Hedging The Soul Bets With Sufjan Stevens
Lo these many centuries, artists and writers have set forth an eclectic array of ideas about the devil. Like a stern, white-bearded philosopher, a 12th-century mosaic discovered in Torcello portrays the old deceiver in stoic form, never mind the disembodied floating heads of presumed sinners surrounding him, waiting to be devoured. In the first installment of his epic trilogy, Dante assigned Satan bat wings and consigned him to eternity trapped in the geologically inaccurate but artistically useful frigid climate of earth’s core. This Inferno vision of Hell included the two great traitors of 14th-century Christendom condemned to suffer at Satan’s side in perpetual torment: Judas and Brutus.
Like something escaped from a Salvador Dali nightmare, the Devil is imagined by Hieronymus Bosch as a lithe bird priest, ingesting humans through the mouth while divesting himself of their remains out the derriere. (That Bosch completed his Garden of Earthly Delights in the year 1500, predating the surreal and disorienting landscapes of Dali by over 400 years, raises questions about modernity’s claims to novelty.) The English majors amongst us will likely be most familiar with John Milton’s almost sympathetic portrayal of Heaven’s most fallen angel in Paradise Lost. Satan is eloquent and nearly persuasive on his version of events, a lost boy suffering from illusions of grandeur, the quintessential cosmic failson.
Given what we know of it, that the 20th-century brought the devil closer to human form is no surprise. Contemporary painter Jerome Witkin depicts Satan as a heavy-set tailor for the Nazis. Christian writer C.S. Lewis gave the devil’s minions alarmingly recognizable personalities in The Screwtape Letters. Elder, experienced Uncle Screwtape writes his nephew Wormwood with friendly advice on how to waylay the human soul of a man Wormwood’s been assigned to bring down. Tactics include the très modern vices of nonstop distraction and relishing to a fault all the comforts and ease necessarily entailed by a mid-century middle-class station.
In short, there are divers ways to the dark side. Even more distressing: the Eden account in Genesis suggests that siding with the shady serpent is humankind’s default nature. To choose life and love and light, to choose God is a state of mind and heart that does not come to us easy.
For Sufjan Stevens, this is not unfamiliar terrain. Many (perhaps all) of his albums are, ultimately, spiritually informed, his lyrics born from the language of Christianity. Stevens’ rise to indie stardom coincided with my young-to-mid adulthood, so I am close with the albums I had time in my 20s to listen to at length. However, I admit partial ignorance of Stevens’ remaining catalogue (in part ‘cuz this man is PROLIFIC— twenty albums in the span of about 20 years.)
Which is to say, I don’t know, definitively, how often Stevens has referenced or dealt directly with the idea of the devil. What I do know is the archfiend makes a brief appearance in “Video Game,” the marquee single off Stevens’ 2020 album Ascension. After his usual fashion, Stevens gives you interpretation options:
I don’t want to put the devil on a pedestal / I don’t want to put the saints in chains.
The line enters “Video Game” in the third verse, shortly after Stevens repeats his opening riff on Depeche Mode: “I don’t want to be your personal Jesus.” (There are a whole lot of things Stevens doesn’t want in this song. More on those to come.)
Stevens’ phrasing suggests an adult who grew up as a Christian kid and, ergo, is constrained by a foundational hesitation to outright spiritual defiance. Damnation, if even once believed, is a haunting and lingering concept, one that may be impossible to fully shake. But I like to think Stevens is not driven by fear. He doesn’t seem the type, though let’s admit this is coming from an aging fangirl perspective. I suppose I prefer to think Stevens is genuinely attached in some way to faith, in some way invested in the defeat of evil.
A delightful qualifier shows up twice in the song’s opening verse: “In a way, I wanna be my own believer” and “In a way, I wanna be my own redeemer.” These are not the assertions of a Nietzsche convert. Stevens may not be interested in casting himself as a messiah figure, or even as just a normie with no need of redemption, but the possibility of Christ remains open. In a way, though, Stevens would like to claim a level of agency for himself.
What is he really talking about though, up on the straightforward read? It appears to be the new devil of social media/internet fame game, and if we’re going by emphasis via repetition, of all the things Stevens does not want, he is most aggressively not wanting to “play your video game.” The entire chorus is Stevens repeating this sentiment, and the line shows up in every verse too, save the last one.
I don’t want to be the center of the universe / I don’t want to be a part of that shame.
Oh, lyric, may you hurt so good.
When a human enters the screen of social media, they are joining a popularity contest, whether they know it or not. Likes, clicks, followers, claps—whatever the metric, a fall to narcissism is locked in to the deal, from that inaugural login onward.
Christian teaching grants to just one entity the right to center-of-the-universe status, and that would be God. Kicking oneself off main stage has been a Christian preoccupation since the small group of Jesus’ disciples started writing down and disseminating their encounters with Him in the first century C.E. (A.D.).
At any rate, Stevens has got no time for the idle (idol!) folly of the Extremely Online founding premise. To track, curate, photoshop, caption, promote, and monetize takes exorbitant time and will inevitably convince a person, over the long haul, that the 2D backlit image pulling clicks and claps is the most important self you’ve got. Worse, it will convince a person that the 2D backlit image pulling clicks and claps is the most important self anyone’s got.
How bad does this get for someone with actual, real-life celebrity? God help us. It must get bad.
Stevens says: I’m out this game. And if you hear this song the way I do, you’ll catch the phantom heavenly wings that glide through much of the Sufjan Stevens oeuvre. Some of his compositions act on a person like a shimmering conduit to spiritual awakening—there’s a soul in this music, an old soul, an American soul, an eternal soul. When you hear it, sometimes, you suddenly remember that this is also your soul. Sometimes, it is enough to simply hear Stevens grant attention to the soul—there’s not much company in that boat, these days.
