Derek Webb first appeared in the Christian music scene with the Texan folk-rock band Caedmon's Call. On their 1996 self-titled record, Caedmon's Call (their first national release), he was the angst-ridden voice, expressing doubts and agony that weren't common threads in CCM. Some instantly identified—people who'd always felt a bit out of place in the church, for whom doubts and struggles were constant. For other listeners, Webb was like the outspoken skeptic in your small group, the one who seemed suspicious of sentiments that were a little too warm and smiles that were a little too plastic. In nearly 20 years since, he's maintained that posture, agitating and provoking the very world his music inhabits.
Webb left Caedmon's Call in 2001 (though he's continued to collaborate on projects), launching his solo career with the record She Must and Shall Go Free (2003). On that record, Webb ran into trouble with Christian bookstores over language in the song "Wedding Dress," where he says: "'cause I'm a whore, I do confess / I put you on like a wedding dress." The controversy galvanized his fans even as the album was pulled from some shelves.
Controversy spread in other directions in the years that followed. On Mockingbird (2005) he criticized Christian justifications for war and mocked the idea that Jesus was a "white, middle-class Republican." Stockholm Syndrome (2009) caused a stir over his use of profanity. Shortly afterward, conflict emerged when he refused to make a public, doctrinal statement about homosexuality. (This controversy followed Jennifer Knapp, another CCM artist and Derek's friend, coming out as a lesbian.)
Scores of pieces have been written about these episodes, and I won't retrace them all here. Suffice it to say that Webb has a way of sustaining a place in the blogosphere. Some chalk it up to loose orthodoxy, but, I must admit, part of me sees something more calculated about it all. On the one hand, the church needs internal critics, voices that skate along boundaries and borders that make us uncomfortable. Much of the tension around him (including the kerfuffle over homosexuality) is rooted in presumptions (on both sides) about what level of responsibility artists have to be doctrinarian, and how public their doctrine needs to be.
On the other hand, Webb has proven himself a smart businessman. He co-founded Noisetrade, a digital music distribution website, and has insightfully written about the music industry and the work of being a "blue-collar musician." I wonder if there isn't just a bit of P. T. Barnum-inspired showmanship and calculation in the way these scandals erupt. "I don't care what you say about me," Barnum once remarked, "just spell my name right." Webb enjoys being a provocateur and an agitator, and I'd guess it's good for business too.
Church and Culture
All of this makes for a fascinating backdrop to Webb's newest record, I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry, and I Love You (2013). The album results from reflections on 10 years that have passed since he released She Must and Shall Go Free. He says of that first solo record, "Even after 10 years spent in churches and church culture . . . I still wondered if I had a particular role in the 'church' and if the 'church' had a necessary role in culture. Those questions not only led me to make my first album, but they also put me on a path as an artist that I am still navigating today."
I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry, and I Love You is, Webb explains, what She Must and Shall Go Free "would have looked like if I were writing it today, exploring the relationships between the church, the culture, and myself." To Webb, it feels like "an encouraging start to what I hope to be 10 more years of 'afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,' starting, as always, with myself."
Much of the content of his previous albums has a cynical edge, skewering Christian culture and its plastic veneer. (See, for instance, the song "Heaven" or "A King and a Kingdom.") On this album, however, Webb sets his sights on another target: himself. On the title track, he sings:
I welcome everyone but give 'em nothing when they arrive
or else build a house with no way to come inside
I've learned to hide my tears, learned to hold them deep inside and then sell my fears just to pick your pockets dry
I was wrong, I'm sorry, and I love you.
While Webb has always been known for his self-deprecating quality, this album lays his guilt bare. In "Eye of the Hurricane," he sings:
I loved every circle that I ran around my father's house
even prodigals have a good time till the money runs out
oh I always had a choice, I always knew where I was from
but there's a time to stop running and I'm pretty sure that time has come
'cause now i need a home-cooked meal and a bed I need a place to lay my head
I am the man from which I am running so even if I wanted to, I can't escape
this is the man that I am becoming running in the eye of the hurricane
Webb makes these confessions against the poppy backdrop of a production style that has become his signature. He plays almost all of the instruments on the record, blending elements that evoke Brian Wilson's style, Wilco's Summer Teeth, a Detroit-influenced rhythm section (Webb's bass lines are always a highlight), and the folk sounds that have always been his home base. It's a cheerful singalong, even as he wrestles with inner demons.
But Webb's critics who hope for a mea culpa about his controversies will be disappointed. The closest he gets is in "Closer Than You Think," where he says:
What do you think you know about me something you read or overheard why your fists up, you wanna fight me you haven't even heard a single word
from my mouth, yet you doubt what I'm saying now
that we're closer, closer, closer closer than you think
Here he may be referencing the homosexuality controversy where he remained silent in public and insisted that if someone genuinely wanted to know what he believed, he would need to sit down with him and have a conversation. As recently as July 31, when challenged about the issue on Twitter by Southern Seminary professor Jim Hamilton, he replied, "no more interested in having this discussion on twitter now than I was then" (referring to three years ago), and later said, "happy to discuss this with you in person, but not interested in a twitter discussion."
Then again, his words may also apply to critics who want him to take a public stance in support of pro-gay reforms in the church. Or his lyrics may be the voice of God speaking, and the object of criticism in the song is Webb himself (the third verse reads this way).
Webb probably won't tell us. He enjoys preserving his song's ambiguity, and as Patrick Schreiner recently wrote, ambiguity serves an important role in the arts.
What Webb does make clear is this: the gospel still haunts him, drives him, and brings him back to both Jesus and his church. He reveals himself to be haunted by the beauty of God on "I Measure the Days," a song written in the style of a simplified Anglican chant, and he sings Charlotte Elliot's 1834 gospel tune "Thy Will Be Done" with evocative sincerity.
The standout on the record, at least to me, is "A Place At Your Table," a song that seems to offer a bridge and an olive branch to all of his listeners, celebrating the way Jesus invites us to his table from all diverse corners of his church:
In conflict and dissent we divide
but you defend and keep your bride in purity and peace
so there will always be
a place at your table for me
It also seems to reflect on Webb's own journey: the guy who struggled to walk center aisle, who has voiced so much contemporary lament, still struggles with his faith and is still drawn back:
So I lost my voice calling out your name
but your ear was deaf as my soul was sprained
and, though my heart is dark I am still compelled
to where your body broke, to where your blood was spilled
it's more than all the debt I owe and where else can a sick man go so help my unbelief
that there will always be
a place at your table for me
I doubt I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry, and I Love You will quiet all of Webb's critics, and perhaps it shouldn't.
But if there's any spirit of generosity among his listeners, I think they'll find that Webb has offered a record with more than a little common ground. When Webb aims his pen at himself, he invites us to do the same, and most of us can identify with the sentiments of "I Was Wrong" and "The Eye of the Hurricane." We can also echo the hope of "Everything Will Change," a song that anticipates the day when all sin, sorrow, and suffering will end. The pop cheerfulness of the album's self-abasement makes sense in that song's light, a grinning knowledge that while the sin within us and the debates online may rage on, one day, they'll all end.
This hope rings throughout the record. This isn't a new Derek Webb, or a return to the old Derek Webb (as some have hoped), but a more winsome Webb, one whose skills as a songwriter and producer are continually growing, and who continues to point to Jesus for hope as he critiques and agitates—even when the object of his criticism is himself.