WHEN THIS publication set out to become a thorn in the side of the contemporary Christian music industry, one of its aggressively-pursued concerns was the Christian musician’s uncanny tendency to emphasize message over medium—or to put it more cynically and more honestly, their gift for spinning propaganda and lack of taste for making art. Artist after band after songwriter suffered withering putdown in these pages for presuming that we listen to music out of a need to hear our theological ideas reiterated endlessly, as opposed to out of affection for creatively plotted melodic intervals. If it was a sermon we wanted, we would look for it in a church, thank you very much.
Perhaps this aversion to message-driven popular music developed because it is difficult to find a mainstream Christian artist with a serious theological idea in their head, and even more so to find one in the business of jostling listeners into the electric fence of their comfort zones. Artless message had been denounced for decades by stray voices like Larry Norman, Charlie Peacock, Mark Heard, and Rich Mullins. But long about 2005, when a rogue member of Caedmon’s Call decided to start stirring things up, a new thought process seemed in order. Though his release that year, Mockingbird, was didactic to a fault, Derek Webb got a number of jaded Christian art critics wondering: is it possible to imagine a scenario where the message is so big the music doesn’t matter?
The answer is no, of course, but Webb quickly cemented himself as an interesting case to watch, especially as his next release, The Ringing Bell, signaled that he was becoming bolder in both his art and his agenda. Leaving explicit theology further on the fringes of his songwriting, Webb plunged fearlessly, if not all that deeply, into the hearts of the matters. As he increasingly left his preaching to his live appearances and interviews, his ideology became more slippery and his message more potent. (The precise fact that Webb’s detractors complain about this is proof of its effectiveness.) Of Bell, our reviewer wrote: “In fact, it is because he has transcended doctrine that he has come much closer to the core of Christianity, which is love.” His simultaneous deconstruction of the music industry’s profit model echoed the growing undercurrent of his music: hold onto nothing, share recklessly, and see what sort of community comes to life.
If ever he was in danger of inadvertently becoming a noisy gong, however, it was as his reputation for agitation threatened to begin feeling like shtick. When rumors of controversy over the content of Stockholm Syndrome—a disc Webb described as his “most important”—quickly morphed into an online paean to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, it was difficult not to worry that his rare instinct for conflict might lose its taste through sheer familiarity. Everyone position yourselves in a semi-circle, the hive mind seemed to be saying, for Derek Webb Is About to Speak Again.
But it turned out that the cynics judged too quickly, and he had less in mind to say than he ever has. The lyrics for Stockholm Syndrome evolved from “a patchwork of random phrases,” as Webb described it, a method that would hopefully get one thrown out of a preaching course at any respectable theological institution. And meanwhile, with the assistance of former bandmate Josh Moore, he collected electronic bits that added up to a fundamental sonic transformation. From undistorted and unfiltered to packed, smashed, chopped, screwed, and reforged, Webb completed a metamorphosis that has culminated in the most crucial album of his career, and is most certainly a watershed moment in popular music made by Christians.
Stockholm Syndrome is a bristling political record, but its brilliance lies in how thoroughly it disarms its would-be critics, lathering its lashings in love and always averting attempts to chart its precise policy prescriptions. “You say you always treat people like you’d like to be, well I guess you love being hated for your sexuality,” Webb sings on the skippy “What Matters More.” But he doesn’t proceed to give anything like a definitive statement on gay rights. Moving between tracks feels like peering through a kaleidoscope into his mind—he later sings about marrying his conscience to “The State”—but he manages to hide in plain sight. The awkward humor of “Freddie, Please,” a disturbingly playful sort of outreach to Westboro Baptist Church bigot Fred Phelps, smarts more than a tongue-lashing ever could. (“How can you tell me you love me when you hate me?”) The power of his political discontent is absorbed rather than heard, and the skittish beats ensure that it overtakes your senses—against your will, if necessary.
But these songs are, like many of history’s great political anthems, ostensibly about everything but politics. On the candy-sweet, shimmery pop jam “Jena & Jimmy,” a pair of intoxicated, hot-‘n-bothered dancefloor partners speak for the record: “She told him stories of social injustices and constitutional rights/He smirked and turned his head ‘just lighten up’ he said ‘baby we got all night.’” When Webb plainly addresses his own wife, such as on “I Love/Hate You” it’s clear he’s worried that the debates in which he vigorously participates—over capitalism, constitutions, rights—are heretically devoid of the paramount Christian virtue: radical, uncomfortable love. And just to give fair warning, the sort of love that Stockholm Syndrome proposes is radical enough to overthrow late evangelicalism’s dualistic notions of country and Kingdom.
Webb is more aware than ever that spoonfuls of sugar make the medicine go down, and it’s consistently striking how he intertwines sonic irresistibility with intellectual aggravation. On the record’s most musically compelling track, “The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum,” thrashing drum fills and zany organ gurgle around vaguely critical lyrical fragments like, “I don’t want the Son, you know I want a jury of peers.” The music absorbs into your bloodstream so quickly that even the reddest-blooded of patriots may be too tipsy to figure out that those inscrutable lines might just be there to screw with them.
It is almost a shame to review this record after only weeks in its company, but for now we must be content with a preliminary account of its significance. It does not fit easily into diverting conversations about the best music of the decade, but it has accomplished a monumental cultural feat in so deeply grasping a subgroup’s entrenched politics and effectively prodding them toward conversation with the mainstream. That makes it at very least one of the few works of Christian hands to have a legitimate say in the path our nation chooses.
It’s exciting to once again think of “Christian music” as a force that could topple the Jerichos of modern evangelicalism. And Stockholm Syndrome comes at yet another crucial moment, when years of hardening political ideology seem to be giving way to something that might yet be able to embrace the ends of the earth. If that something eventually takes shape, it will be in no small part because Derek Webb demanded it do so, again and again and again.
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