Sufjan's "Silver and Gold": What's it all mean?

Even though it is "just" a Christmas album and he is making his new tumblr feed (sufjan.com), the whole album release, and the tour into a really fun and zany event submerged in typical Sufjan humor, I really think he's trying to say something deeper with this work.  It's a theme he definitely started hammering out with the first Christmas releases, a theme I think he's forced himself to think about by going through the practice of recording a Christmas record every year for family and friends.

You see, when I first heard the new album's title I was confused.  It just didn't sound Christmasy enough if you know what I mean, and I thought it would make more sense to keep going with the "Songs for Christmas Vol...?" for the EP titles.  He's kind of done this with the individual EPs, but he's also given the entire work a new name all it's own and the EPs have some really crazy titles assigned to them.  So far, everything he has put out about the album promotion-wise has been this ambivalent pastiche between the sacred and the profane, between the holy and the kitschy.  It is all existing right there beside each other--challenging us.  I mean, we have Santa as an axe-murderer right alongside a beautiful acapella version of "Ah Holy Jesus."  Are we OK with this horrible pastiche he is giving us?  I mean, come on just look at the promotional poster for the tour.  It's more than just irony--it's full-fledged satire right alongside full-fledged sincerity.  

I think no matter what Sufjan does he has to point to something deeper, he forces himself to tackle deeper themes.  I mean Christmas is pretty deep in and of itself (with God coming to earth and all), but I believe what he is doing here is reflecting on the "true" meaning of Christmas while at the same time trying to totally deconstruct the way we celebrate or engage in this whole Christmas thing as 21st century postmoderns (or whatever we're supposed to be called these days).

Apart from all the kitschy zany stuff and the lyrics to "Christmas Unicorn" (which all make my points quite apparent in and of themselves) what really started opening up my eyes to these conclusions was some good old fashioned Bible reading.  Recently I've just started reading the book of Isaiah, and here is what I read last night in chapter 4 verses 7-8:

Their land is filled with silver and gold,
    and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
    and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is filled with idols;
    they bow down to the work of their hands,
    to what their own fingers have made.  

and then in verses 20-21:

In that day mankind will cast away
    their idols of silver and their idols of gold,
which they made for themselves to worship,
    to the moles and to the bats,
21 to enter the caverns of the rocks
    and the clefts of the cliffs,
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty,
    when he rises to terrify the earth. 

So, in the chapter I read, I saw two references to "silver" and "gold" and this really got me thinking about Sufjan's Christmas album.  Then, if you do a search in a Bible concordance for "silver" and/or "gold" you'll find them linked together quite often, and basically every time they are used to contrast between something that is temporary and passing away and something that is eternal, between false worship (e.g., gold and silver idols) and true worship of God (check out First Peter 1:18 and James 5:3).  I think this is really amazing and I am wondering if Sufjan meant to put this imagery in his Christmas album.  His point being that we have taken something sacred and pure and eternal and awesome (in the best sense of that word) and made if profane and tarnished and ephemeral and degraded as something only to be packaged in plastic for mass consumption.

I don't know, what do you think?


TwiceBorn said...

You are amazing my man. This was a wonderful discovery. I think you could be right.

Santa Sufjan is the messiah of Christmas satire and of christmas music in general. I can't stop listening to Christmas Unicorn. The way he honestly portrays Christmas for what it is (a confusing broken holiday invented and exploited by mere man) makes it a much more guilt free holiday. You can stop worrying about what Christmas is supposed to be and do whatever you want with it, whether that means celebrating family, Christ's birth, or nothing at all.

Where did you find "Santa as an axe-murderer" and the "Ah Holy Jesus" songs? I thought I had every Sufjan Christmas song available, but I can't find them anywhere.

PostConsumer Reports said...

I'm not sure if he has written a song about Santa as an axe murderer but he did post a .gif on his website that contains screen shots from a movie where Santa was going around killing everyone. A little snippet from "Ah Holy Jesus" was posted on his website too. Just check out www.sufjan.com and keep going back to older posts until you find it. A few weeks ago he was posting things on there once or twice a day, so there's a lot of stuff on there. I do know that the full version of "Ah Holy Jesus" will be released on the new Christmas EP's.

