Best-Of Advice

On widows and the fatherless

I love the song “For the Widows In Paradise, for the Fatherless In Ypsilanti.” Sufjan Stevens is incredibly talented, but so many people interpret that song as religious. What’s your interpretation of it?

People see Jesus in everything from Sufjan Stevens to a slice of toast. That’s not gonna stop me from enjoying beautiful music or an egg salad sandwich.

Honestly, whether I’m gazing into Sufjan’s lyrics or a slice of burnt Wonder Bread, I’m happy to acknowledge that there’s a vague resemblance to what everybody thinks Jesus looks like, but in both cases, that’s more a reflection of their own childlike simplicity.

Yes, the song is openly Christian in its references, but anyone who’s not desperate to validate their faith can appreciate multiple layers of meaning and think critically about Sufjan’s words.

For instance, there are quite a few old testament references to widows and the fatherless. Most of them are when god is threatening not only to kill you, but also make your family suffer. (Because anybody who reads the old testament knows that god is basically an angry and jealous mafia boss.)

Still, the general theme throughout is that during the bronze age patriarchy, widows and the fatherless are considered the dregs of society. Nobody wants to bother with a dead man’s wife and kids.

Interestingly, there is only one mention of widows and the fatherless in the new testament, at the end of the Book of James:

“If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

Take a minute and read that again. Let that shit soak in.

It’s saying that if you’re acting religious or preaching religion, you’re missing the point. Instead, you should be quietly looking after the fatherless and widows in their time of need without seeking any recognition for it.

It’s one of the few places in the entire bible where you’ll find a tight passage of scripture that unequivocally says, “ignore all this other ridiculous bullshit and just be a good person when nobody is looking.”

Don’t think for one second that the song’s title is a coincidence. As a matter of poetry, Sufjan couldn’t be more clearly indicating that he understands that the purest form of religion is altruism, and of course, that’s what the song is all about. Altruism.

Of course, the song is poetry written in the first person and uses semiotically charged words such as father, son, and preacher, so if you’re looking for Jesus in the toast, he’s very easy to find.

Those who identify the first person voice of the song to be Jesus aren’t exactly wrong, but they’re also missing the point. It could be Jesus, but it could just as well be anybody.

He’s singing about a certain kind of selfless, altruistic enlightenment that anyone is capable of achieving, because quite frankly, Sufjan’s sophistication isn’t outweighed by his Christianity. (Seriously, don’t even get me started on his deliberately vague and poetic usage of the homophones “morning” and “mourning.” That shit is painfully beautiful.)

Those who need a savior aren’t quite ready to accept that the the song is just as much about them as it is Jesus, and that’s fine. The nature of poetry is that it’s open to interpretation.

Of course, the nature of good poetry is that when you’re ready to see them, new layers of the poem are revealed as you add new layers to yourself.

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3 thoughts on “On widows and the fatherless

  1. hm says:

    Re-read this because I went on a hunt to remember the name of this song. I feel like a ghost watching myself cry in 2010. Damn, son.

  2. March Hare says:

    I take my hat off to you, Coquette, and to your wonderful way with words. It’s very refreshing to read writing in which all the words are used correctly, and with a message that resonates. (Half a decade is nothing. Scary fucked-up, yes.)

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