May 27, 2017

Thoughts on Derek Webb and Stockholm Syndrome

dwThere 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.

Comments

  1. Michael,

    Yeah, I’d like to know too. Where do you find the great Christian music like you’re laking about. I turned off my radio some time ago and never listen to CCM. I used to like modern worship music, but most of that is commercial now to. Where do you turn?

  2. I don’t use “Christian” as much of a category.

    Cornerstone Bands
    Relevant Magazine
    Paste Magazine
    Steve McCoy recommendations
    Old guys with no record label anymore: Terry Taylor, Mike Roe, etc.

  3. @kcillini77, I think “Freddie, Please” is written from the perspective of Jesus, actually, though it puzzled me the first listen or two as well. Here’s the key:

    / The stone’s been rolled away / but you’re picketing my grave / for loving the things you hate. /

    I think he’s singing as Jesus when he says, “/ How could you tell them you love me / when you hate me? /”

  4. FollowerOfHim says:

    Alan Cross said> “Where do you find the great Christian music like you’re laking about. I turned off my radio some time ago and never listen to CCM. I used to like modern worship music, but most of that is commercial now to. Where do you turn?”

    Thanks for asking my question, and to iMonk for some solid recommendations and his review of Webb’s album. (Stryper’s “Yellow and Black Attack” seems like a very long time ago for some of us thirtysomethings — but probably not long enough ago…)

    And this post seems about as good as anywhere else for a non-Calvinist like me to say:

    Happy 500th Birthday today, John Calvin!

  5. The most offensive statements all day:
    1. Stryper’s “Yellow and Black Attack”… just the mention of it…
    2. To whoever said Bruce Cockburn makes you want to go out and shoot yourself: hey, that’s one more seat for me at the concert venue!

  6. Oh, I wasn’t hopping off you, Michael 🙂

    It’s just that some comments (and I’m not naming any names here because I’m not interested in offending any particular person) give the impression that if he’s not singing ‘happy-clappy’, then he’s gone straight from Grace to Law, and I don’t necessarily think that’s the case for musicians such as this guy, who have moved on from “Yay, marvellous!” to “Hey, what are all you whited sepulchres doing, huh?”

    As a side-note, I *hate* the label of “Christian music” and resolutely have avoided any marketed, even the John Michael Talbot that my sister loved *mumblemumble* years back. Because it seems to be either the mushy, God loves us all and it’s all rainbows and puppies stuff, or bad imitations of the trends that were popular just before the current popular trend.

    If you pin me to the wall, I’ll say that for me, a better example of ‘Christian’ music (if we absolutely have to have rock’n’roll) is Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”, even though that’s a totally secular song by a secular group not one bit interested in pushing any particular denomination or Bible reading or religious interpretation, but reacting to one view of Christianity as peddled by the televangelists.

    And yeah – really showing my age here, hmmm? Marilyn Manson cover my eye – the original is the best! 😉

  7. Okay, having just said I run away from anything labelled Christian music, here’s something I did like.

    Recommended via Julie of “Happy Catholic”, Sarah Groves “Jeremiah, Tell me ’bout the Fire”:

    http://www.glyphnet.com/jeremiah/JeremiahLarge.html

  8. Sara Groves is excellent. Another good source is PatrolMag.com. And NoiseTrade.com

  9. Wow, DW is an enigma. I have mixed feelings.

    As to good CM out there. I recommend Andrew Peterson and Eric Peters. You can check them out at the Rabbit Room. Dot com. http://www.rabbitroom.com

  10. I’m glad you wrote on this. I’ve been listening to the CD for two days now and my feelings are mixed. A few of my thoughts.
    1) I am not a fan of electronic music either which means I probably will not listen to this CD much in the future. Webb has a great voice and you just can’t hear it on this album. This is a shame though because there is so much to hear and be challenged by in the lyrics. Mockingbird, which is also a challenging record is a much better style for his voice.
    2) I have mixed feelings about his choice of language, and even more for the fact that he heavily marketed the controversy surrounding the language. I can understand why he did it for the shock value, and understand about the Campolo quote, but I keep thinking about a saying I once heard about comedians: the good ones don’t need to cuss.
    3) The argument laid out in “What Matters More” is the same one that the media has been throwing at Christians for years, specifically the idea that we care more about what goes on in people’s bedrooms than we do feeding the poor. Not that it isn’t a valid point worthy of discussion, it just isn’t as groundbreaking as the marketing of the album lets on.
    4) In the final analysis though I listen to Webb’s music not to have my views reinforced and to feel good about them, but to have them challenged. This album does exactly that and he does it in a way that no one else in music does. For that alone I am thankful for what he did on this album.

