1.23.2006

(Christian) Music

I have a not-so-soft place in my heart for Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). Back when I was a born-again seventh grader, Michael W. Smith and the Newsboys (Christian-) rocked my world. Indeed, when I responded to an altar call with my youth group in October 1992, I was blinded not by the Light of Christ but by the spotlights reflecting off of Carman's vinyl pants. I trust that other folks who received pamphlets of the Gospel of John that night experienced a real and lasting spiritual conversion. I did not. For the next few months, I threw myself into a Christianity that was all about t-shirts, arguing with my biology teacher about evolution, and fervent prayers that America would repent and start requiring fervent prayers in its public schools.

I do not think that conservative evangelical Christianity is shallow, but I do know that I was an extraordinarily shallow conservative evangelical Christian. I didn't read the Bible; the sacred scriptures of my born-again faith were the lyrics to DC Talk songs. For example in "Jesus is Still Alright with Me," TobyMac rapped, "Back in place, and I’m all up in your face/ With a rhyme that I embrace, like a mother to her child/ I’m kickin’ it jesus style/ To the ones that think they heard/ I did use the j word/ Cause I ain’t too soft to say it/ Even if dj’s don’t play it."

I kicked it Jesus style for all of five months, and spent the next five years thinking that Christianity was a superficial joke.

Suffice to say that when I finally meandered back into a relationship with Jesus, I had zero interest in reestablishing my relationship with the CCM industry. CCM struck me as theologically monotone and artistically derivative.

[Insert long and gushing paragraph about discovering Over the Rhine (and co.), how great it was to find spiritually nourishing music, etc. Point out the stellar eschatological musings in recent OtR lyrics, etc. Frequent readers of this blog could probably write this paragraph for me, so endless am I in my ruminations on The Best Band In Existence.]

Until three weeks ago, I had a handful of indie Christian CDs. Some were purchased on the cheap from Grassroots Music, some were gifts or hand-me-downs. Few ever made it into regular play, save for Jars of Clay's Much Afraid and a hippie drum circle recording called Enter the Worship Circle.

Enter Derek Webb. I cannot remember what possessed me to check out his page on MySpace. Maybe a mention by Donald Miller? Anyway, I was vaguely familiar with Webb from Caedmon's Call, a Christian band that has always struck me as almost good. I had A Long Line of Leavers, which I occasionally put on to annoy my dear husband. Part of why I didn't particularly care for Caedmon's Call was the whiney voice of their former lead singer, the aforementioned Derek Webb.

The songs Webb had posted on MySpace literally blew me away. He still has the same whiney voice, but I actually appreciate his nasally perfect annunciation, because it allows his lyrics to be heard clearly. And what lyrics they are. In "A New Law," Webb 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 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 want a new law
gimme that new law

don’t teach me about moderation and liberty
i prefer a shot of grape juice

don’t teach me about loving my enemies

don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit
just give me a new law

what’s the use in trading a law you can never keep
for one you can that cannot get you anything
do not be afraid
do not be afraid
do not be afraid

When he starts chanting "do not be afraid," I literally get all goosebumpy and teary. The song doesn't at first glance or listen appear to be about fear; it's ostensibly a prophetic critique on a Church with its head in the opaque sands of rules and ritual. But at the heart of the song is the devastating revelation that people actually prefer spiritual enslavement over the terrific freedom promised by the Gospel. What's more, in the scriptures, angels are forever instructing the recipients of their messages not to fear. I don't think Derek Webb fancies himself an angel, but I do think he recognizes that when truth is spoken, people are apt to quiver with trepidation.

This is all to say that I think this is a fantastic song.

So. I headed over to Borders, armed with a discount coupon. (Parenthetically, Ben just made fun of the way I say "coupon" last night. I guess I do sort of give it a squeaky "kiyeu" rather than a respectable "coo." Oh well.) Without consciously considering it, I headed over to the Rock/Pop section. No Derek Webb. I wrestled with their irritating TitleSleuth pod. Oh. It's filed under CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC.

It didn't even dawn on me that Derek Webb might still be recording on a CCM label. I automatically assumed that the prophetic, political turn of his lyrics would mean that he'd be forever classified as "secular" (ha, ha) in the minds of the Christian music biz. But there he was, in the same section as Stephen Curtis Chapman. Don't they know he's proclaiming that one of the biggest lies he's ever heard is that "Jesus Christ is a white middle-class Republican?" Haven't they heard the opening verse to "Rich Young Ruler," in which he earnestly intones, "Poverty is so hard to see when it’s only on/ your tv and twenty miles across town/ where we’re all living so good/ that we moved out of Jesus’ neighborhood/ where he’s hungry and not feeling so good/ from going through our trash."?

There has been some backlash among the CCM community and his fans, and Webb explained in an interview,
... I want to make clear that it's not about action apart from faith. There has been some misunderstanding even among my closest community, folks whose opinions I care a lot about. They've been misunderstanding that with this record is like I'm coming down on everybody: "You have to live like this. You have to do these things." But that's not at all what I'm saying.

There's not enough that we can do. You can't give enough money. You can't love the poor enough. You can't give enough of your possessions away to earn the love of the Father. Only Christ keeping the law on your behalf can do that. But if God does in fact love us that much, we are compelled to value the things that he valued. And Christ really had a special place for the poor. Matthew 25 shows how to judge whether or not you have real faith—faith that can justify you before the Father. When we look at the hardest people in our culture to love, how do we love them? So although the record is about action—no doubt about that—it's action in the context of liberation in Jesus.

Much of Webb's critiques are leveled at conservative evangelical Christians in the United States. But many of them are just as relevant to the liberal and moderate mainline Christians. Many won't hear the album because, like me, they've been burned too often by the CCM bins.

The music is good, too. Someone's been listening to Sufjan Stevens; the xylophone craze in indie pop shall never cease to delight me.

Mockingbird is definitely one to put on the list.

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