This is the second and final installment of an interview with Derek Webb. You can read the first installment here: Derek Webb – The Challies Dot Com Interview.
Let me go to a reader question here. We’ll lighten it up for a minute. In your opinion, what is the most underappreciated of your songs and why?
[Laughs] That’s a great question! Here’s my moment to be completely self-indulgent and totally arrogant!
Right! So the one song that really did it for you but not for anyone else.
Yeah, that’s a good question. Okay. I’m going to have to think about that one. I don’t know! I would have to look at what songs I’ve written. There are definitely some songs over the years that I’ve felt like are going to get more attention than they did for one reason or the other and they didn’t. That maybe people were going to like more or not like and didn’t get any kind of reaction out of people. I don’t really know. I’m talking to Don Miller, whom I’ve talked to over the past few years – he’s a pretty good friend – and he was asking me “what did people think of the song ‘Reputation’ that was on my last record?” He asked, “What did people say about Reputation?” because he dug that song and he was asking me what did people think. And I was like, I don’t have a clue what people thought about that song. No one ever tells me anything. I don’t make the kind of records that get a lot of feedback. I don’t think a lot of people are necessarily paying any attention to what I’m doing.
I don’t get the feeling that you’re out trolling the Internet and message boards to find out what people are saying about you…
I don’t know that I’d really turn up anything. I don’t think what I do gets a whole bunch of attention but I think that’s good because it keeps me really free to say whatever I want and not feel any fear about if people are going to get bent out of shape because if nobody’s paying attention to you, you can do just about whatever you want.
You certainly don’t fit that Nashville mold. A lot of people have an idea in their head about what it means to be a Christian artist and I’m pretty sure Derek Webb doesn’t fit anywhere within that mold.
[Laughs] Well, from what I know of that caricature, I’d definitely take that as a compliment.
I think it is generally meant as a compliment.
I’m so bummed that I can’t think of a good answer to that question. I would have to sit down with the records in front of me and really pause to think about it.
What is one song you have to play at every concert you do?
That I feel like I have to play at every show?
Right. The one that people want to hear at every show.
Honestly, I feel like there’s something about, and this probably won’t be a big surprise, but something about the song “Wedding Dress” that seems to really strike a chord with people. I play that just about every night. I just about can’t get out of a place without playing that. And I do that for a variety of reasons. I think when I wrote the song that I knew there was something special about it. I remember playing it for my wife just after I finished it and she wept at it, which just totally shocked me. I was like, “Are you okay? What happened? Did something happen while I was playing the song? Did something bite you?” That was really the song that made me realize I needed to do this thing on my own. That was the song that made me realize that Caedmon’s was not going to be the context for these new songs but that I was going to have to do this on my own. That was really the song that did it. So I think there is something kind of special about that one.
What are three or four books you feel that every Christian absolutely needs to read?
That’s a good question. I guess the Bible goes without saying?
We’ll assume the Bible. That’s like the “Who would you like to have dinner with?” question. If you’re American and Republican you have to say Jesus, right?
[Laughs]. That’s right. I think that one book that has been tremendously helpful to me is a book by this guy Steve Turner, it’s called Imagine. Steve Turner’s a guy who studied at L’Abri under Francis Schaeffer, and he wrote this book. It’s probably the most thorough and biblical and liberating treatment of how a Christian might engage in the arts. It is one of those books that will take the roof off the house. I read it every couple of years just to remind myself of what’s true because when it comes to the arts the church has really mixed up ideas about what the role of art is in culture and especially church culture. So that book really has blown my mind a number of times and I think that should be required reading for anybody.
A book that really blew my mind when I first started studying theology on my own is a book by a guy named Arthur Pink. It’s a book called The Sovereignty of God. I just didn’t know what to do when I read that book. It just freaked me out. I think quite a bit of Arthur Pink. I think he was a tremendous writer.
Gosh, there are so many good books! I’m trying to think of what books I’m reading currently. I think another good, required reading, for believers would be just about anything by Wendel Berry. I don’t know if our readers will be familiar at all with Wendel Berry. He is a guy who lives in Kentucky and he’s a farmer. He’s an older guy, he’s a believer, and he writes the most tremendous books. He writes fiction, he writes poetry, but what I have mostly read are his collections of essays. He basically speaks to a lot of social issues but does it very subversively from a Christian worldview. He’s a great guy to recommend to folks who are not following Jesus as well because his worldview so permeates what he writes but he doesn’t write in a way that [indiscernible]. He writes about everything from war to agriculture to you name it. He’s tremendous. So just about anything by Wendell Berry. I’d probably recommend that a good starting place would be his essay collection called The Citizenship Papers. Really, really good.
I was listening to a podcast that was from the DVD you released recently. You said there about Don Miller that he is a guy who says things in a way people understand. So many of the words that Christians use are just “Christianese” – it is guys like Don Miller who say them in a way people can understand…
…I definitely recommend Don Miller. Don is a good friend and a tremendous writer. Blue Like Jazz certainly struck a chord with a lot of people and he’s definitely a guy you want to keep your eye on. He’s going to be dangerous in a few years because he’s getting so popular and people are really taken with his books. I’ve talked to Don recently about ideas about his future books he’s going to write and he is just going to turn things upside-down. He is going to have the power to do it because he’s really doing well, he’s sold a lot of books, and the Christian bookstores are going to have to carry them. I appreciate people who are willing to risk platforms they’re on in order to say things that might get them knocked off and he’s certainly going to do that. And he’s going to be doing a lot of that over the next few years.
You said there is a problem with people speaking Christianese and people stick with a Christian lexicon that they don’t really understand. What do you think the solution is there? You pointed out Don Miller as a guy who can explain things in a way that anyone can understand, not just Christians who have had the proper training. Is the solution to train people better, to train Christians more, or is it to rework the way we speak of our theology?
I do think there could be some reworking of it, but I think the thing that could really make a difference would be for people to pursue relationships with people who are not like them. That goes to near the top of the priority list for Christians anyways. But I think that as you live long-term with people around you and pursue relationships with people not like you and who don’t speak your language it’s going to become a necessity that you figure out a way to say these things and proclaim truth to people in a way that makes sense to them in the context of their story. That’s a great challenge in proclaiming the gospel to people: learning how to speak into their story and their situation. And I think that’s one thing to commend in the Emergent Church movement that’s happening right now, and that’s something they seem really concerned with, is learning how to speak truth into people’s stories in a way that is really relational and a way that’s really honest. And I appreciate that. So I really think trial by fire would be to throw yourself into a relationship with somebody who doesn’t understand what you’re talking about. You’ve used all these huge words and even you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You know, a lot of Christians use a certain shorthand that we don’t even know what we’re talking about but we all know the language so we can all speak it. I think it’s interesting for me, for instance to go out and do a lot of shows where we’re playing in very neutral venues like bars, and you find yourself not leaning on your default language of saying things in a certain way. You’re trying to be more creative about putting words on truths that might communicate that to people who don’t speak your little exclusive language. It’s really helpful to do that. So I would think pursue people who are not like you because it will force the issue of having to communicate to them.
A lot of people consider your songs offensive, or at least some of your songs, and I think we saw that especially with the first album. As I understand it the album wasn’t even sold in some stores. Do you consider your songs offensive even to you?
Yeah, actually. There are quite a few songs, especially on the first record, and I think there are lots of parallels between the first album and Mockingbird, they are similar records in spirit, though the content’s different. They are very similar records. And I am offended by, for instance the language the Scripture uses when talking about me. When Ezekiel 16 goes to the trouble of not only calling me as part of Christ’s body, as part of the church, as a member of the church, calling me a prostitute or a whore and then goes even further to say not only am I a whore but I am a whore who actually pays men to sleep with me as opposed to just taking their money. That is the language Scripture uses to talk about the heart of God’s people and how adulterous we are and how wrecked spiritually we are. Unbelievably offensive language! And it does offend me. It should offend me. It continually offends me. On some of these new songs…there is a song called “My Enemies Are Men Like Me” that is taking a hard look at the way we in the West, the language we have put on how people relate to our enemies. And it’s difficult to me to sort out how to take seriously the commands to love my neighbor and to follow the story of the Good Samaritan which is basically a story of a man’s enemy risking his life for him. And loving our enemies. Teaching like that is very difficult in the West. If we’ve made it out to be not so difficult then we’re not really hearing what it’s teaching us.
In the beginning you indicated that you see two sides of the gospel. So you feel that the offense of the gospel extends to both areas? Not just to what the unbeliever hears and rebels against, but to the continued calling of the gospel?
Yeah, it affects both my heart and the implications of my heart being changed and how that effects the people around me. It’s offensive to me all the way around. But again, just like you asked me before, “is making people uncomfortable beneficial spiritually?”, and that’s the reason I would think it most certainly is. It’s in those moments where I have to be confronted with the Scripture that tells me that I am essentially she who cheats on her husband and that I’m one who is commanded in light of how I’m loved to extend that same love to my neighbors and my enemies in a moment of history like we’re in today. These things are very difficult. Very difficult. These are hard teachings and we can’t pretend like they’re not. It’s very difficult because these are hard thoughts to think.
To wrap up, what can we expect from Derek Webb in the coming years?
Well, you might be asking the wrong guy! I just really don’t have any idea. Like I said before, I had no idea in the first place that I would make this record about the church and that I would end up solo. I don’t have one eye on the plan. I am just as surprised as anybody when these records come out. I am just on God’s good humor at this point.
It’s not a bad place to be, is it?
It’s not at all. It’s better for us to realize the status and the reality of our situation than to have some false sense of security that I do know what’s right around the corner and I can control what’s happening around me. Even in the moments that we feel the most control, that is an illusion. That’s a fiction. So better to at least realize that this whole thing could just turn on a dime.
Thanks for your time. I do appreciate it.
Yeah, I appreciate you taking the time to do this. I really dig your blog.
Thanks, I appreciate that.
I’ll be anxious to see this and perhaps we’ll get some conversations going on there.