Sunday, September 17, 2006

Derek Webb's "Mockingbird" and the angst of the young evangelical

I've just had a conversion, of sorts. My cousin sent me a link to a website giving away downloads of a free cd "Mockingbird" by the CCM musician Derek Webb. I generally steer clear of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music--for those uninitiated into mainstream evangelical youth culture by the Focus on the Family Brio magazine when they were fourteen--"If you like Pearl Jam (which you shouldn't), you'll love [insert name of (obviously quite memorable) CCM musician--so throw out your secular records and start head-banging to God-music...]). In college and after, it was fashionable for English and philosophy majors to disparage such "pretend" music. Continuing on into the "mainstream" world, I've maintained that attitude, though I will admit now, without shame--after my "conversion"--that I retain a fondness for Michael W. Smith's sappy piano numbers and Amy Grant's sing-alongable Christmas album.

I went ahead and downloaded the cd, because it was free, and because I remember sort of liking Caedman's Call, the CCM band Derek Webb used to sing with. After listening to "Mockingbird," I'm wondering if its time to revise those earlier judgments. Why exactly wasn't CCM "real" music? True, it was often shallow, sermonizing, and imitative, but then, so is a lot of other pop music. Justin Timberlake's "Bringing sexy back"--isn't that a kind of sermon or agenda? And sometimes there's a genuine piece that is both touching and catchy. With my renewed interest in popular culture, which as an English major I had suppressed, I see it through a new lens. (The English major vibe: Why read Robert Jordan and Anne McCaffrey fantasies and science fiction, when you should be reading Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and the Bronte sisters? Now certainly, I love those books which have been deemed canonical by the Literary Studieis industry: Shakespeare, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, ... but weren't they also quite popular among their own contemporary audiences? Isn't the whole brilliance of Shakespeare that his plays are brilliant and popular at the same time? Thus the movement towards contemporary cultural theory.)

If CCM gears itself towards a soley "religious," specifically "evangelical" audience, isn't that just as much of an indication that our mainstream culture is split between sacred and secular, which is reflected in the evangelical movement with its frenetic obsession with being "like" popular culture but not "mixed up" with it, rather than there being anything inherently "not quite real art" in singing religiously motivated songs. Certainly it reflects a certain culture, but so does most other popular music. In Nigeria for instance, where people are usually religious (whether Christian, Muslim, or traditional [although traditional does tend to get trampled by the first two]) and thus religion is mainstrain, wildly popular rappers like 2Face Indibia can be singing about partying in track 5, about political action in track 8 and a church-worthy praise song "Thank you Lord" on track 12, and no one seems to think there is any contradiction. There is no farming 2Face off into little Christian stores because of track 12. Similarly, most Hausa (Muslim and Christian) popular music invokes God and moralizes about society and there is no denigration of the "art" of it by secular critics. So, what's going on here?

Well, one thing is that the evangelical movement has been increasingly identified and, in fact, often self-identifies as the political religious right in America, and has commercialized its message so that the mall becomes almost synonymous with church, and the WWJD fad leads into the fad of bashing France with "freedom fries." I've sat through many an uncomfortable academic "let's attack the stupid evangelicals--they're all fanatical Bush supporters" bash session and not said a word--in part because I've done enough of the bashing myself and I know that it is partly true. Yes, I have seen from the inside the equation of being christian with being republican with being a capitalist with going to mega churches with listening only to CCM music and reading Christian romance novels (reading Marx or thinking about postmodernism or voting for a Democrat is of course a sign of either the unsaved or the backslidden) and believing that America is a nation founded on God, and that allowing Terri Shiavo to die after 10 or so years of a vegetative state is a direct contradiction of those principles on which our great country was founded, and that removal of the Ten Commandments statue, put up a few months before by a cranky judge, from a public building is paramount to the martyrdom of the Christians at the hands of the evil Roman empire, which, although corrupted, was also the greatest civilization in the world, and the heart of our great Western society, which as un-pc as this is and that's ok because PC is liberal anyway, is obviously more blessed by God than those pitiable third world countries that just can't get themselves together--because see how things have fallen apart since colonialism...

Yes, I agree. The words and actions of the religious right have done inestimable damage to the public face of Christianity in America, which is why young Christians of my generation tend to be so obsessed with proving that we can be smart, progressive, concerned about social issues, and critical of the religous right.

However, in fact, as I've just hinted at, the evangelical movement is much more complex than its detractors make it out to be, and is rapidly becoming more so as the teenageers who grew up with Focus on the Family, Odyssey radio plays, and Brio Magazine begin to question the teaching of white suburban culture along with the life of Jesus. So, on the other hand, those who take joy in simplistic stereotypes of "idiotic" evangelicals are also mistaken:

Anyone who has bashed the shallow hypocrisy of evangelical Christianity should go to Derek Webb's website and download his free cd "Mockingbird" and listen to it.

