Contemporary Christian music does not have the reputation of being controversial. In fact, when Christian artists typically try to say something controversial, they tend to do it in a way that ironically makes their hearers feel encouraged or empowered. The themes are too often “positive and encouraging.” This is why I thank God for Derek Webb. He is honest, frank, and, like a good rock’n’roller should be, shocking. But, all the while, he is faithful to the message of the Scriptures. Like the prophet Amos attacking the idolatrous comfort of ancient Israel, Webb’s music is an assault on complacent, misguided, Americanized Christianity. After leaving the popular “Caedmon’s Call”, Webb set out to call the bride of Christ back to her loving Husband and challenge her to rise from docile slumber in a world being ravaged by sin.
After four albums that challenge the church and proclaim Jesus in sometimes harsh but always eye-opening ways, Webb’s fifth solo effort, Stockholm Syndrome may prove to be his most controversial yet. Gaining attention through emails to fans which announced that the release of the album had been postponed due to a disagreement with the record label over certain songs, Webb?s strong themes and penetrating insights had seemingly even pushed the label too far. An edited version of the album was released, with the unedited version available from the website. (I am unaware if this is still the case.)
The techno, synthesized beats and electronic pop sounds Stockholm Syndrome employs are very appropriate for the song’s heavy themes. For example, hip back-beats serve a busy signal-like sound as Jesus peeks through the key-hole trying to get through to His church in “Black Eye” (picking up on themes in Revelation 3:20). An eerie 1950ish melody (presumably) puts shock-“Christian” Fred Phelps on trial for protesting the funerals of homosexual soldiers. Sampling from Bert (of Bert and Ernie fame), Webb presents a high-energy challenge to those who seek anything in church beyond the triune God in “The Spirit vs. the Kickdrum” with a Vegas-like, Ocean’s Eleven beat that makes one think, “Do I want God or entertainment?” And the haunting simplicity of “Heaven” captures a very small view of heaven that looks depressingly like earth for a homeless man. These are only a few examples of Webb’s artistic ability to capture his themes in the music that accompanies his lyrics.
Most Christians will likely struggle with Webb’s adult themes and graphic language. For example, in the song “What Matters More,” Webb uses the s-word. What is more, the word is used in a song challenging the church on its treatment of homosexuals (this is to be distinguished, I would argue, from the church’s view of homosexuality). On one level, it may seem remarkably inappropriate for Webb to use language that is not even allowed on most basic cable stations. However, given the theme of the song, Webb may be using harsh language on purpose. That is, he may be posing the question: Are you more concerned with the language I use or the message I am singing about? Are you more concerned about your moral purity or are you looking after those who are dying around you? Thus the chorus: “What matters more to you?”
The message Webb wants to get across in his albums is one of repentance, love and justice. From a Lutheran perspective, this album is very heavy on law with not a lot of gospel (as opposed to his first solo album “She Must and Shall Go Free” where I found myself weeping over the beautiful presentation of God’s love in Christ). However, this is His intent. He wants the church to wake up to its lack of love and misguided practices. The problem, of course, is that diagnosing a disease without presenting a cure is only going to leave a patient sick and in despair. I find myself agreeing with much of Webb’s critique. To be honest, I even agree with his controversial stylings. The prophets, and even Jesus himself, did not say things to bring comfort to the comfortable! I just wish there was more hope. The album is awfully dark and, though some light shines through, Webb can come off as just sounding angry and vindictive. And, at times, the message gets lost amidst the controversial stances. Also, Webb’s politics come into the album on songs like “Cobra Con” and “American Flag Umbrella” which can be off-putting to Christians who take different views of the church and its relationship to the state.
That being said, I highly recommend this album. For some, Webb will be giving voice to their own frustrations. To others, Webb will be opening their eyes to their sins. Though unsettling at times, Webb’s message is both necessary and critical for the American church. But take my advice, after listening to the album and being convicted by the message, go to church, confess your sins, and listen to the sweet absolution from your pastor who will preach the forgiveness of Jesus into your ears and into your heart. Only then will you be given what you need to live out the life God has called you to.
Album Highlights: Black Eye, The Spirit vs. the Kickdrum, Heaven