Friday, January 20, 2006

David Zahl reviews Derek Webb's new album:

(Dave is a youth minister with FOCUS. He works predominantly with kids from New England boarding schools.)

There’s one thing about my upbringing that I find more and more remarkable the older I get. Our parents managed to raise us in a home that was unmistakably Christian, evangelical even, but with scarcely any influence from mainstream American “Christian culture”. Sure, we had pictures of Jesus around, and there were definitely a few pillows with embroidered Bible verses. But there was nothing contemporary. No Amy Grant or DC Talk, no Left Behind (speaking of which, there must have been an 80s equivalent – anyone?). I can honestly say I didn’t know who Billy Graham was until I went to boarding school. John and Simeon can back me up.

My intention isn’t to rag on this stuff, tempting as that may be. Just to say that in my four years as a youth minister, I have had to play serious catch-up. Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve always found this aloofness pretty impressive/cool.

A few years ago, my brothers and I set out on a quest (Simeon) to find out if we’d missed out on anything good. Buried under all that Nashville-MegaChurch nonsense, there just had to be some quality stuff. So we looked for self-identifying “Christian bands” that we could have more than just an ironic, Stryper-ish interest in, and we found some. Not a ton but definitely a handful: The Normals, The Violet Burning, The 77s, Duvall, even Jars of Clay. The list goes on… a bit.

You’ll notice Caedmon’s Call is missing from that list. Try as I might, I couldn’t get into them – too slick, too nice, no Gospel. Derek Webb used to be one of the lead singers and songwriters in Caedmon’s Call. But he left in 2003 to pursue the solo thing. A student gave me his first record, She Must and Shall Go Free, and I was surprised to find a couple interesting songs on it, especially “Wedding Dress”, where he refers the Church over and over as a whore that runs down the aisle to get away from Jesus.

It got me interested enough to check out his second record, I See Things Upside Down. This time, a full half of the songs rocked. He made no secret of the fact that he’d been listening Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – the first song is even titled “I Want a Broken Heart” – but more amazingly, almost every song pointed to the Gospel. He constantly refers to himself as a sinner, not just a guy who “struggles” but a straight-up enemy of God. The song “I Repent” remains my favorite Derek Webb tune, with lyrics like, “I repent I repent of my pursuit of America’s dream/I repent I repent of living like I deserve anything… I repent I repent of parading my liberty/I repent I repent of paying for what I get for free/for the way I believe that I’m living right/by trading sins for other that are easier to hide/I am wrong and of these things I repent”.

In interviews, he would quote Luther and go off on American pop-Christianity: “We’re so fearful that people would know who we really are. More is wrapped up in trying to look like Jesus than look like people who need Jesus. Which I think is a tragedy. I’m not like Jesus. Not at all, actually. I’m a wreck of a person. I need him. Without him I’d be lost. And I’d rather people see my potential losses than some made-up fictional righteousness that doesn’t get me anywhere. Because if that’s all I show them, they’ll be shocked when they find out that I really am a wreck of a person… And I’d rather people just know that now. I’d rather there be no pretense about whether or not I’m a good person, whether or not I’m somebody they should listen to. I’m not. At all. But I know a guy…” Pure Gospel!

This past Christmas he released Mockingbird, his best record yet. Wilco is still the touchstone, but gone is any trace of Christian-y affect in his voice. The instrumentation is sparse, and the drumming surprisingly good. The vocals are nearly all double-tracked. The lyrics are bold and romantic and political. On “A New Law”, probably the highlight, he sings, “don’t teach me about politics and government, just tell me who to vote for/don’t teach me about truth and beauty, just label my music/don’t teach me how to live like a free man, just give me a new law/I want a new law/gimme that new law”. He ends the song by repeating the phrase, “do not be afraid” over and over. You can get it on itunes.

Of course, he’s not perfect and neither is the record. But keep in mind that his audience consists at least partly of home-schooled kids who grew up on The Newsboys and Michael W Smith, and you’ll be able to forgive him if he gets a tad heavy-handed. This guy deserves our support. Let me know what you think.

p.s. if anyone reading this happens somehow to know Derek Webb, tell him to come to New England, pronto.


cjdm said...

right on DZ! i agree. derek webb is not perfect, just forgiven.

no seriously, he is really good...and his take is gospel at its heart. he has come undone in a really great way. we should support him.

also, the 80's equivalent to left behind is frank peretti.


Colton said...