  11. kcillini77,
    Why do you feel Jena and Jimmy is a fun song? It’s a nice beat I’ll admit, but the lyrics seem to speak about a guy taking advantage of girl at bar, presumably to lead her to bed or potentially even worse (ie. date rape).

  12. FollowerOfHim says:

    Steve said: “The most offensive statements all day:
    1. Stryper’s “Yellow and Black Attack”… just the mention of it…”

    That’s almost as funny as my mother’s going over the sheet music of their ballad “Honestly” ca. 1988 for a wedding she was playing for and making the following comment on the group photo on its cover: “I didn’t realize there were girls in Stryper!”

    Many thanks to the CCM recommendations of Martha, Ragamuffin and sd smith as well.

  13. Derek Webb is only a controversial because…

    1. The Church as We Know It considered Derek as one of their one, a “real christian” who is now on the verge of straying.

    2. The Church as We Know It as no clue as to the real controversial musicians (who openly identify themselves as following Jesus, but do not promote their music as Christian, though some of it is).

    Compared to the likes of Hansi Kürsch, Dave Mustaine, the White Metal scene, Christian Death Metal bands, These Five Down, and a whole host of other guys who are really out there on the edge, Derek Webb is a super conservative, talented, upstanding, not at all edgy guy who writes great music that politely tickles what he thinks is wrong with the Church.

    Interwebs, I’m here to tell you that Webb is quite tame and that he represents quite a reasonable, level-headed end of the spectrum of musicians who claim Christ.

    But edgy? Please, you’re making yourselves look silly. The lines being discussed here were crossed years ago, many times. The only thing new is that this time it happens to be in an “accepted Christian genre”.

    I promise you that the people who need to hear the Gospel from people like Derek Webb think that the word Jesus is a thousand times more controversial then the word sh*t. If you don’t believe that, its time for you to venture out into the world a bit more and see what’s really going on.

  14. This might be of interest to folks reading the comment stream but Webb was at a Blood Water Benefit Concert here in the DFW Metroplex tonight (with Haseltine, Joy Williams, Christopher Williams and Bethany Dillan) and he gave a very encouraging reminder of the Grace of Christ in saving us and how Christ’s love frees us to love others. Good stuff. The video is linked below.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ8bmYYjj1Q

  15. Michael, Thank you so much for posting this. I remember Derek mentioning that his new album would be a techno album about Fred Phelps which would get him kicked out the of the singer-songwriter category. I haven’t gotten it yet, but I can’t wait. As to several people asking for Christian musicians who don’t get any, or enough, airplay, may I suggest:
    Phil Keaggy (one of the best guitarists ever!)
    Sarah Groves (minor key is essential to her music)
    Aradhna (great world music/Indian sound)
    Over The Rhine (prophetic and just plain cool)
    Psalters (very world music and prophetic)
    Michael Card (best lyricist out there)
    Josh Garrels (great new artist and prophetic)

    You’ll see different styles among these artists. Some of them will be more “prophetic”, some will be more “come to Jesus”. But they all get both. And Derek most definitely belongs in that camp. My intro to Derek was because of his theological insight in his lyrics (I Repent), which, ironically, had both in one song.

    And as to a nasally voice, I love Bob Dylan’s new album! So there!

  16. Andrew, Thank you SO MUCH for posting your link! It’s good to have everyone hear from Derek’s own mouth that he knows that our righteousness comes only from Christ and His works, never our own.

  17. I had not heard of DW before this post. I don’t listen to “christian” music. I tend to look for where God is in any art form.

    I have to say though I am a fan now. We can discuss law and grace, or whatever, but most Christians (across the spectrum)would rather sit in a comfortable pew, here nice sounds about God’s love etc. They have either forgotten or choose to ignore that Love is a verb. It requires action. And for the anti-gay christians I would suggest that they spend a lot of study on how Christ dealt with lepers. That was the “aids” of His day. Can we respond any differently today?

  18. The gospel would have been nice to hear. yes. The message of Stockholm Syndrome may resonate more with people who are surrounded by the type of Christian culture that Webb has a problem with and feel the need to rebel against it. But to those of us who live mostly in a secular context, and are thus made aware of the shortcomings of “fundies” on a fairly regular basis, this message is pretty underwhelming.

