What’s the deal with Calvin College? One thing’s for sure, it’s not your typical evangelical institution of higher learning.

For starters, we’re talking about a school that regularly hosts concerts by mainstream artists such as Dave Matthews, Hootie & the Blowfish, Death Cab for Cutie, The Indigo Girls, Patty Griffin, The Wallflowers and Nanci Griffith. And when Calvin recently organized its own Festival of Faith & Music, which influential believers did it invite? Try the poster child for independent music, Sufjan Stevens, and American icon Emmylou Harris on for size.

With a mission to be “agents of renewal in the academy, church and society,” the Grand Rapids-based college provided conversation for more than 1,200 attendees at this year’s event, hosting lectures, roundtables, showcases and concerts over two days in late March.

Multiplying its registrants sixfold for 2007, the biennial festival provided an outlet for musicians, journalists, artists, critics and observers—Christians and non-Christians alike—to discuss and commend music that implores faith in a significant manner. Ken Heffner, Calvin’s director of student activities, introduced the festival as trying to “provide a more historic Christian model of how it is we can understand our place in the world. If Christ is making all things new,” Heffner proposed, “what does it look like in the popular culture?”

Two nights of live music hosted arguably the weekend’s finest moments. From the previously mentioned Sufjan Stevens and Emmylou Harris to thoughtful singer/songwriter Sarah Masen and engaging newcomer Neko Case, these artists implemented the very faith-infused art the festival perpetuated.

Enhancing his original music, Stevens and his band donned giant bird wings and feathered masks, tossed inflatable Superman dolls into the audience and utilized a kaleidoscope of video footage. The performance reflected ideals from Stevens’ own conference talk, titled “Lecture,” where he expressed his belief that art should not be “a tool in which we advocate our causes” or a “medium with which we manipulate and meddle with in order to follow our beliefs.” Instead, he opined, “Our sacred calling is supernatural expression in which we endeavor, through a creative act, to participate in all creation.” He also expressed his conviction that art should “transcend culture itself” because “culture is a fashion in a lot of ways,” and “the Spirit of God is regardless of culture.”

In one of his presentation’s many intriguing moments, Stevens targeted his own field of expertise, saying, “I perceive the term ‘artist’ as a pretentious nomenclature, self-conjured description indulged by high-profile personalities who invest more time and energy in executing their role as an artist than in executing their art.”

His lecture also offered vivid insight into how Stevens’ embraces Christianity on a personal level. As he remarked, “Isn’t this one of the insurmountable conundrums of our faith: to yield ourselves enthusiastically to a belief system that requires participation in a community, a church, a fellowship of believers, often rotten, nasty people, woefully misled . . . gossipy, condescending, weird, wild, culturally inane people—and I am one of them. But there you are, worshipping beside each other regardless of whether or not you like each other.” And later, “This is the main enterprise of Christ’s salvation: to know death face to face, so that we may celebrate in the reconciliation of the body, mind and spirit to God, the Father . . . [and] forego all the drudgery of our calculations, speculations and intimidations.”