Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Derek Webb and God's Politics -- Part 1

Derek Webb - MockingbirdMockingbird, the latest album from Derek Webb, has caused a bit of a stir in certain quarters. And not suprisingly, for the former member of Caedmon's Call has intentionally released an album intended to spur evangelical consciences to closer examination of issues such as poverty, affluence, justice and politics. Webb is no stranger to controversy, as his previous works have often highlighted negative aspects of consumerized Christianity (both in his own life and in the society at large). However, the emphasis of this album is a marked change from past ones, and many fans have expressed a diverse spectrum of attitudes about the trajectory of Derek's songwriting.

Musically, Mockingbird is a bit of a cross between his previous solo studio recordings, somewhere between the jangly folk-rock of She Must and Shall Go Free (his first) and the richly-textured experimentations of I See Things Upside Down (his second). The new album has a very stripped-down acoustic sound, with tasteful use of horns and strings in places. Derek has always been skilled at writing memorable melodies, but it's cool to see him continue to develop his trade. (The chord progression to "Rich Young Ruler" may be one of the coolest ones he's ever written.) With each album, Derek has grown musically, writing great songs without being pigeon-holed by his previous works. My only real complaint about the sound of the new album is that Derek's voice is really rough. I'm pretty sure it is intentional, as his voice wasn't nearly as ragged in recent concerts we've attended. But that's really a minor gripe. Musically, Mockingbird is Derek in top form.

Of course, the content is the most controversial aspect of the album, as Mockingbird intentionally addresses the intersection of Christian faith with social action. I think "A New Law," the second track, provides the crucial framework for understanding the whole album. For example, Derek writes:
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 don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
so just bring it down from the mountain to me

i want a new law
I think this song is critical to "getting" the album, because Derek explicitly states that the issues he raises are complex ones, without easy answers. Far too often, Western Christians (products of our instant gratification society) simply do not want to engage the subtleties and nuances of the surrounding world, as we would rather find a quick-fix via extra-biblical rules. Given these lyrics and comments in interviews, Derek acknowledges that he is more interested in generating discussion on social issues rather than demanding specific responses. Derek's audience for most of these songs is middle-class Evangelical America, to whom he gives the reminder that the Christian's first allegiance is to "A King and a Kingdom" and not to a nation or a people or a government. In the same song, Derek rejects the "great lie" that "Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class republican and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like Him." Obviously, there are few people who would assent to that statement, but I do think that our words and actions sometimes betray a latent belief that the Christian faith is equivalent to a particular culture. As God's people, we would do well to learn how to distinguish between the two, not only in theory but in our practice.

Needless to say, Mockingbird has raised the ire of a number of fans. Not a few Reformed critics have charged that this album is at worst a betrayal of the Gospel and at best a tragic minimization of it. Honestly, I see these charges as extremely unfair, because Derek has stated in numerous contexts that the themes on this album are necessary extensions of his previous work: he has previously established the solid foundation of the Gospel and the importance of the Church, and this album deals with their outworkings as Christian ethics. So I think the detractors are way off base, at least on that complaint. Of course, there's plenty of room for discussion on specific issues, and I certainly don't agree with everything Derek has written on the album. But again, Derek seems much more interested in generating discussion among Christians regarding these problems, and much less in convincing them to adopt his specific solutions. And most importantly, I think Derek has already laid the foundations for addressing social issues (regardless of the exact approach), because he roots them firmly in the Gospel message, especially as a proclamation of the present-and-yet-coming Kingdom.

In the next post, I'll look at a book that Derek acknowledges as being influential in the writing of Mockingbird -- God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It by Jim Wallis.

Keep reading:
Part 2
Part 3

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