A chronological list of things Stevens doesn’t want, according to “Video Game:”
- to “be your personal Jesus”
a. to “live inside of that flame”
2. to “play your video game”
3. to “be the center of the universe
a. to “be a part of that shame”
4. to “be a puppet in a theater”
5. to “love you if you won’t receive it”
a. to “save the world that way”
6. to “put the devil on a pedestal”
a. “put the saints in chains”
7. to “be your Julius Caesar”
a. “it to go down that way”
There are also some things Stevens doesn’t care about (“if everybody else is into it” and if it’s “a popular refrain”) and some things he addresses to “You.” As in, “you don’t want to be the one who has to pay for it” and “you don’t want to be the one who has to change.” All “you” are looking for is “what the resume tells you.” Oof.
Divorced from their melody, these declarations come off unapologetic, even hostile. You can miss the lyrical zing when delivered via Stevens’ ethereal voice, but it’s explicit in the black and white text. Will Stevens participate in the monoculture of #thatscreenlife? No. Will he allow excuses for those who do?
I don’t want to be the center of the universe/I don’t want to be a part of that shame.
We are familiar with embarrassment and humiliation, and we are perhaps more afraid by the viral threat of such experiences than we’re consciously aware. But shame is different. From Merriam-Webster’s, the very first definition, emphasis mine: “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.”
For Stevens, a capitulation to social media’s distorting vision for humanity should provoke shame, period. This could be a unanimous sentiment, considering how much of it functions. Any event—international or local, political or cultural, artistic or athletic, lasting or trivial—is no longer presented as an outside occurrence/object to be considered. No, now every single thing in this world becomes important, first and foremost, in how it relates to you. A massacre overseas becomes an opportunity burnish a brand, whether personal or corporate. A controversial film becomes a way to broadcast your political cred. Personal posts often suck in the most attention; up go a million-billion wedding pics/live-stream grocery trips/confessions of infidelity/delivery room selfies/screams for eyeballs/affirmation/help.
Where’s the soul at in this economy? We’re entering an era of human history that says if it didn’t happen online, it didn’t happen. Of course, this is a lie, and logically, we know this. But does it matter that you recognize a deceit if you behave as if it’s true?
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole internet and yet lose his soul?
Stevens’ answer is the same rhetorical one Jesus gave in the original question (replace “internet” with “world,” Mark 8:36).
But as mentioned above, interpretation options are here and they make their appearance in the third verse. Amongst his best known teachings, Jesus said to love your enemy, to pray for those who hate you. Unreciprocated love is thus a necessary and inevitable tenet of Christianity. Stevens isn’t having it. He does not want to love those who “won’t receive it.” He disagrees with the idea, or at least the execution, of redeeming the world “that way.”
He then states he does not want to “put the devil on a pedestal” or “put the saints in chains,” but here comes a little adverb afterward suggesting Stevens will do so if that’s what it takes to get respite.
I just want to make my life a little easier.
Excusing himself from The Discourse means the rare and precious soul talk Stevens provides will be missing. A void. An absent counterbalance to the nonstop push towards self-optimization, that wholesale surrender to self-centeredness that masquerades as liberation, one’s supposed “best life.”
As Stevens puts it, he doesn’t want to be “your personal Jesus.” That means, in part, removing himself from the online hustle. Don’t look to me for salvation! Fair enough.
But old Uncle Screwtape knew the temptation of ease is a powerful one. Discomfort is a feeling we avoid, from smacking down the morning alarm to procrastinating on emails and dishes. We don’t mind work so much once we’re in it, but when there’s the option to stay comfy, we’ll usually choose the latter. How many of us would check out from society altogether, if we had the funds and the career option of doing so? Don’t forget all those billionaires millions of dollars in on escape plans, should the end of the world befall us on their watch. A person of means can airlift himself out and away from the masses now, if he wants. It’s easy.
The path of least resistance, you know. Usually not the right one, and all that. But is it in this case? Is online self-exile the only way to “win” in 2020 (or 2022)?
The final verse. A doozy. A song full of references to Jesus and the devil, hanging out mainly on that metaphysical plane Stevens so effortlessly bounds up to, then pivots to… Julius Caesar. Another person Stevens doesn’t want to be, but an identity he appears resigned to take on.
I don’t want to be your Julius Caesar / I don’t want it to go down that way
But in a way you gotta follow the procedure / So go ahead and play your video game
Julius Caesar, famed for three things: exceptional military talent; dictator-for-life aspirations; being murdered by his pal Brutus. In what way Stevens assumes he’s going to echo Caesar is not entirely clear to me, but if I had to pick, I suspect it’s the final one.
Stevens may resign from the online attention brawl, but it’s coming for him anyway. There is no escape from it, for Stevens or anyone else. Hm. Depressing. Probably true.
(Aside: How much of this song is actually just a good time shout out to Lana Del Rey? Makes you think.)
He will choose the easy path, he will not enter the online riot gangs. Stevens will not save anyone, he does not consider himself worthy of that role. He anticipates his own demise, nevertheless.
It’s unclear how Stevens thinks his soul will ultimately fare. And here, I can’t help but think of Dostoevsky’s devil from The Brothers Karamazov. Arguing with Ivan in the young man’s fever dream, and none of us know: is this devil right, is he real? Ivan wants to know, but he does not know. Ivan wants to believe, but he is struggling with which question to ask:
Who can love a God who kisses His executioner?
Who could ever do otherwise?