Sufjan Stevens’ “Night Zombies” & the Human Person in Christian Anthropology

4 June 2006

SufjanIn “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Are Back From The Dead!! Ahhh!,” a track off indie-spiritual singer Sufjan Stevens’ soul-searching 2005 concept album about the state of Illinois, Stevens intimately admits that he “tremble[s] with the nervous thought of having been, at last, forgot.” So is the sentiment of much of humankind. The idea of being utterly forgotten is one that has plagued humankind since the dawn of its time. This notion of legacy has lead humanity to some of its greatest achievements – and some of its most horrific happenings, too. We remember those who have made a powerful and positive impact on our world, yet regard historical figures such as Adolf Hitler with equal weight if not equal regard. No matter one’s status, hero or villain, if one helps shape the state of the world, a place in history is nearly guaranteed. Nobody wishes to be forgotten, and people will go to great lengths to leave their mark on the Earth before their time is up. We wonder, ‘will we be remembered?’ Even more so, we ponder in fear, if we are forgotten, did we ever exist at all?

That question is never more overt than it is in the social structure of Hollywood and celebrity, where it becomes crystallized into a question of business. Musicians Tupac Shakur, Aaliyah, Elliott Smith, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez of TLC, Biggie Smalls, Selena, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash have died in recent years – and their managers have consequently seen their stock rise considerably. An entertainer can go from famous to icon overnight, as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe did. Even political and social figures can transform into legends upon dying, as happened to Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy (and, for that matter, several others in the Kennedy clan). The business of celebrity is the business of exposure, and what grants more exposure than a premature and/or tragic death? In the standards of Hollywood, sometimes a person is more of a person dead than alive.

This mentality is portrayed in the previously referenced song by Sufjan Stevens. In it, Stevens sings of “night zombies” or “the ghost community,” including such deceased historical figures as Ronald Reagan as participants in this “night of the living dead” – using the cultural reference “night of the living dead” to highlight the way in which these individuals are, almost, more “alive” now that they are dead. Stevens recognizes that this fear of being forgotten exists on a communal level (“I know, I know the nations past/I know, I know they rust at last/They tremble with the nervous thought/Of having been, at last, forgot”) and an individual (“We see a thousand rooms to rest/Helping us taste the bite of death/I know, I know my time has passed/I’m not so young, I’m not so fast/I tremble with the nervous thought/Of having been, at last, forgot”). As Stevens brings his repeated exclamations of fear over being forgotten to an end, a chorus closes the song with the lines, “I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S! Hold your tongue and don’t divide us/I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S! Land of God, you hold and guide us.” In the end, Stevens recognizes that God plays a key role in the issue of the human self in the context of legacy.

Stevens poses a question of existential and Biblical identity: if one is not known, does one exist? One mode of Christian Anthropology states that “it is in relationship with other persons as well as with God that the divine image is expressed” (McGrath 1993, P.7), or more simply, that “humans are meant to be in relationship with one another” (Hanson 1997, P.85). Even the Biblical story of the creation of humankind – both versions, but with particular emphasis in the version found in Genesis 2 – seemingly emphasizes the necessity of human relationship in the context of the human person. In fact, in the King James Version of the Bible, Genesis 2:18 finds God explicitly stating that “it is not good that the man should be alone.”

Throughout Stevens’ ode to the human person, several lines are repeated for seeming emphasis. One such sequence says, “Who will save it? Dedicate it?/Who will praise it? Commemorate it for you?” In essence, Stevens is tackling a simple yet universal concept: the curiosity over what people will say about us after we are dead. While we may never know firsthand, in musical conversation Sufjan Stevens gets a step closer to an answer through an obliquely Christian Anthropological understanding of the human subject in the context of relationships. Maybe it says something that he releases his records independently, avoiding the Hollywood hierarchy of death and worth.

Sources: “The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Christian Thought,” edited by Alister McGrath; “Introduction to Christian Theology” by Bradley Hanson; King James Version of the Bible; “Illinois” (music recording) by Sufjan Stevens.

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