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.”

In one of the Festival of Faith & Music’s most insightful discussions, author Andrew Beaujon (managing editor of The Washington City Paper and SPIN contributor) tackled criticism on the enduring gap between the Christian and pop worlds under the headline “Ironic Mind Meets Literal Mind: Does Pop Culture Owe Christian Culture Anything?” “Until Christians come to grips with the idea that they’ve got as much at stake in pop culture as they do in political culture,” he argued, “there will always be a barrier.” Penning perhaps the most comprehensive and candid commentary on the Christian music community with his 2006 book Body Piercing Saved My Life (Da Capo), Beaujon extended his own “outsider’s view” that Christian culture is “purely an American invention,” and that most modern Christian music “evinces adolescent theology at best . . . [and] doesn’t seem to fit into many adults’ lives.”

Hosting a workshop bearing his magazine’s cover tagline, “Signs of Life in Music, Film & Culture,” PASTE co-founder Josh Jackson contributed to the conversation, remarking that “the idea of a whole generation of Christian artists told that their creation has to follow a prescribed Christian structure for a limited Christian audience is devastating. We copy the same styles of our culture, but we sanitize it.”

Keynote speakers David Dark (author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons and other Pop Culture Icons and The Gospel According to America) and Lauren Winner (who penned Girl Meets God and Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity) gave larger perspectives, discussing art and its place, as a whole.

In her address, “Embodying the Incarnation: Christianity and the Arts,” Winner asked attendees to consider if it is “particularly Christian to create art that doesn’t tell the truth.” Arguing her love of pricey decorative art has as much to do with her personal expression of glorifying God as giving to world hunger, Winner explained balance between the practical and the fanciful. “Christians need not, because of our God of abundance, always be concerned about the evident utility of everything that we do. We are called to worship a God who is interested in whimsy and not just utility. Cultivating art is one of the ways we do that.”

Dark offered up his own summary, as he explained, “If it’s truthful, it’s gospel. Meaning if it’s truthful, it’s good news.”

Wrapping up the festivities, the weekend’s performing headliner, Emmylou Harris, mingled spirituality into seemingly every lyric. “Music is like my church,” she revealed at one point. “It infuses me with a reality that I cannot explain. I’m just grateful to be a part of that very mysterious process.”

For more information on the Festival of Faith & Music, go to calvin.edu/admin/sao/festival.



© 2007 CCM Magazine.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.   Click here to try a free issue.