Yes, he has the at times strained vocals, the acoustic guitars, violins, and piano that other CCM musicians from back in the day. His music is remniscient of Jars of Clay (whom we all rejoiced over when they had one hit on secular radio) but also sometimes of John Lennon and the British pop idol Robbie Williams (ie. if you like Robbie Williams, you'll love...). Like most CCM music, it is geared towards the evangelical Christian subculture and preaches its share of sermons at it's listeners. But this time it's not "Jesus Freak." Most non-evangelical listeners probably would not get many of the allusions and subtle ironies in the lyrics; however, they might appreciate the sermons because they are saying the same things the critics say about the often lazy and hypocritical Christian right.

Occasionally, the songs slip into the obvious and the tiresomely preachy, but most of them pair the acoustic instrumentation and exquisite minor key harmonies with smart ironic lyrics. Even those that are a bit obvious are still pleasing to listen to, and make an incisive internal critique on the background so many of us come out of.

The messages are unapologetically Christian--and often refer to "the King," to the words of Jesus, or to biblical story and metaphor. He speaks from within the evangelical subculture, which anyone from that background will instantly recognize, but subverts it by juxtaposing the stereotypical "McChristian" language with the words of Christ--digging little jabs at thoughtless suburban creeds. Instead of loudly proclaiming a pround alienation from secular ideals, a la "Jesus Freak", he points to the ways in which the sub-culture is actually profoundly tied to the material obsessions of the "secular" world."

The nice thing about it for me is just this: He can satirize the Christian right while also staying within the broader definition of being evangelical (whatever exactly that means), and his words are usually more gentle than harsh. What I realized tonight is that there is no need to be so strictly vigilant about not identifying myself with evangelicism. It's a culture--one of the many cultures--that I come from. I can criticize and denounce its foolish excesses and its selfish preoccupations, but it is still family and as such, there's a bit of tenderness mixed up in all the finger pointing. And there are a lot of us like this--see Sojourners, see the Harvey Fellows. We are frustrated by the often stupid, insensitive, and plain un-Christian behaviour of the Christian right, but we are also often quietly frustrated by being lumped into a big stereotype if we "come out" as an evangelical-Christian to our non-Christian friends, even when we are somewhat condescendingly considered the "exception," that rare "enlightened" Christian. So, what does that mean about large portions of the global South, who faithfully and un-showily attend church every Sunday, get up at 6am every morning for family prayers, and can quote scripture to put most American evangelicals to shame, while going about their mainstream lives? Case in point a Nigerian video film producer raised Catholic who quoted string after string of scripture to my Muslim hostess when she said some stereotypical things about Christians in Nigeria. What does this mean?

What if the sensitive and intelligent Christian who is both interested in popular culture and committed to something larger than an individual culture is not the exception? What if our integration with our faith and our intellect and our social responsibility is what Christianity is actually all about? What if being Christian IS about being alien--not in stupid ways like wearing WWJD bracelets, which are just another way of fitting in--but in taking to heart such hard teachings as "give away everything you own to the poor and follow me" to "turn the other cheek" to "forgive 70 X 7" to "let those who are without sin throw the first stone" to, yes, "go out and share the good news."

Anyway, enough ranting. Here's sampling of a few of the lyrics. The first one I'm quoting here is my favourite, the second track: "A New Law"

Don't teach me about politics and government
Just tell me who to vote for.
Don't tell 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 want to know if the answers aren't easy.
So just bring it down from the mountain to me.

I want a new law X2
Just give me that new law.

Don't teach me about moderation and liberty
I prefer a shot grape juice
And don't teach me about loving my enemies
Don't teach me about how to listen to the spirit
Just give me a new law
I don't want to know if the answers aren't easy.
So, just bring it down from the mountain to me.

I want a new law 2X
Just give me that new law.

Because what's the use of trading all you can ever keep
for what you can but cannot get you anything.

Do not be afraid X20 [Admittedly after 20X it's a bit old...]


From "A King A Kindom"

"There are two great lies that I've heard.
The day that you eat the fruit of that tree you will not surely die,
And that Jesus Christ was a white middle class Republican
and if you want to be saved you have to learn to be like him.
So my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or man..."

From "Rich Young Ruler"

Poverty is so hard to see
when its only on your TV
or twenty miles across town.
When we're all living so good
that we moved out of Jesus's neighborhood
where he's hungry and not feeling so good
from going through our trash.

He says "More than just your cash and coin,
I want your time, I want your voice.
I want the things you just can't give me."

"So, what must we do, here in the West,
we want to follow you.
We speak the language and we keep all the rules,
even a few we made up."

"Come on and follow me
Sell your house and your SUV
Sell your stocks and your security
and give it to the poor."

"Well what is this, Hey what's the deal
I don't sleep around, and I don't steal
But I want the things you just can't me X2"

"Because what you do to the least of these,
my brothers you have done it to me,
because I want the things you just can't give me."

And how stereotypically Christian is this?

"I hate everything (but you)":

"Because it's been one of those kinds of days
and I feel so out of place,
and I hate everything, everything,
I hate everything but you."

