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Before There Was Derek Webb…

Yesterday I wrote a post about poetry and quite a few people followed-up by posting some of their favorite poems. After writing that article I continued to think about poetry and music and their power, especially when combined. A reader asked if I consider songs to be poetry, and I certainly do, except that songs are poetry in a less pure form. What I mean by that is that poetry presents nothing but words – songs introduce music which can be manipulative, for good or for ill. That is certainly not to denigrate music, but simply to indicate that music can be doubly-powerful.

Changing my direction a little bit, this morning I was thinking about songs that address problems within the church (I have no idea why, though it probably has something to do with an article series I am researching and writing at the moment). I thought of Derek Webb who has seemingly taken on the unenviable task of being a critic of much of what passes for Christianity. His three solo albums have been harsh towards the church, chastising her for being far less than God intended her to be. Webb generally avoids hiding behind humor, opting instead to just get straight to the point.

The song for which Webb is most notorious is “Wedding Dress” from his debut album, She Must and Shall Go Free.

if you could love me as a wife
and for my wedding gift, your life
should that be all i’ll ever need
or is there more i’m looking for

and should i read between the lines
and look for blessings in disguise
to make me handsome, rich, and wise
is that really what you want

i am a whore i do confess
but i put you on just like a wedding dress
and i run down the aisle
i’m a prodigal with no way home
but i put you on just like a ring of gold
and i run down the aisle to you

The mere mention of the word “whore” was enough to have this album banned from quite a few Christian bookstores, including one entire chain. “The Church” is another standout tune from the same album:

’cause i haven’t come for only you
but for my people to pursue
you cannot care for me with no regard for her
if you love me you will love the church

i have long pursued her
as a harlot and a whore
but she will feast upon me
she will drink and thirst no more

so when you taste my flesh and my blood
you will know you’re not alone

there is none that can replace her
though there are many who will try
and though some may be her bridesmaids
they can never be my bride

Those are powerful words, either read on their own or set to music.

A couple of days ago, when cycling through the thousands of MP3s on my computer (all of them legal, I assure you) I heard a song that seemed to be as strong an indictment of mainstream Christianity as Webb has voiced, though this one did so through humor. The song is “Smash Hit” which is on the self-titled debut album from All Star United. It is a brilliant, and quite comical, commentary on the way Christians view their task in the world. The songwriter extends this methodology back to Jesus and suggests that if only He had had a market plan and some business cards He could have been much more successful. It goes on to talk about those who exploit His name:

All he needed was PR
A million box of business cards
Careful image consultation
Securing reputation
A clever market plan
He didn’t understand
That’s all it really takes
He could have played for higher stakes
We’ve gone wrong

This Jesus thing, it’s a smash hit
It’s packaged right
All stocks have split, it’s a smash hit,
It’s gone worldwide

Join His name to any cause
Drop His name to get applause
They never get enough
Nothing here to be ashamed of
Those ever loyal fans
They wanna get their hands
On His newest merchandising
Ignoring overpricing

It has no explanation
It smells like exploitation

Now that is harsh! But there is more. “La La Land” from the same album is almost equally harsh. It covers pragmatism and relativism (“the question isn’t whether it’s true. The question ‘is it working for you?’”), an easy faith (“the saints and martyrs alike…would have called a national strike…if only they’d known their rights”) and superstition (“My Jesus decal”):

The question isn’t whether it’s true
The question “is it working for you?”
Marshmallow skies
And custardy pies
And nothing’s too hard to do

They’re five happy verses or so
They told me all I needed to know
Ignore all the rest
Trials and tests
And threats to my comfort zone
Well I’ve got no time to find out what’s real
I stick with what I happen to feel
It feels grand
When you’re livin’ in a lala land

All the saints and martyrs alike
Well they would have called a national strike
Demanded less pain
More personal gain
If only they’d known their rights
Well I take it very personally
Yeah, I got to know what’s in it for me
Ain’t it grand?
When you’re livin’ in a lala land

My Jesus decal does quite a trick
Right above my dashboard I stick it
A good luck charm
It keeps me from harm
And saves me from speeding tickets

Having gotten this far into this article, I see that I am really not building-up to some great conclusion. But I would be interested in knowing of other songs similar to those I have mentioned. Any takers?

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