Brilliant call on Frank Peretti. I read "This Present Darkness" probably in about 6th or 7th grade, a year before I got my first (and only) dc Talk album.

"I Repent" is divinely inpspired to the point of being one of the most uniquely "real" songs I have ever heard. Can't wait to legally download DW's new album!

mattie said...

dave -

i'll definately check out the album.

i have to say, however (knowing that almost all of you will disagree with me) that i have to disagree that repentance is the exclusive thrust of the gospel...

yes, jesus came to point out that righteousness via the law is impossible for us to achieve. he did not, however, absolve us of the responsiblity to be alive, to be healed, to be whole, and to be servants and disciples. acknowledging our brokenness is one thing, dwelling in it is another. i don't know derek webb, and i'm not trying to indict his spiritual life or christian perspective. i just know that i have known all along that i'm a sinner in need of jesus' grace; what the gospel offers me IS a solution, one that is contingent not just on my faithful assent, but on my legitimate and difficult cooperation. i'm not trying to persuade anyone, just to offer an alternative (and orthodox) reading of the gospel.

btw - i'm sure all you have heard it, but if you haven't - the hold steady album "seperation sunday" is a brilliant catholic christian conversion story. anyone who has dealt with addiction and coming back to jesus will find a great deal of themselves in the story.

best lyrics:

"he's got the pages in his pockets that he ripped out of the bible from his bedstand in the motel. he likes the part where the traders get chased out from the temple. i guess i heard about original sin. i heard the dude blamed the chick. i heard the chick blamed the snake. i heard they were naked when they got busted. i heard things ain't been the same since. you on the streets with a tendency to preach to the choir. wired for sound and down with whatever. i heard gideon did you in denver."

"holly wore a cross to ward them off. she said if they think yr a christian then they won't bring in the dogs. and if they think yr a catholic then they'll wanna meet your boss. holly wore a cross to ward them off."

"we gather our gospels from gossip and bar talk then declare them the truth. we salvage our sermons from message boards and scene reports. we come on to the youth. we try out new testements on the guys sitting next to us in the bars with the bars in their windows. even if you don't get converted tonite you must admit that the band's pretty tight."

"her parents named her halleluiah, the kids all called her holly. if she scared you then she's sorry. she's been stranded at these parties. these parties they start lovely but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody.
the priest just kinda laughed. the deacon caught a draft. she crashed into the easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass. she was limping left on broken heels. when she said father can i tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?"

brilliant. brilliant.


bonnie said...

I was, at one point, really into tooth and nail records - the Christian hardcore/punk/emo/alternative label. I had a T&N work shirt and beanie. Those were the days...

Anonymous said...

well, i certainly agree with you about that hold steady record. it rocks my socks off! of all the bands i'd like to see live, they are top of the list. -dz

cjdm said...

i love the nervousness of finn's characters...they're always one step away from judgment but trying to get it right....

yr little hoodrat friend's been calling me again. and i can't stand all the things that she sticks into her skin. like sharpened ballpoint pens. and steel guitar strings. she says it hurts. but it's worth it. tiny little text etched into her neck it said "jesus lived and died for all your sins." she's got blue black ink and it's scratched into her lower back. it said: "damn right i'll rise again." yeah, damn right you'll rise again.

i've been dusted in the dark up in penetration park. i've been plastered. i've been shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church. i've been plowed. but i ain't ever been with your little hoodrat friend. what makes you think i'm getting with your little hoodrat friend?

Eve said...

xMattie---thank you so much for the lyrics to that amazing Hold Steady song---I love stories of muscular Christianity, because that is certainly my need..."a God we can do business with" as a favorite former priest used to say.
But it also leads to my (predicted) disagreement with you, on an orthodox understanding of the gospel. The gospel does not "offer us a solution.....contingent on our legitimate and difficult cooperation." That is just another way of saying we need to keep the Law, and I for one, just can't. And believe me, I've tried.
"Acknowledging our brokenness is one thing, dwelling in it, another." I think a little more than acknowledgment is in order, bec. I have only one earthly dwellling , and it is a cracked broken vessel, and it is not getting any better.
This attitude does not in any way lead me to despair, but instead makes me feel like skipping through fields of tulips, singing....I am free! Free of the need to pretend, to try harder, to do better, to make more of myself, etc. Instead, I am free to let God have his way with me....the more I realize my utter hopeless sinful estate, the more I need saving, and the more I call on the only one who can save.
Thanks for reading. (This is my first comment ever on a blogspot or chat room of any type, so I'm certain to have broken many rules, of brevity and the like, but I do appreciate the forum.)
And BTW, whoever cited Peretti as the 80's answer to LaHaye is dead-on

simeon said...

great post eve! i relate strongly to the freedom you describe.

pemmet said...


