There is and should be much discussion of Derek Webb’s new album, Stockholm Syndrome. For example, read Denny Burk’s take here, or if you are intrepid, the BHT discussion that occurred yesterday, primarily between Jared Wilson and myself.
If you haven’t heard the edgy and controversial “What Matters More,” you can hear it at Youtube. I heard that Campolo riff on comparative shock over profanity or starvation years ago, but in today’s atmosphere of prissy piety, it’s needed more than ever. Applause from me.
Derek Webb has followed a fascinating trajectory as an artist, from his days with Caedmon’s Call (including a recent contribution to their excellent last album) to worship music on various collaborations to his more prophetic, political and even strident creations on his four solo albums. Those Calvinists who were elated with Webb’s ability to actually sing about the TULIP several years ago are now being served up in-your-face portrayals of Christian bigotry and hypocrisy, especially about the treatment of gays and support for the culture war. (NOTE: I’m not saying Calvinists are bigots. If I said “Christians,” it would be accurate, but it was Calvinists who were fawning over Webb early on.)
Webb has succeeded in being that most interesting of Christian artists: one too hot for Christian radio. The arrival of mild profanity in the current album continues envelope pushing that started when Christian radio refused to play Wedding Dress and its Augustinian description of the church as a whore.
I love Webb. I consider him immensely talented. His current work is ground-breaking and I hope millions of young Christians listen to it and identify with it. But I have some thoughts.
I saw Webb live several years ago on the Mockingbird tour. He was genuinely entertaining. Today, even though I’m a fan, I’d think twice or more about whether I wanted to sit through an evening of Stockholm Syndrome. Not for a lack of creativity or artistic talent. Far from it. And not just because I’m not a fan of electronic music.
I’m just not sure I want to be pummeled by the law- and the truth about the church and culture- for an hour or two. And make no mistake about it, on the “law-Gospel” continuum, this is law and prophetic denunciation, delivered with relentless consistency. No one else is saying this stuff and Webb doesn’t miss his punches. His pleasant voice betrays his very unpleasant message. We are a captive church that is now identifying with the values of our cultural captors, and it’s not pretty. Our treatment of the gay community provides a painful example.
But our discussion at the BHT yesterday wound up talking about how we missed Rich Mullins, an artist who could have written many of the same songs, but who would have put “Hold Me Jesus” in there as a Gospel antidote to the law’s condemnation. Even on an artistic level, Mullins would have found a way to draw you in through the beauty to be found in the brokenness. If the Jesus Record was any indication, it would have been Christ centered repentance for our foolishness.
I wrestle with this in my own writing and preaching. I notice these kinds of failures of the church, but grace and the Gospel don’t register with me as naturally. Grace is there, but I’m very insensitive. But the failures of Christians and Americans? I can see them easily. My ease in spotting those issues has some risk, however; risk that I hope Webb is considering on his artistic journey.
Webb is following the way of Jeremiah and the prophets. There is no real good news here. He knows the Gospel and has skillfully delivered it before, but what’s moving his artistic soul these days are issues of faithfulness, love, compassion and mercy. To be specific, the absence of them. You can fault him for not providing a larger context- I don’t, by the way- but you can’t fault him for failing to stand by an issue until you see the stark nature of the church’s failure to be like Christ. Those of you who greet any criticism of the church with a chorus of spin about how wonderful the church is may want to stay away from Webb right now.
Christ’s presence in Webb’s recent work is more “slant” than direct. These issues demand a transformation of people like us by the spirit of Jesus. The contrast between the failures Webb sings about and the compassion of Christ is large and unavoidable, even if he chooses to make it a “Jesus shaped void” that reminds us of our need of Christ. I don’t judge Webb by the standard of “He should be singing about the Gospel” as Burk does. I do see that if you are going to use the law, at some point you must use the Gospel, otherwise, what results will be a response to guilt and pain, not to love, grace and God.
Webb’s reformed theology fan club may never forgive him for sounding more like Jim Wallis than John Calvin, but that’s been Webb’s road. If you can ever find the interview where he talks about Caedmon’s being dragged to a “Prayer of Jabez” themed show by their label, you’ll understand a little bit of what turned Webb into a critic of evangelicals. As a fellow pilgrim in the evangelical wilderness, I get it. But I’m not happy about it. And I don’t want to stay here.
Webb is an artist, and I respect his freedom to create and I encourage you to get and listen to Stockholm Syndrome. As a Christian, I want to give Webb all the artistic room possible, and my soul needs to be jolted as much as anyone. But I’d like to pray that Webb has a Lutheran turn in the near future, and finds that speaking of law and Gospel, prophetic intensity and Christ’s love are things that can go together in art and must go together in life.