Twice now I have seen Derek Webb in concert—at two different churches in St. Louis. The first time, I was close to furious at the fact that there was barely anyone there to see him. This time, that wasn’t the problem. At least, not exactly. There was a full auditorium all right; I’m just not sure how many of them were actually there to see Webb. Jars of Clay was the main attraction, and Webb got a meager opportunity to throw out a few tunes solo-style before they took the stage.
So, this time I was frustrated but not angry. In fact, I was glad so many folks were probably getting their first exposure to Webb at such a venue. It is sad to hear a musician with such talent and such a passion for the Gospel say he feels kind of out of place with the bigger names he’s opening for (and even one as biblically grounded as Jars of Clay).
Perhaps next time, that won’t be as much the case.
But I’m belaboring my point. I said I was glad to have so many listening Christians exposed to Webb’s music. But why? Because I think they need it. At a time when the church looks more like the bride of America than the bride of Christ, we absolutely need the music of people like Derek Webb. We don’t need more artists who drown the saints in praise choruses that separate the reality of the gritty walk of faith and obedience from the pristine shine of the Sanctuaries in which we gather.
We need musicians who bring the glory of the Gospel and the dirt of real life together in as compelling a manor as this former CCM star.
When Webb left Caedmon’s Call, I feared that one of the few great bands in Christian music would fall by the wayside, and I had no idea what to expect from the fiery Webb without anyone to keep him in check. To my pleasant surprise, however, the separation has proven wonderful for both of them. Caedmon’s music has found new life as they have put new legs to their faith, and Webb has brought the Gospel to the church in a way she has sorely needed for so long. His 2003 album, She Must and Shall Go Free was as striking and beautiful a portrait of the church as I have ever heard. It paints her as both the unfaithful harlot and the lovely bride upon whom Christ’s raging affections are irrevocably set. It shows her, just as Scripture does, as “crooked deep down,” and so utterly in need of God’s grace that she doesn’t even know how to receive it. And the whole album hangs around its centerpiece, “Lover,” a moving, Dylan-esque poem about Christ in the midst of all the graphic pictures of His beloved.
I have always been a lover/ from before I drew a breath
Some things I loved easy/ Some I loved to death
Webb goes even further in his pains to show us what Jesus’ love for the church looks like:
So go on and paint my picture/ Go on and make me up
I’ll still be your defender/ And you’ll be my missing son
And I’ll send out an army/ Just to bring you back to me
Cause regardless of your brother’s lies, Oh you will be set free
This is the same beloved church that Webb describes throughout the album as “weightless, like a leaf from the vine;” “this bastard child,” as listening to “salesemen and thieves,” and “drunk all the time.” Perhaps you can see why this music is relatively unknown within the church: It doesn’t reveal her in the greatest light. In fact, pretty much all she’s got going for her, as Webb seems relentless in showing, is that Christ loves her to death. Sounds like the Gospel to me. See why we need to hear this?
Webb has since released two more studio albums, both equally provocative in entirely different ways. 2004’s I See Things Upside Down brings the truth of the Gospel even further into the realm of the real, placing it deep into the contexts of our relationships and our day-to-day values. It’s as if Webb is asking himself if he truly believes everything he said on his first record, and looking to snapshots from his life for the answer.
I repent, I repent of my pursuit of America’s dream
I repent, I repent of living like I deserve anything
Of my house, my fence, my kids, my wife
In our suburbs where we’re safe and white
Oh, I am wrong and of these things I repent
Indeed, with his second album, Webb makes the bold statement that the truths of the Gospel should affect our lives to the very core, for in the Gospel what looks like failure is success / what looks like poverty is riches… Do you see my point yet?
He takes this even further with his latest release, Mockingbird. Even Webb knows he’s risking even his small voice within the church with the stirring content of this album. He pleads with his listener on the album’s first track: Like one who’s name is many, have mercy, please don’t send me away. He then launches into an array of themes from the church’s rejection of Christ’s freedom to her spurning His call to love the poor. It has some of his most challenging messages yet, all amidst some of Webb’s most intriguing and moving music, like in “Rich Young Ruler:”
Come on and follow me
Sell your house, sell your SUV
Sell your stocks, sell your security
And give it to the poor
Or in “My Enemies Are Men Like Me,”
When justice is bought and sold, just like weapons of war
Oh the ones who always lose, are the poorest of the poor
It’s as if Webb has become even more fixed in the earthy reality of day-to-day life, while somehow it is simultaneously fixed even more firmly on the Kingdom than ever before.
He sings of his utter allegiance to “a King and a Kingdom” right before he sings a quirky love song to his wife in “I Hate Everything (But You).” And what am I left feeling afterwards? I needed that.
So, if the church truly needs to hear this prophetic voice melding the Gospel with beautiful music, will she have mercy and listen, or will she send him away with many others like him? Let’s hope that as he’s heard by audiences for Jars of Clay, he will gain a larger audience of his own.