I hesitate to declare myself I child of Christian culture, but it's probably true through and through.
I own every DC talk album... on tape. I know the lyrics to the rap breakout in Michael W. Smith's "Love crusade"(check it out... it's from the album Go West Young Man), and it goes on.

Often when I'm feeling depressed, I will get the urge to buy "Christian music" cause I think "that should help me and inspire me to do better."
It doesn't work, but there are a few songs that have really stuck with me.
One is by Caedmon's Call and it's called "Thankful."
Absolutely beautiful:
"No, there is none righteous
Not one who understands
There is none who seek God
No not one, no not one

I am thankful that I'm incapable
Of doing any good on my own

'Cause we're all stillborn and dead in our transgressions
We're shackled up to the sin we hold so dear
So what part can I play in the work of redemption
I can't refuse, I cannot add a thing"


"It's by grace I have been saved
Through faith that's not my own
It is the gift of God and not by works
Lest anyone should boast"

The second is by Jars of Clay, a perennial favorite, who seem to have really hit it in Who We are Instead.
The song is "Jesus' blood never failed me yet" and it is hauntingly powerful.
It just repeats that line from the chorus of an old hymn... if you haven't heard it, I encourage you to.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see a post on The Holdsteady. I went to their show recently and it was pretty good (though I've heard they can really tear it up). Anyway, while on the topic of Christian songs, I'd like to mention a personal favorite: "Search and Destroy" by Iggy and the Stooges. Nothing seems to capture my own post-adolescent id like Iggy Stooge's tormented wailing. How he captures man's depravity! For those strangers to good 'ole DEE-troit proto-punk, here's the opening verse:

"I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm/ I’m a runaway son of the nuclear a-bomb/
I am the world’s forgotten boy/The one who searches and destroys"

And what follows this stark self-analysis? A recognition of his impuissance in the face of Sin. His conclusion? A simple, one-lined resolution:

"Somebody's gotta save my soul."

What an amazing realization! (And coming from a guy smeared in peanut butter, rolling around on a stage covered in broken glass!!)

After hearing "Search and Destroy" I can't help but recall Luther's "The Freedom of a Christian":

"Therefore the moment you begin to have faith you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful, and damnable . . . When you have learned this you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you so that, if you believe in him, you may through this faith become a new man in so far as your sins are forgiven and you are justified by the merits of another, namely, of Christ alone."



mattie said...

eve -

of course only God can save. that's not what i'm saying at all. the question is: what are we being saved from? sin & death. if we are being saved from sin, that should mean that sanctification in an inherent & integral part of salvation (even luther agrees with me on this one).

it isn't about pretending that we're okay when we're really not. we all sin everyday. the question is whether our actions define us. no, jesus' resurrection and God's adoption of us as his children defines us. it liberates us to repentance and growth.

we're definately free of the need to pretend, but we are definately NOT FREE of the need to try harder & do better. what of the command of jesus to "be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect" (matt 5: 48)?

what of paul's exhortations in romans chapters 12 & 13? yes, he spends 11 chapters emphasizing grace but then he says, wait, you have some stuff to do! yes, believe and you shall be saved. and here is what it means to truly "believe." it means work! it means community! it means "conquering evil with good." that isn't just paul trying to keep the peace & order or paying deference to the law. it is paul recognizing the complicated relationship between grace and works.

to be clear, i do not believe (nor does the roman catholic church) that we can be saved on our own without a trinitarian incarnate self-gifting God in Jesus. Grace is the new law. However, true "faith" requires a response.


Anonymous said...

So now all the Zahls are posting articles on John Camp?? You guys are like the blogging von Trapps!!

eve said...

Mattie--Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response--
Also I always appreciate it when Christians use scripture to back up their assertions (even if out of context)--It is the only effective way to have a discussion about these things; anything else is just our opinion.
When you say "faith requires a response", what do you have in mind vis-a-vis "response"? Action, good works, what?

mattie said...

dave & others -

this link might be of interest to y'all - a grassroots music podcast with derek webb. it's an interview and live performance of some of those new tracks.