(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.