt is coincidental given the apocalyptic interest in the album as a whole. With his call ended, he issues a final plea that he is followed “now…or down” before breaking off in seeming desperation: “Why does it have to be so hard?” The separation from God may sound hopeless, but to my ears it sounds realistic – the experience of so many of us over our daily lives trying to seek and find Christ. To me, the song seems to echo Augustine’s lament in the Confessions:

“…because I am not full of you, I am a burden to myself. There is a struggle between joys over which I should be weeping and regrets at matters over which I ought to be rejoicing, and which side has the victory I do not know. There is a struggle between my regrets at my evil past and my memories of past joys, and which side has the victory I do not know...Is not human life on earth a trial in which there is no respite?” Confessions X.xxviii (39).

This seems to be the experience that Sufjan goes through in “Vesuvius”: loving and hating, finding and losing, seeking and being sought. The fact that there is no resolution is not surprising, for in the hardship of everyday life the rhythm of our relationship and attitude towards God will often seem to follow this same frustrating pattern. Yet I find comfort not only in the fact that this experience mirrors my own, but also in Stevens’ affirmation at the start of the song that we would all do well to remember. While stating his own weakness, at the end of the first verse he recalls: “Though I know I will fail\I can now be made to laugh”. As can we all. As can we all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you for this post, It is truly inspiring and has opened up an increased desire for me to get closer to God. As it reflects my own experiences with God. It is very encouraging to see that I am not alone in my thoughts and that other people are finding the same struggles throughout our walks with Christ.