Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Sufjan Stevens’s Capitalist Christmas Discord

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Christmas music is the best thing about the Advent season next to baby Jesus, in my opinion. Every year, I anticipate the moment after Thanksgiving dinner when I finally allow myself to begin the Christmas music indulgence.

Though I prefer listening to classic carols and hymns, Sufjan Steven’s more alternative Christmas album, Silver and Gold, has recently made its way onto my Christmas playlist.

Stevens is one of my favorite artists for his unconventional instrumentation, theatrical performances, and lyrical masquerades of rich Christian imagery. And his Christmas album sustains his reputation for eccentric originality.

But after listening more closely to his lyrics and instrumentation, and reading the booklet enclosed with the album box set, I picked up on a few anti-capitalist sentiments that seem to be influenced by an over-spiritualized Christian culture.

Commodifying Christmas

Silver & Gold includes five discs containing a total of fifty-nine songs, alternating between personalized renditions of Christmas classics like “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” and original pieces like “Lumberjack Christmas” and “Christmas Unicorn.”

Stevens’s compositions swing from orchestral symphonies to folky-synth to just plain looney tunes. Between the cries of the singing saw and electronic cacophony, the arrangements on Silver & Gold can seem gaudy, distracting, and meaningless at times. But as an artist heavily influenced by his faith, Stevens does little without meaning.

The kitschy instrumental chaos paints a strong significance to his context. A skim through Stevens’s supplemental essays gives the album message clarity: Material extravagance distracts from the true meaning of Christmas.

On page eleven of the box set booklet, Stevens writes:

By now, it’s no mystery that Christmas has become an incalculable commodity in our material world—an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism.

There is no doubt that Christmas lists, glitzy tinsel, and songs about reindeers can be distracting. They present a serious temptation for all Christians that can degrade the meaning of Christmas if not kept in perspective.

Is Commerce A Sin?

But his critique goes further. He declares commerce a sin by confusing it with greed:

Just as Adam and Eve consumed the fruit of the paradise tree, invoking original sin, so do we, in harvesting gifts, partake of the deadly fruits of Christmas: that of commerce, commodity and greed—all the flavors of the Seven Deadly Sins fashioned in various garments of wrapping paper.

In other words, capitalism is an accomplice in the cultural slaying of Christmas.

Stevens’s radical anti-enterprise convictions suffer from two common delusions:

  • He confuses the market economy with consumerism.
  • He elevates the spiritual above the material.

Stevens seems to hold that capitalism is evil because it necessitates materialistic consumerism. But he misunderstands the difference between consumerism and the market economy. Father Robert Sirico makes this distinction clear in Defending the Free Market: A Moral Case for a Free Economy:

All too many confuse a market economy with consumerism, seeing a buy-buy-buy mentality as the outcome and goal of economic liberty…Consumerism is wrong not because material things are wrong. Consumerism is wrong because it worships what is beneath us.

When the goodness of the material is lost, capitalism is an easy scapegoat for consumerism.

The Spiritual & Material: Harmony or Discord?

Stevens’s misconception of capitalism also reflects a broader theological underpinning of all material things, reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism and some modern evangelical movements today. He claims Christmas should be about the spiritual aspects—what we feel and know inside—not material traditions. In “Christmas in the Room,” Stevens sings:

No gifts to give, they’re all right here
Inside our hearts, the glorious cheer
And in the house we see a light
That comes from what we know inside

Stevens wisely critiques the worthlessness of placing one’s hope solely in the material aspect of Christmas, but he misses a great opportunity to distinguish between worship of the material and worship of God through the material. He fails to point out the goodness that physical things can bring at Christmastime. Advent candles, nativity sets, presents, Christmas lights, and ornaments need not distract us from Christ, but exist as physical reminders that lead us to worship Christ.

In a Relevant Magazine article, Justin Earley echoes the need for a proper balance between the spiritual and material in worshiping God during Advent:

We ought not be limited to worshiping God at Christmas through prayer, songs and Scripture reading—but also through enjoyment of His earthly gifts. At Christmas, for example: the startling white of snow, the curious texture of eggnog, the refracted light on tinsel, the warmth of slippers. It’s worship just to engage with this stuff and call it good like God called it.

In seeking to expose the true meaning of Christmas, Stevens paradoxically misses it, by failing to see the goodness in material things without making them into an idol. After all, Christ became man and physically met us in the material world for the salvation of our souls and bodies.

Stevens’s Christmas message is one of massive spiritual and material discord, yet Advent embodies spiritual and material harmony that God intended for the world—and that’s the redemptive beauty in all the silver and gold adorning your Christmas tree.

This article was adapted from the Values & Capitalism blog.

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  • Steve Wishart

    Exceptional. Though I would argue that we hold these things in tension rather than balance.

  • Lea Johnson

    Thanks for sharing this post. I’ve been a fan of Sufjan for years now without knowing of his Christian ties. I think his take on materialism is different than yours and deserves the attention he brings to the strong consumerism mentality that is so ubiquitious in Western Christmases.

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