Cause no one really understands me baby,if you don't,
so lets not fight, just turn the lights off baby,
you're all I want, yeah.
Because its been one of those kinds of days,
when the whole world is on my case,
and I hate everything, everything but you."


from "Please, Before I go"

"Kiss me once more,
Please before I go,
Just kiss me, sweetheart,
and I won't go no more.
Because I feel a little drunk,
like a man who cannot get enough,
and there's just one thing that can cool my head.

like an addict to his fix
so am I your sweet lips"

of course it is balanced out with the proper Christian, but still very charming sentiment

"wife of my youth
and my drug of choice"

So here is the link for the download:

Oh, and look at this, after I typed up all those lyrics from listening to them, here they are transcribed on this page:


Texter said...

Just wanted to tell you that I really appreciated this post. It takes some guts to think out loud - in public - about where evangelicism fits into your life. I've often been dismayed the way intellectuals haughtily dismiss religious belief/sentiment/expression and have wondered how class inflects the conversation and divide (the 'canon' and popular culture canon is just one of the ways the divide gets materialized - a divide that is not as rigorously sustained in african studies which is one of the things I love about it). Along with certain colleagues, I've said for a few years now that the avoidance of the religious in our literary scholarship is a lost opportunity and a blind spot. But also as you suggest, in teaching, i find that students are not most resistant to thinking about race or religion, but to thinking about capitalism and the cruelty of the market... that's their blind spot and the place they do not want to go.

Talatu-Carmen said...

Thanks. That means a lot. I'm glad to hear that other people, who do not necessarily have the same religious convictions, have noticed the tendency of intellectuals to "haughtily" dismiss religious belief. Of course, while writing, I was aware of all sorts of internal contradictions in my writing--I felt like I was getting tangled up in it, and after posting, I was like hmmm... maybe this wasn't a good idea.

The fear of course in posting something like this is that I will come across as whiny, ie. "Everybody hates us..."--when from the outside it must look like evangelicals are the ruling power, and thus a pretty good target for being hated. I think the thing that is the most frustrating when I sit through the bash sessions (which perhaps are most common in the academic environment in supposedly "open-minded" cities-- I must say I find Madison terribly provincial [which is a patronizing thing for me to say, I suppose]) is that such huge stereotypes are used, with no recognition that there is, in fact, a great deal of diversity incorporated into a word like "evangelicism," which (to my understanding--and I'm not sure there is one set definition of this--it depends on who is doing the defining) would include much of African Christianity, including (in my definition--and perhaps church historians would quibble that pentecostals and evangelicals aren't the same) Anglicans and certain Pentecostals. The boundaries aren't always clear--sometimes people also say "evangelical Catholic." In America, it would also include many urban and community-based African American churches (such as the one I attend), which certainly aren't used in referring to the Christian right. And even if one wants to get rid of the word "evangelical" since cranky Carmen is defining it so broadly, then even within the "Christian right" there is a very large range of variation from the extreme Pat Robertson, types (and most evangelicals do not take him seriously[in fact i would say the majority think he is a "nutcase"], as opposed to perhaps CNN and co. who put him and Jerry Falwell on as often as possible to be the "voice of the evangelical") to the types like a [non-white] friend of mine who voted for Bush (despite despising him and being far on the left on many other political issues) because this person could not in good conscience vote for someone who was not opposed to abortion. While this person might be lumped as being part of the crazy christian right--who "naively does not realize how the whole abortion issue is just being used as a political issue"--, i know how passionate he/she is about other social/national issues which are considered the domain of the "liberal"--he/she now bemoans the voting choice. Although, I DID vote for Kerry, it did not mean that I did not respect my friend's decision and it also mean that I did not have similar conflicts. Bush has shown himself to be completely inept and even scary in his disregard for basic human decency [wanting to redefine geneva conventions etc], and it is too bad that so many devout Christians did feel duty-bound to vote for him because the language of politics has been so hijacked by partisan loudmouths who guilt-trip other people into becoming partisans. That's a shame, and that is what many young Christians/evangelicals do struggle with--to struggle against that whole "follow the leader" cultural mentality.

However, at the same time, it's also a shame that other smart, interesting people that I like a lot fall into the trap of rhetorically and condescendingly neglecting to recognize the complexity in a "group" that is so diverse that it can hardly be considered a group except in the selective choosing of a few common religious beliefs. This is the same stereotype that unfortunately many American Christians (and others) make about Islam. You just can't lump a whole religious group together like that and not recognize the internal tensions and variables, a whole spectrum of belief and practice.

Anyway, yes, I agree that these days the "canon"/ "popular" divide is becoming an increasingly shakier one--and I'm glad of that because I think it allows us to be more normal human beings and not merely haughty irrelevant acadmics--there's no reason why you can't enjoy Soyinka's high dramatic plays and also enjoy speedily produced Nigerian home videos. No reason that you can't think Shakespeare was brilliant and also enjoy Robert Jordan (although I have not read him in years now).

And I think you also touch on something interesting in that the hang-ups of the students are not the same as the hang-ups of the students--but they are both hang-ups all the same.

Anyway, it's all very interesting. I always fear that tendency to become patronizing--academics do it so easily, and I know I've also done it plenty of times. I just keep trying to struggle against it where I see it in others and where I see it in myself. If I do it on this blog, dear readers, call me out.