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: