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Derek Webb - The Challies Dot Com Interview

Yesterday afternoon Derek Webb took time out of what was his first day off in a week to speak with me. We talked for almost an hour and discussed his new album, doctrine, social justice and a variety of other topics. We even discussed (or at least touched on) Reformed theology, the Emerging Church and Jim Wallis. Because of the length of the interview I will post it in two parts, the first today with the conclusion being posted tomorrow morning. In the initial part of this interview we talk primarily about the new album and the theology that led him to write these new songs.

What follows is a transcription of this conversation. While I removed many of the “um” and “uh” and stutterings that are part of verbal communication, I tried to remain as true to the original words as possible. Consider this an essentially literal, not a dynamic equivalent or paraphrastic transcription. I skipped over the initial greetings and mumblings that were not part of the interview proper.

As you know I’ll be recording this for my web site. I asked people there to leave some questions, so I’ll do some of my own mixed with some of theirs, if you don’t mind. I thought we could kick off with the new recording. You have a new album, Mockingbird, coming out soon. I noticed that there was a clear progression in theme and style from the first album to the second. What should we expect from the third?

I definitely see a progression in the new record. I felt like the first record especially was a record about the church. It was a record about trying to discover: what was the church?; what is the church?; what is the church’s role in culture?; and what is my role in the church? As I was sorting through all those questions, that is what brought the songs about and that is why that record ended up being what it was. The following couple of years doing the house shows, getting into a lot of really good discussions about some of those issues and sorting through some of that I think - having done that record really brought me to this record. I basically see two sides to the gospel story. There’s the one side that has us claiming that there is one who has come and has made a way. There is one who has showed up on the scene and has kept the law on our behalf and proclaiming his coming is one side of that gospel coin. Then there is the side that we often neglect and that is the proclamation of his kingdom coming also.

And we are to proclaim both of those things. Those are equally important things for us to proclaim when we talk about the gospel. I think my first record focused on that first side of that coin and I think that this new record, Mockingbird, is starting to focus a bit on the other side, the coming of Jesus’ kingdom, and it has direct implications on where we live and how we live and it covers a lot broader topics than maybe my first record would have. It has me trying to figure out how to use the claim of the coming of the kingdom that will have no hunger, no sickness, no poverty, no war, no disaster. The way you proclaim that kingdom is by putting your hand to the “being made right of all things.” That’s really what Jesus’ kingdom coming means: “the being made right of all things.” The way we proclaim that kingdom is by putting our hands to that. So you see someone who is hungry and you proclaim to them a kingdom where there will be no hunger by putting food in their mouth. If someone is ill or sick you proclaim to them the kingdom where there will be no sickness by caring for them or giving them lifesaving drugs. I think that is probably what St. Francis might have meant when he said to “proclaim the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” That is his famous quote. I really think that is exactly what he could have meant. We go into culture and proclaim the coming of Jesus’ kingdom where all things will be made right by putting our hands to “the being made right of all things” and of course there is the literal proclamation of his showing up on the scene that we also need to tell people. And I really think that the other half of that gospel is so neglected that it was worth devoting a record to. But the thing is, it covers such broad topics that it’s almost the kind of thing where I could spend the rest of the records I ever make unpacking how to apply a scriptural framework to issues like poverty or the government or sexuality or politics. I could definitely write quite a few more songs about those issues because it really starts to get into the way we live and the way we love people and how we relate to our neighbors, how we relate to our enemies. It speaks to all that. It was a lot of ground to cover. That is the kind of progression I see from the first record to this - the first being about being set free because Jesus has kept the law on our behalf, and this record being about what we are set free unto.

Who guided you in this progression? Was this simply a result of your own and reading Scripture and through meeting people while you were on the road, or are there particular books or teachers who guided you?

I would say all that. I don’t have any grand plans about any of this. I didn’t set out to make a record about the church in the first place. That was the last record I thought I would have made. I have been repeatedly surprised by what strange turns my career has taken. This certainly is not exactly where I thought I would end up. I really thought I would be in Caedmon’s for my whole career. I had never had any ambition about being a solo artist. There are a lot of things I do not enjoy about it. But I do enjoy the liberty that it gives me to say things the way I believe they need to be said. I don’t have to have any reservations or fears about other reputations that I might be staking on that. It’s just me at this point so it makes me a little more fearless.

