Before becoming the critically acclaimed force behind some of the greatest indie music of the last decade, Sufjan Stevens, aspiring writer, graduated from the same Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program I began last fall. Stevens may have written songs like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “In The Devil’s Territory” (references to Flannery O’Connor’s oeuvre) with or without a graduate degree in fiction, but when I realized that he also has a deep track named for Saul Bellow, another luminary from my first literature seminar’s syllabus, I wondered if we didn’t have this class in common. With O’Connor, the famously Catholic Christian writing from a sea of southern evangelicalism and Bellow, a harder-to-define transcendentalist by way of immigrant Judaism, Stevens shares an uncanny ability to create the kind of art that, at its best, forces us to look up and within.
It’s possible to encounter O’Connnor’s stories (you never really just read them) without explicitly discerning her deep, abiding belief in literary art as Christian vocation or her mission to show, as she said, “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” Clear as day about these motives in her essays and letters, she’s almost never so obvious in her fiction. Perhaps because she uses the evangelical cosmologies of her neighbors as Tolkienesque proxies for her own traditional Catholic systems, it’s easy to infer a sort of distance between O’Connor’s art and faith where she in fact saw none. In the same way, it’s possible to listen to Stevens’ biggest hit, “Chicago”, without immediately sensing the plaintive Christian hymn at its core, but “Casimir Pulaski Day”, “Oh God Where Are You Now?”, “The Lord God Bird”, “To Be Alone With You”, “God’ll Ne’er Let You Down”… well, these and others comprise a body of work that, like O’Connor’s, raises and answers questions about what makes art “Christian.” Like O’Connor, Stevens operates outside of expectation: his confessional work is among his best, but you’d never call him a Christian artist the way, say, Amy Grant is a Christian artist.
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