    The world is broken in so many ways. Many of us, even in the midst of an economic downturn, are still using up this planet’s dwindling resources to spend ourselves into a blissful oblivion. Is the root of this really an unhealthy preoccupation with homosexuality on the part of religious republicans in the United States? If Fred Phelps stops his repulsive behavior tomorrow will that lead to a solution for world hunger (as if he would listen anyway)? This whole thing seems like a diversion to me. I bought the album because I wanted to be lead to the feet of Christ, and I know Derek has the artistic potential to do this. I’ve personally not been able to find that in this album. Perhaps it wasn’t written for me.

  19. @MK and others re CM: I tend to find a good mix of music on the Bored Again Christian podcast.

  20. RP said: “I have mixed feelings about his choice of language, and even more for the fact that he heavily marketed the controversy surrounding the language. I can understand why he did it for the shock value, and understand about the Campolo quote, but I keep thinking about a saying I once heard about comedians: the good ones don’t need to cuss.”

    Totally agree with you here about him playing up the “controversy”. I’m not really bothered by the language and think he makes a good point, but in the marketing he’s trying way to hard to be “controversial” to attract attention. He’s written some really good songs in the past, but people who go out of their way for negative attention just turn me off. If it’s really controversial, you don’t have to keep saying it, other people will do that for you.

  21. I know I’m old, but I don’t know any of the names here except Rich Mullens.

  22. I’m hearing a lot of the same things about Webb’s new album. Not enough gospel. I don’t have any fuss with it. Webb once criticized Christian music by saying that fans judge the quality of the music by how many ‘Jesus’s per minute’ there are. That’s what these reviews sound like to me. If gospel is what you want put on a blind fold, walk into a lifeway store and arbitrarily choose a cd to purchase, you’ll get the life death and resurrection of Jesus. It usually goes verse: life, chorus: death, bridge: resurrection. And by the way, his cd is only 7.99. The Ringing Bell was given away free as well. Derek Webb is a very special artist. He doesn’t pay well known song writers to craft his cd’s. He’s going to speak his heart, and we’re all going to listen, cause no-one else is brave enough to do what he does.

  23. There are ways of communicating the gospel without using the J-word, which I know is offensive to some people. Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, etc. All gospel as far as I’m concerned.

  24. So, iMonk, you do have time at Cornerstone to see some of the old guys play, huh? (Lost Dogs, 77’s, etc.) I’m going to a Michael Roe house concert in Stillwater, MN on July 31. This will be the 3rd time I’ve seen him, first time was a “Roe vs Pritzl” concert, then saw him with the 77’s on their Holy Ghost Building tour. He is a great musician and I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for the great writing.

  25. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Yes, if you aren’t a Puritan preacher, your art is in trouble in many quarters. There’s a reason Calvin whitewashed churches. — IMonk

    Just like how the Wahabi whitewashed the mosques?

    Because this is Derek’s vocation was well as his ministry. If you want artists to be able to write, record and perform music for you to listen to, somewhere along the line someone has to pay something so they can eat and provide for their families. Otherwise, they have to devote full time to getting a different job that does not allow for the creative process as much. — Ragamuffin

    Just like “Information Yearns To Be FREEEEEEEE! (TM)”?

    (i.e. “Why doncha just upload all your music/art/novels to your website so I can download it all for FREEEEEEEEEEEEEE?”)

    Or “It’s a MINISTRY (TM)”?

    I just got back from visting my writing partner in rural PA. He’s pastoring two churches and trying to support a wife and three sons on minimum wage. (“It’s a MINISTRY…”) PART-TIME minimum wage. (they count each church as half-time, therefore he’s only “part-time” and can be paid as such.) He has turned the lot around his parsonage into a subsistence farm so he and his family can eat, and tells me stories about pastors’ widows in his denomination routinely eating out of dumpsters.

    (That doesn’t mention the job offers he checks out that in the secular world would command six figures but upon further investigation are “Must Provide Own Support — It’s a MINISTRY”.)

    In other words, I think Derek was talking about the Church’s overemphasis on emotions in worship. WHICH IS A MESSAGE THAT ALL OF THE CALVINISTS WILL SUPPORT!! — Brandon T Milan

    Only if they were predestined to do so before the foundation of the world, Brandon.