But I’m sure that one of the things that might have sparked some of that for me is that my wife and I are part of a church plant of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, which is just a little outside of the city. Christ Community planted this church in downtown Nashville, East Nashville area, right next to downtown, and we moved over here to the east side of town to be on this side of town and to be part of that. Our church plant is very focused on the needs of the city and having a hand in racial and economic reconciliation. There are a lot of big issues when you move to the city that just start to become part of your everyday life. It’s not something you have to drive across town to participate in - it’s something you wake up to every day. I’m sure that had a lot to do with it. For me it really was like: Okay, I’ve spent two years really focused on delivering the message of the gospel, so now I start to get interested in, “so what have I been set free to do? Now that I’m set free, how do I live in light of that freedom?” And I think that anybody can tell you that when you study a lot of theology and you study a lot of God’s character and you study his attributes you get into a very theological type of discourse. That is a great thing to do. That is a great foundation to have. But if that theology never turns into ethics then it can become a real idol because the rubber of theology must meet the road of ethics at some point or the other or else it’s not informing how we truly love the people around us. It’s all very theoretical. Being very well trained in theology but having it never affect your ethics, we run the risk of being nothing more than ringing cymbals and clanging gongs.

You identify yourself as Reformed, I assume, so do you feel this is a problem that is particularly pronounced in Reformed circles?

Well, it’s interesting. It’s interesting that I’ve never gone out of my way to identify myself with any particular system of theology. But I know that that has been (and I say that with a smirk) because I know that a lot of stuff I’ve written, and especially in the early Caedmon’s days, definitely, it punctuated my theology a good bit, I would think, looking back on it [laughing]. And that’s because I was really - that was a time when I was really studying that. I was coming into that for the first time and I was starting to figure myself out theologically a little bit and those were important years and those were important songs to me.

But it’s interesting that I think I got to be a little too predictable for certain people. I became kind of like the Reformed theology poster boy in very small circles. And I don’t know if I was always really that comfortable with that. I didn’t really sign up for that. I’m just a guy writing songs trying to reflect his worldview and that’s part of my worldview. I have a certain view of the way God governs all things, I think those are the main distinctives of the Reformed tradition, and of course I believe that. And that is part of who I am and that’s part of how I see the world. But it’s interesting as people are starting to get wind of this new material and some of the songs on Mockingbird, and as I’ve been playing some of those songs live, especially the online community that has been really supportive of me over the last few years, both at my web site and at the derekwebb.net web site, there has been a little bit of a mutiny happening because there are some folks who are more into Reformed theology (and I think that might have been what first attracted them to me) and they are starting to get a little nervous. A few of them have started to jump ship because I think my views on the role of social justice in the life of the believer might begin to take a turn from typical Reformed theology on some of these points. And that’s okay with me because, again, I didn’t sign up to be the poster boy. And so what’s starting to happen is that there are some really Reformed folks who are starting to get a little nervous who have typically been the ones who have blindly come to my defense, no matter what I would do, because I think I’ve been so predictable to them. Those people are starting to get nervous. These other people who may be aligned a little more with some of the sentiment of the new record, the new material, and have a heart for social issues and political issues are starting now to come to my defense. And it’s interesting to watch how the loyalty changes and it’s interesting to watch how the people who were once kind of suspicious of me because of my Reformed theology and who never really bought into that but liked the music are now feeling like we are feeling a bond, the same type of bond that I think was felt between me and some of those Reformed folks.

And I think that’s healthy. I think it’s healthy for me and for those people who might share a theology with me. I think it’s good for all of us that we would realize that we don’t have to agree on all of this stuff. I wrote a song on my first record called “Nobody Loves Me,” and it’s interesting how a song like that - I’ve been playing it again lately and I’ve not played it, you know, much over the last year - but I’ve been playing it again lately, and strategically placing it after a couple of new songs that I think are particularly difficult for some people. It’s interesting to me how the group of people that that song represents in my head changes depending on what the content is and depending on what I’m saying. The people who don’t love me change.

