The second of his States series, Illinois, presents Christian themes emphatically among lyrics about Chicago politics, race relations, and vicious summer bugs. His work is best when the earthly and the spiritual mix, as on "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," where his portrait of the serial killer ends with "And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid." A frighteningly egoless examination of the darkness within, "Gacy" is Stevens's continual confession lived publicly through song. It is a lesson in bravery, one I can learn just as well without faith.
If there's anything Sufjan Stevens has learned from Christian rock's lectures, or for that matter from 2,000 years of Christian narrative, it's that the best mix of sacred and secular comes by contextualizing lived experience, offering narratives of God's impact on broken lives rather than open-ended invitations to be part of the story. In his songs, the faithful doubt and doubters are not cast aside. There's a place for the dismayed secularist, perhaps even a chance to strike up a chat with a boy in a hoodie about the seemingly irreconcilable gulf between Christian rock's intentions and the alternative nation's focus on resulting aesthetic objects. Now that there's good Christian rock, it's an argument worth having.