"Relevance has been America's greatest vanity." - Sufjan Stevens
It was a bad time and place to be cool. “Relevance” took a critical beatdown at last weekend’s Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. Reluctant hipster and youth culture favorite Sufjan Stevens went to great pains to distance himself from the prevailing attitudes that have hailed him as a spokesperson for evangelicalism or “Christian music.” In his artist interview, Sufjan launched into a forty-minute diatribe against Christianity as it is practised in many American evangelical churches, and argued that he desires to point to what is irrelevant, which also happens to correspond to what is sacred and eternal. And music/cultural critic Kevin Erickson led a workshop in which he systematically dismantled the zeitgeist of Christian publication Relevant Magazine, claiming that the publication appropriates the “rebel” iconography and language of the ‘60s counterculture while simultaneously presenting the same conservative political and cultural agenda that has dominated evangelical thought for decades.
Me? I’ve never been cool anyway, so I mostly thought that what I heard was fine, in my own smug, unhip way. But frankly, there was a lot of smugness and finger pointing going around on all sides, so let me attempt to frame a response that I hope is non-polemical, and that values both sides of the relevant/irrelevant cultural chasm.
First, the excesses and ridiculousness of much of the evangelical church has been well documented, here on this blog, and in countless other places. It’s not hard to find people – many Christians among them -- who are supremely dissatisfied with what passes for the “evangelical church” these days, particularly as that term has come to be redefined and hijacked by America’s political leaders. Certainly an overreliance on “relevant” language and music, proven (by corporate business standards, that is) marketing techniques, and a consumerist approach that enthrones the worshipper rather than God are legitimate concerns of any church trying to make a go of remaining faithful to Jesus in 21st century America. If, by some miracle, you are a Christian and have managed to escape those tendencies, I recommend that you watch the movie “Saved” to see them in all their inglorious fulness. We wince because the portrayal is so accurate.
So yeah, Sufjan and Kevin have valid points. “Relevance” has been done badly. Relevance may not require a radical dependence on God to transform hearts and minds, and assumes that the culture can and must play a role in that process. And methinks that any publication that calls itself Relevant Magazine doth protest too much. It’s certainly the wrong focus, and it may miss the point entirely.
But what if … and hang with me here … what if we can’t escape the culture? What if the culture is as inescapable as the air we breathe? What if we have no choice but to reflect the culture in all that we do, including our worship? What would that look like? What should that look like? What if we, as Christians in 21st century America, are called to live out eternal truths? What would they look like? Would they look the same as the eternal truths that 7th century Roman Christians lived? Or 11th century Russian Christians? Or 1st century adherents of an obscure Jewish sect? What would change? What wouldn’t change?
Or, to bring it closer to home, or at least Grand Rapids, Michigan, what if Kevin’s do rag was as much a part of the culture that he lives and breathes as the ‘60s rebel iconography that he criticized in Relevant Magazine? What if the inflatable Santas and Supermans that Sufjan tossed offstage Friday night weren’t, you know, actually part of eternal verities, but had more to do with the culture in which he lives? Is it okay to do that sort of thing? As a Christian, evangelical or not? Is it okay to be ironic and kitschy, and thereby entertain the culturally aware masses? Or must one be the victim of one’s own remorseless logic and insist on irrelevance in one’s art, just as one insists on irrelevance in one’s worship and church affiliation?
“Relevance” is a synonym for “connection.” And connection ought to be a worthy goal of the body of Christ – connection with God, connection with one another within the church, connection with the wider world in acts of service and compassion. Clearly Christians can and do disagree on what constitutes bad, better, and best ways of connecting. But I would like to submit that “irrelevance” is nowhere near the top of the list, and that people and churches who are irrelevant find themselves operating ineffectively and in isolation. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that we shouldn’t critically examine what elements of the culture we do and do not incorporate into our Christian lives. But it does mean that, short of retreating to caves, we can and must interact with the culture in which we live. We don’t have to label ourselves as such, and it would probably be best if we didn’t, but that certainly entails being relevant.