On that note, let me ask you this. I recently read an article at CMCentral.com, a preview of your album, and a quote there was, “Mockingbird is sure to get people talking and even make some people uncomfortable, which is exactly what Webb wants.” Is that what you want out of this album? Do you feel that there is real spiritual benefit in making people uncomfortable?

I think there is tremendous spiritual benefit in making people uncomfortable. [laughs] Absolutely! I wouldn’t want to overstate the point, but I think the moments when we are uncomfortable are the most beneficial moments, spiritually, for us. But in regards to that particular quote, which might not mean exactly what you think it says, it’s more in the context of this record and these songs. My hope is that I would be maybe just a catalyst to get a more nuanced discussion going about the role of believers in social issues and political issues because the politics of the church have become far too predictable. It’s like once you come down the aisle responding to the call for salvation - you come down the aisle and you pray the prayer and as you’re walking out they give you your little gift bag. And your little gift bag is all of your politics and sexuality and culture and art and all wrapped up, it’s all been thought out for you. Just take your gift bag and you’re going to be fine. And we just can’t be people who are satisfied with that. That is completely oversimplifying issues that are very difficult and very detailed and are very nuanced. We must have a more meaningful discussion about these issues in the church because you simply cannot be as predictable as we have become as the Western church. You cannot be that predictable and follow Jesus. You cannot! Jesus was not predictable in his politics. I do think Jesus makes quite a few very political statements, but he was in no way predictable. There were moments where he might have looked very conservative as we might try to put our terms and categories on him today and look back, but there are also moments where he looked like a flaming liberal. There is nothing we can do about it. If your concern is in following Jesus and that is what you really want to do, as opposed to following some kind of subcultural caricature of a political idea, you’re going to have to be willing to follow him back and forth and back and forth. You’re going to have to be willing to have people, even in the church, call you a liberal, which can be very derogatory when used by these people. I think the more we align ourselves with political parties in the church the more it makes it impossible to follow Jesus.

You say this is a conversation we need to have as Evangelicals. Who do you feel is leading this conversation now? Is there anyone you would recommend we read or listen to who is addressing these topics now?

There are some folks. There are a lot of folks - there is a lot of hope for this conversation to happen right now. One of the obvious people you can point to is a guy like Jim Wallis. I think Jim has a heart for this. I think he is very concerned with the way that the Republican Party has co-opted the moral values conversation. That is not to say I recommend or agree with everything Wallis says - not by any means is that true. However, I do think there is a lot to commend about the spirit of what he is calling for. I really do. I read his book. I read God’s Politics and I thought there were some tremendous challenges in that book for believers to lay aside this pre-thought-out idea that we’re sold in the church that is punctuated by stories that we’ve seen in the news over the last few years of people wanting to vote some way other than Republican and being excommunicated from their church. While that’s a caricature, it represents something that’s happening that’s outrageous in our churches - it’s that idea that you must follow a certain way. That there is any Christian political party in a two party system is an outrageous idea. It’s an outrageous idea. Because the way that our system works in America, in our two party system, these two parties are setup to be polar opposites of each other. Every time somebody comes out and says one thing, somebody on the other side comes out and says “I completely disagree all the way over here.” You’ve got these two polar extremes, on two polar edges, and the real conversation, the real truth of how to love and help people, is lingering somewhere in the middle. You have to be willing to move in and out of the middle if you have any hope of helping anybody. Rather than name-calling - I am so sick of hearing Christians talk about the loony-left - all these outrageous derogatory terms we use for people who don’t agree with us.

And I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if “the right” was actually in the right most of the time…

That’s true as well. But again, in a two party system that’s not going to happen. Jesus would have belonged to no party in a two party system. There is no party line for Jesus to walk. I feel like we have got to move on and stop being so childish. Move on from these categorical, derogatory statements and names for each other and start commending about each other what is commendable and then move on from that point of unity to figure out how we can love and care for people. That’s the second greatest commandment, that we love our neighbors, including our neighbors over on the loony left. How are you defending the dignity of human beings, people made in the image of God, who we are commanded to love? How are you doing that exactly by calling them derogatory names or making a caricature of their political system just because you don’t like them, because you don’t agree with them? I think people run the risk of making an idol out of their ideology.

I will post the conclusion of this interview tomorrow. In the second part we discuss book recommendations, Don Millar, the Emerging Church, the offense of the gospel and more.