The Controversy or the Conversation: Derek Webb

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Derek Webb.  I have a couple of his albums, but sometimes I think he’s a little too over the top, like he starts controversy for controversy’s sake.  Nevertheless, the message behind his songs stands as one for peace, and he calls out the church on its hypocrisy time and time again. Therefore, I can’t help but see him as some sort of an asset to the cause of peace.

Originally From Caedmon’s Call, Derek Webb made his first appearance as a solo artist in 2003 with his album She Must and Shall Go Free. Because one of the songs used the word “whore” and another the word “damned,” many Christian retailers refused to sell the album. Many of his subsequent albums would face this sort of controversy later on during his career.  However, when he toured for the album, he did so within the living rooms of fans, which helped him connect with listeners while he played.  I actually kinda wish more artists would do this, mostly because I want them to come play a set in my apartment.

One of the things I like about Webb is that he isn’t afraid to lose money off an album.  For example, in 2006, he offered his album Mockingbird for free online, as long as you told ten people about it. This promoted discussion of the work’s subjects, such as war and social justice.  I actually really liked this album.  It showed that Webb was more interested in promoting conversation about subject matter the church was uncomfortable with and still is.  His song, “A King and a Kingdom,” has one of my favorite lines in songwriting:

there are two great lies that i’ve heard:
“the day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die”
and that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class republican
and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like Him

I think it was the album Stockholm Syndrome that made me arch an eyebrow.

I remember waiting for this album with anticipation.  Webb was sending out emails and updates about the album, talking about how, due to subject matter, the label was refusing to support the album.  It was released in digital form through his website.  When I got this treasured piece of almost-contraband, I hurriedly listened to it…and thought, “OK…is this it?” There was some good stuff on it, don’t get me wrong.  The song Cobra Con was pretty cool, and I loved the harsh subject of The Spirit or the Kick Drum, but he kinda lost me when we got to the song What Matters More, which talks about Christian responses to homosexuality.  I guess the big controversy surrounded his use of the word shit.  Now, to some Christians, this is kind of a huge deal, but to me, I’m around it enough that I really don’t care.  Other Christian leaders have used the word to make huge points, like Tony Campolo:

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

Tony makes an excellent point, but let’s look at how Webb uses it.

You say you always treat people like you like to be
I guess you love being hated for your sexuality
You love when people put words in your mouth
‘Bout what you believe, make you sound like a freak
‘Cause if you really believe what you say you believe
You wouldn’t be so damn reckless with the words you speak
Wouldn’t silently consent when the liars speak
Denyin’ all the dyin’ of the remedy
Tell me, brother, what matters more to you?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?
If I can 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
It looks like being hated for all the wrong things
Like chasin’ the wind while the pendulum swings
‘Cause we can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face
About the language and tradition that he’s comin’ to save
Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit
About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today
Tell me, brother, what matters more to you?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?

So I guess Webb makes decent use of it, but for me, it was just pushing the envelope just to spark a controversy (it didn’t help that he leaked the track before he released the album).

So here’s the point I want to make: we, as Christians, have long had to learn how to speak the language of the world.  We spent a long time “Christianizing” our language to conform with traditions that weren’t fully based in scripture, such as the use of rock music or taking political stands against things the mainstream church might support, such as war.  We’ve learned greater how to speak in a way the world understands, to be relevant (that’s almost a cuss word in some circles) to the world.  In my humble opinion, throwing around cuss words in an attempt to start a fight isn’t being relevant, it’s being obnoxious.  I like how Campolo used it, because it drove his point home.  He caught every person in the audience with their pants down with that one. Webb, on the other hand, wrote a song that uses two words that Christians don’t like, starts the controversy, but redirects everyone to the wrong conversation.  No doubt many just talked about whether it was OK for him to use those words, rather than the subject of the song (recognizing the real evils in our world).

How we express ourselves in this world matters a great deal.  It’s one thing to be relevant, but don’t seek to shock the world into following Jesus with crude language or foolish act.

What do you think?  Do you think Derek maybe went a wrong direction?  How do you think Christians should be reaching the world today?


One thought on “The Controversy or the Conversation: Derek Webb

  1. He is deliberately being reckless (reckless in the way that many mainstream Christians would believe it to be) with his words and the reason he is doing so is right there in this song…

    ‘Cause if you really believe what you say you believe
    You wouldn’t be so damn reckless with the words you speak
    Wouldn’t silently consent when the liars speak

    But he is referring to something much more important than cursing in a song. He is referring to the hate speach flung at homosexuals in the name of Christ. This is exponentially more damaging to the name of Christ than the use of the word shit, damn, or whore.

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