    The local Christian radio station here in our town has DJ’s who sound like they are always smiling, 24/7, and the music that they play just seems fluffy to me. — Cey

    Make that “SMIIIIIIILING” a la Joel Osteen (blink blink).

    You are right that there are a lot of really talented Christian artists out there, but they aren’t getting the air time and it is frustrating. — Cey

    It isn’t just artists. I’m a writer, sick and tired of competing against the likes of Eragon, Twilight, and Left Behind. CELEBRITY (TM) Best Sellers or vanity press selling out of your car trunk, nothing in between.

    I mean, I am sorry but something is wrong when the songs being played on Christian radio sound just like Brittany Spears or the Jonas Brothers. — Cey

    Make that “Just like Brittney Spears, except CHRISTIAN (TM)!”

    As a side-note, I *hate* the label of “Christian music” and resolutely have avoided any marketed, even the John Michael Talbot that my sister loved *mumblemumble* years back. Because it seems to be either the mushy, God loves us all and it’s all rainbows and puppies stuff, or bad imitations of the trends that were popular just before the current popular trend. — Martha

    Martha, there’s a saying that you know when a business fad is about to crash and burn when Harvard starts graduating MBAs majoring in that particular fad.

    Just like you know a trend has jumped the shark when the “Just like that trend, but CHRISTIAN (TM)!” knockoffs start hitting the shelves and airwaves in Christian Bizarro World.

    Derek Webb is only a controversial because…

    1. The Church as We Know It considered Derek as one of their one, a “real christian” who is now on the verge of straying.

    2. The Church as We Know It as no clue as to the real controversial musicians (who openly identify themselves as following Jesus, but do not promote their music as Christian, though some of it is). — Leslie

    “It’s The End of the Church As We Know It
    And I feel fine…”
    — How IMonk could filk REM

  26. RP – Sure, Jimmy has not so subtle ulterior motives in the song, but I don’t think the song is leading to that kind of inescapable conclusion. Even the most die hard Joshua Harris fan, when being truly honest, has to admit to times of sensual attraction where they wished their date would just stop going on and on about their passions and lean in for a kiss. I don’t know what about the song leads you to the conclusions you came to – maybe the drinking? I guess I say it’s fun because of a) the sound, and b) the fact that he’s exploring the common thoughts of a young guy and girl without feeling the compulsion to turn it into a heavy handed morality lesson.

    Philip Winn – Thanks! You just completely decoded “Freddie, Please” for me. Now I feel stupid 🙂

  27. I personally have been a fan of Derek Webb for a long time as well. I think his art is to speak from a “prophet on the mountain top”. I think we have enough music out there to stroke our need to hear about grace. Heck,we even have enough to ego stroke us. I see Derek Webb as one to shake all that up. It is as though he is saying, “ok, guys, we talk about grace, but where is it?” I don’t think he comes off as having the full answers, but as someone coming from the question and I appreciate him for it.

    His latest work is very abstract in nature and I think that is on purpose. If you have watched the video that came with some of the tiers I think that is clear.

    I think what gets people’s backs up is that he holds up a mirror that contrasts what someone says and what they really do. Example: “If I could tell what’s in your heart by what comes out of your mouth
    Then it sure looks to me like being straight is all it’s about”
    Pretty forward and true. Even “Freddie Please”, although focused towards Fred Phelps is very upfront.

    I don’t know. I just accept the art Derek offers. I love that I have to think about what he is saying and it isn’t fluffy. I have enough of fluff over the years.

    Peace

  28. Just got to this, Michael. You’ll be surprised to see I disagree with you about part of it.

    You said:
    [QUOTE]
    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.
    [/QUOTE]

    No one else is saying that it turns out that we’re sinners judging others by a law we can’t ourselves uphold? I think the difference between Webb and the others who are saying this is that the others saying it aren’t just reproaching “conservatives” — they are also reproaching all the stripes of over-realized eschatology, all manner of phariseeism on the left and the right.

    It seems to me Derek Webb is in his Calvinist adolscence, and he’s enjoying it. Don’t we all?

  29. Excellent review, Michael!

  30. Ok, so somebody said Freddie was written from the perspective of Jesus to a follower, while someone else said it may be written about Fred Phelps. I guess I’m confusedthe most by the line ” you know you’re just a queer” or something along those lines. I love the new cd, but I can’t figure that song out

  31. Blackeye$ says:

    A true case of “Stockholm Syndrome” would have included the victim feeling something other than contempt for the bottom-feeding-artist who turns their pain into his profit.