An important part of my beat here at Word on Fire is interacting with films and music, identifying enriching theological content in various cultural offerings and finding connection points between the Church and a world that needs Jesus. It is a treat when I get to encounter films, music, and theology all in one package, and this combination is precisely what Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine have provided on their new album, A Beginner’s Mind. Stevens’ past records include lots of overtly Christian content, and De Augustine is clearly a disciple of Stevens’ songwriting style. For this album, the two men holed up together in a house in upstate New York and set themselves the task of watching fourteen films and writing fourteen songs based on what they watched. Their movie selections are eclectic, and the result is a gorgeous collaboration that touches the soul deeply. Here’s my reflection on each track, with a bit about each film as well.
“Reach out” is based on Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, a late Cold War masterpiece about an angel, played by Bruno Ganz, who chooses to become mortal. Like almost every film about angels, Wenders’ angelology is flawed—but not entirely so. The depiction of invisible guardians watching over people in the crowded, divided city of Berlin is magnificent. And for the theologically savvy, the film is a strong affirmation of the Incarnation of Christ, and the nature of humans as the pinnacle of creation. Stevens has contemplated the Incarnation in his lyrics many times through the years, and on this track, we hear echoes of T.S. Eliot’s similar emphasis in the line “I have a memory of a time and place where history resigned.” The music is delicate and bright like a Simon and Garfunkel song. It’s a beautiful opener.
“Lady Macbeth in Chains” is inspired by All About Eve, the 1950 classic directed by Joseph L. Mankiewiz. The film stars Bette Davis as Margo Channing, an aging Broadway star shoved out of the limelight by the conniving Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter. Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine sing “evil hid in glitz and glamor,” and the song’s title indicates that wicked ambition curses its possessor in the end. The lyrics are a strong indictment of what Bishop Barron calls the “ego-drama” taking precedence over what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the “theo-drama.” The music is an easygoing folk-pop arrangement that calls to mind the Wilco spinoff band Autumn Defense.