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May 1, 2011

For the third day in a row, I woke up with the sun streaming through the gaps between the curtains. Today I also woke with a fragment of the Sufjan Stevens song I posted Friday, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” in my head – the same fragment I used as a title of my last post: “all the glory.” Glory is a funny word. I have three somewhat combative associations with it. One is religious – it turns up in hymn texts all the time. “All glory, laud and honour,” for instance. Or the liturgical “Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.” Then there’s the military/patriotic use as the glory of battle, the film Glory (which all reminds me of a stunningly awkward first date I once had), and things like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is actually somewhere between religion and patriotism. “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” The last is as the exclamation “Glory Be,” which I remember hearing when I was a child on a field trip at an historic house where two docents in costume reminded me of some literary maiden aunts, or maybe the slightly tipsy Baldwin sisters on The Waltons as they offered directions to “the necessary.” “What’s the necessary?” the girl next to me asked. “Glory be, child! We don’t talk about such things.” I elbowed her in the ribs and hissed in the girl’s ear, “she means the toilet!” In all three situations, I feel on the outside of the meaning. It is part of some things I’m not sure I want to be associated with.

But when the sun comes out after weeks of clouds and rain, “glory” is exactly the right word. Maybe I’m thinking of the morning glory seeds I planted in front of the trellis on the front porch yesterday, watering them in with my enormous green watering can with the brass sprinkler. Glory is effulgent, organic, mysterious. A gift you may not deserve, something to marvel at. That’s the part of religion I can stand behind on a Sunday morning. It’s the kind of religion that finds me not in church but ankle-deep in mud in my vegetable garden and rehanging the bird feeders that have blown down in the windy night.

Digging around for the story behind this song a day or two ago, I came across a discussion of Sufjan Stevens’ Christianity and the religious overtones of this song in particular here. It’s not the first time I’ve visited the song meaning website. Usually the appeal is more akin to watching a spectacular crash at an auto race than to having an intellectual discussion with colleagues. But this time the comments on “Casimir Pulaski Day” are wrestling with the meaning of faith and Christianity and the tension between sacred and secular, particularly in pop culture. Not all of them, of course. There are plenty of car crashes and flamers and plain old superficiality. But some thoughtfulness too.

One of the commenters there led me to this 2006 interview with Stevens where he speaks eloquently on the confluence of faith and art in his music. Basically, he comes to the conclusion that if you are a religious person, religion will find its way into your art – “Whether you are religious about politics or fashion (or saving the whales), you are still motivated by your convictions to participate in art.” He also draws a distinction between didactic or proselytizing and art: “On an aesthetic level, faith and art are a dangerous match. Today, they can quickly lead to devotional artifice or didactic crap. This would summarize the Christian publishing world or the Christian music industry. If you are an artist of faith (a Methodist or a Jew), then you have the responsibility to manage the principles of your faith wisely lest they be reduced to stereotype, which is patronizing to the church and to the world, and, perhaps, to God.”

My attraction to Stevens’ music is purely sound-based. His mix of styles and instruments and the complexity of his rhythms and layered tracks is what draws me in. Half the time, I don’t even know what the words are – there’s so much else to listen to. But I’m a little impressed with someone who can wrestle with issues like this without demeaning them and still get regular radio airplay.

On this sunny morning, it’s Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois on my iPod, a forest full of bluebells and daffodils, and a large iron spade buried in the black dirt. Glory.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2011 11:15 am

    It’s amazing what a difference the sun makes — the sun is out here, too, and we’re all out too, working in gardens or just walking around. I saw the neighbors I haven’t seen for three months yesterday. We’re all coming out of our houses — sort of stunned.


  1. Bells are ringing « spynotes

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