Some artists write songs that are meant to soothe. They craft feel-good tunes about topics we can all agree on that ask nothing more of you than to sing along. Derek Webb isn't one of those artists.
From his 2003 solo debut, the critically-acclaimed She Must and Shall Go Free, to the artistically-challenging I See Things Upside Down, Webb has a message to deliver and he isn't shy about saying just what he thinks. His third solo studio disc, Mockingbird, tackles subjects from social justice and politics to relationships in a raw way that is sure to make some people uncomfortable. And that's okay with Webb. The Church has been comfortable for far too long.
She Must and Shall Go Free, with poetic yet explosive singles like "Wedding Dress," addressed what Webb refers to as the first side of the gospel coin, the one which proclaims Jesus has come. Mockingbird, due out Dec. 26th, is all about the flipside of that same coin, the coming of His Kingdom. "That second half is essentially the 'being made right' of all things," Webb explains. And according to him, there's a lot still to be made right.
"People seem concerned with what God wants us to do, with how we should use our gifts and resources. But we're not the first ones to ask that question. First Century Christians asked that. They asked Jesus which commands are the most important. He could have picked drinking or sex, and as important as those things are to discuss, Jesus tells us that they are at best secondary to 'love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.'"
It sounds simple enough, but as Webb is quick to point out, "we have a history of not loving people well. We live in a country that was founded on genocide against Native Americans. We haven't loved well and a lot of people don't like Americans. We need to own up to some responsibility there, we need to look at why, and we need to let that inform how we're making decisions for the future."
We can start by better proclaiming that second part of the Gospel message. But be warned: It involves rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. After all, one of the most effective ways to talk to people about a Kingdom where all is made right is to start setting things right here on Earth. For Webb, that means "when you see someone who is hungry, you proclaim a Kingdom where there will be no hunger by putting food in their mouth."
That social justice emphasis may rankle some, but Webb simply sees a tremendous opportunity for, at very least pre-evangelism. "It earns for us the right to speak into situations as it requires of us that we eat and weep and live with people. At the very most, social justice is evangelism. Our action is our proclamation. This is what I believe St. Francis might have meant when he said to 'preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.'"
When it comes to the political undertones in his latest offering, Webb is aware that some may say, "It's not your role, it's not your job, it's not your business," to tackle such sticky subjects in his art, but Webb believes it is. "Proclaiming that Kingdom often looks like social or political work. Politics are a great means for social change, and as Christians we have a responsibility to talk about and engage with that." While he claims there might be others more qualified, these subjects are not typical for Christian artists. "I'm not sure I'm the best one to do it," Webb admits, "but it's not like people are lining up for this particular job. And we need to start this dialogue yesterday about how to love people better."
We can begin by making more of an effort to meet in the middle, Webb suggests. "I believe there are many who are trying to love and take care of people, we just have different ideas about how best to do it. Let's stop arguing and name calling, let's find something to commend about one another and then start from that place of unity."
Living "in the middle" is something Webb sees Jesus model, and it means, for instance, letting go of our idea that the terms "Christian" and "Republican" go hand in hand. "If you look, Jesus doesn't go straight down one party line. We try to fit Him into our western politics, but He wouldn't land on either side. We, too, have to be willing to move in and out of political systems and parties if we're going to follow Him. Jesus wouldn't have belonged to any party in a two party system." It is these ideas that are behind songs like "A King & A Kingdom," in which Webb explains spiritual allegiance trumps any sort of nationalism.
There are also songs that address the relationship between a husband and wife, a subject Christian music has at best only tip-toed around in the past. "I Hate Everything (But You)" and "Please, Before I Go" are Webb's honest attempts to not let pornographers get the last word on sexuality. "Why let MTV or the media have the only word? Why can't we have something to say about it as well?" he wonders. "We've got to be speaking and putting a biblical framework around sexuality." Okay, we know what it's about, but what does the album sound like? For all 11 tracks on Mockingbird, Webb turned to the band that's been with him for the last year and a half, the same guys who played on I See Things Upside Down. But just because the players are the same, that doesn't mean the sound is. Webb says the experimentation of the last record helped wipe the slate clean, allowing him greater freedom than ever before.
Recording in the home he shares with his wife and fellow musician, Sandra McCracken, Webb was able to spend as much time as he needed to get just the sound he was after. "Because you don't have the pressure of paying for studio space by the hour, you can slow down," Webb explains. As a result, there were musicians, instruments and cables in every room. To counter that homespun atmosphere, Webb enlisted Shane D. Wilson (Rich Mullins' A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band) to engineer and mix the new album.
Webb & Co. also studied the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album for inspiration, resulting in a few sonic surprises that audiophiles will really enjoy. "It's fascinating to see how they placed everything in the mix," Webb says. So, taking a few cues from the Fab Four, the band made Mockingbird what Webb describes as "a fascinating record for headphones."
It's no surprise that Webb was so clear on what he wanted the album to sound like. Those who've met him quickly realize he's someone who knows who he is and what he wants. As a result of that confidence, it's easy to imagine the messages in his songs aren't for him but for us. Nothing could be further from the truth. "There are a lot of revealing moments like in 'A New Law,'" Webb admits, referring to a song about wanting to be told how to think instead of hashing out the issues ourselves. And the title track hits home as well. The mockingbird is known for its ability to mimic, something that can be good or bad, depending on the source. "And yes, it's true that I need this more than you," Webb sings, making it clear we're all in this process together.
Still, it's a process he feels responsibility for. "I take seriously my role as an artist," Webb says. "I know it's a luxury to spend hours on the porch talking about these issues. The point of this record is to give people language enough to get started." Not that the rest of us are off the hook. "We need to learn to be whole people. I need to tune my ears to hear what is going on in the world. I need to involve myself in what's happening in the world, just as a human being, even if it's hard or time consuming. The alternative is more time consuming. For instance, it may be expensive to help with the emergency in Africa, but it will be more expensive to deal with the fallout in coming years from not acting now."
For Webb that currently includes his work with Blood:Water Mission to raise awareness about the extreme poverty that one-sixth of the world's population currently lives in. He also traveled to Washington, D.C. in June with one of the organization's founders, Jars of Clay member Dan Haseltine, to share ideas at an ecumenical symposium attended by others eager to help. He's also a regular fixture on iTunes, one of the only Christian artists with a regular Podcast. "It's just another way to put your worldview out there, to connect with people," he says.
For those who aren't sure how their views line up with Webb's, all he's asking is that they give him a chance. "I'm not trying to push buttons or make people upset," he says. "I'm just trying to be as honest as I can. Even if people don't agree, I hope they'll listen. I just want to get the dialogue started."
Confused| Posted March 30, 2010
On Derek's album the house show he was so right on a lot of things. When his newest release came out, he had to sound just like the world. As Christians we know what's right and what's wrong. We all sin, but why would you have to curse to prove your point? I was a huge fan, and still listen to the older albums. I almost broke every album in half and sent them back to Derek. If you want to curse on an album then stay off a Christian label.