I don't agree with you that we can just make Christmas whatever we want, that is, if we are Christians. Are you a Christian? If not, I won't try to convince you that it should primarily be a celebration/reflection on Christ's birth. I understand we live in a very secular age (some people call it post-Christendom), so yeah, I get the whole "make Christmas what you want thing." However, I think Christians (that is, Christ-followers or members of the Body of Christ) are called to something different when it comes to how we celebrate our holy-days.

TwiceBorn said...

I am a follower of Christ. All I meant by that was that Christmas is not a divinely ordained holiday that requires us to feel a certain way or celebrate a certain way. I you don't like all of the problems with Christmas (the paganism, the greed, the materialism, etc.) then you are not required to celebrate it. If you want to use the holidays as an excuse to enjoy time with you family, then that's great. If you want to use the holidays as a time to reflect on Jesus' birth, that's awesome. Obviously there are wrong ways to celebrate Christmas. For example, we should not join in with the materialism.

I personally think it is wrong to expect people to either celebrate or not celebrate Christ's birth on Christmas. I don't see how Christmas is any more holy than any other day. But that doesn't stop me from deeply reflecting on Christ's birth, enjoying time with family, and listening to songs about Santa coming to town.

I am very anti-postmodern by the way. I also think Christmas is a beautiful time of year that brings me a lot of joy, but many people are very conflicted in their feelings about Christmas. I would be very interested in hearing why you think we are required to celebrate Christmas a certain way or at all. I could be misguided in my thinking.

PostConsumer Reports said...

TwiceBorn (I don't think I know your real name),
I am so sorry I never responded to you comment. I actually had written a very long response to you and then somehow I never actually posted it and the comment window got closed. Anyway, I'll try to re-create what I said:

1. As far as your thoughts about how Christmas is not anymore holy than any other day I see things a bit differently and indeed believe they are in fact different. I believe this is a paradox, as you are completely right in thinking that since God created the world and the world has been redeemed by the work of Christ then every day is holy. At the same time however we still treat some days as holier than others. Sundays are the greatest example of this, when the Church comes together to worship the Lord, hear and respond to God's word, and be filled up with the Holy Spirit. The paradox is this: in order to fully realize how everyday is holy we have to make some days more holy than others--special days set aside to reflect, rest, celebrate, etc. Some secular examples of this are birthday parties where everyone should be thankful to be alive everyday and yet we know it is good to take time to celebrate someone's life. Also, when my wife and I set aside time to go on a date or to go away and spend a weekend with each other, that time becomes more special and we become more emotionally close. In those times we are better able to focus on ourselves as a husband and wife, even though we love each other on all the other days. I guess the special time away with each other makes our love more intense and meaningful and this in turn gives us strength to love each other on the more mundane days when we have to go through the daily grind. Another thing I would also say is that Biblically speaking I believe we see God setting up this kind of rhythm to life in the creation of the world, where he had six days of work and then a day of rest. Our lives naturally fall into this kind of rhythm. I believe this is what holidays are all about. So....

2. As far as how the Church should celebrate Christmas, I don't believe there are necessarily any hard and fast rules EXCEPT that they celebrate it together, as a congregation or as a community of believers. I would hope that there would be lots of singing, praying, and rejoicing, and that the birth narratives of Christ are read aloud. To me it's not as simple as saying that everyone should be required to celebrate a church appointed holy-day, just like it doesn't make much sense to say that someone should be required to throw a birthday party every year. Instead people in the Church should just want to celebrate a holy-day because they are filled with joy and want to express that joy with other Christ followers and the way that we have expressed our joy throughout Church history is to gather together and worship as a people.

There have been a couple of books that have really shaped my understanding of holidays and the Church calendar. They're definitely worth a read:
"Calendar: Christ's Time For The Church" by Laurence Hull Stookey
"Ancient-Future Time" by Robert Webber

I appreciate the conversation and any additional thoughts you may have. Again forgive the delay. I don't feel like I was quite as eloquent as the first time, but I tried.

Anonymous said...

Great artictle! Thanks! Found it while searching for Psalm 115 + Sufjan's 2nd Christmas album.

You might also like to look Psalm 115 up: "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands." http://biblehub.com/psalms/115-4.htm (KJV)

And thanks for Isaiah 2:20!