Today I am thrilled to share the latest installment of our “Ask…” interview series featuring your questions and responses from singer-songwriter Derek Webb.
Derek has been back in the headlines recently with the release of his latest album, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You. A veteran of the Christian music industry, he first gained prominence as a member of the folk rock band Caedmon’s Call, and then later embarked on a successful solo career. As a member of Caedmon’s Call, Derek saw career sales approaching 1 million records, along with 10 GMA Dove Award nominations, three Dove Award wins, and six #1 Christian radio hits. Since leaving Caedmon’s Call, Derek has released seven studio albums, generating some controversy—particular with Stockholm Syndrome, a more electronic album in which Derek wrestles with tough questions around sexuality, race, and social justice. Derek lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken.
You asked some great questions, which we narrowed down to seven, and Derek didn’t take a pass on a single one. I think you will appreciate the thoughtfulness with which he responds. Enjoy!
From Rachel: When I think about what the "Christian" music industry was like back when Caedmon's Call was playing all around the country (when I was in high school/college) and what it is like today, it's really kind of mind-blowing. Much ink has been spilt over how much the industry has changed, but I'm wondering how those changes have affected you personally as someone who has managed to be a continuous creative force throughout them. So, what do you miss the most about the "Christian music heyday" of the 80s and 90s and what do you miss the least?
Yeah, a lot has changed in that scene. When we came into it, the “Christian” music industry was at its peak of efficiency. Long term contracts were being signed, large budgets were being handed out, and lots of records were being sold. As it has always been, it was a sub-culture living off the scraps of the dominant culture (rather than more rightly being the counter-culture it was designed to be). Caedmon’s had a great run at a great moment, maybe the last moment when success like that, achieved that way, was possible.
But unfortunately, as happens with a lot of artists, I feel like it got the better of us. A wise man once said that the two worst things for a band are success and failure, especially in that order. So once we had a taste of things we hadn’t previously cared about or wanted and were no longer receiving them, we started to even sub-consciously accept pressure to put our hands on those controls in order to find our way back to that ‘success’.
And that’s the great risk of concentrated success. You wind up in the ‘platform maintenance’ business, spending all of your time and creativity building and securing a platform that you are less and less likely to ever ascend. And that becomes the whole job, just building and tinkering with that platform. But the higher it gets and the higher the stakes get because of people whose livelihoods are wrapped up in it, it begins to eclipse the reason you started in the first place.
So my goal in my career has been to stay low to the ground, even to self-sabotage if necessary. That way, if I get knocked off of my platform as a result of doing my job well, it’s easy to climb back on. And if the platform is destroyed beneath my feet, I can quickly course-correct and rebuild it. It keeps me honest and keeps me in the job.
From J.R.: You have put a lot of thought and effort into discussing the church over the years. Is there one thing you see as the biggest issue/blind spot for the church, an area where Christianity is failing to live up to its promise and purpose? What, if any, solution do you see?
If I had to distill it to one issue (which is almost impossible to do fairly or accurately, seeking to describe such a diverse body), I would say it’s that the visible church seems to care more about ideas than people. Listen, I know that the universal church are ‘diverse members of one body,’ and are therefore actually supposed to disagree. It would be arguably sinful if we were all reaching the same conclusions on how to build the kingdom, if we had the same opinions about issues of politics or sexuality. But what matters more than that is that we disagree in a way that is civil, if not loving.
We must remain diverse and yet value each other more than we value our opinions. I would never ask someone to change their opinion as much as I might ask them to change the tone and posture with which they express that opinion. I think until we can find a way to more than tolerate, but truly love, people who are different that we are, we will be really bad advertisements for Jesus.
From Norman: Imagine a church is burying a time capsule, to be opened in the year 2113. They want to put one of your solo studio albums in it, with a short note from you attached. Which album would you put in, and what would you write on the note?
Hard to say. I suppose I would put my first album, She Must & Shall Go Free in there. And the note would read: “Without knowing the needs or reality of the world in which you live, I know that your hearts are no different than mine here in 2013. I wish for this music to be sanity-restoring in a world that like mine, seeks to steal your sanity from you.
From Kristen: Can you coach me on how to have a well-publicized feud with a hip-hop artist? I tried to start one with Biz Markie but he totally ignored me.
All I can tell you is how I managed mine: Be a huge fan, express what a huge fan you are, sprinkle in a little honesty about the frequency of their tweets (and your own, to be fair), get blocked. It’s just as simple as that.
From Registered Runaway: First of all, Derek, when I heard the song "Wedding Dress" on a road trip with my brother, I cried a little. It is still one of my favorite songs, so, thank you for creating it! As a gay Christian man, my question to you is, how have your views evolved in the LGBT conversation. I saw that you were touring with Jennifer Knapp and were receiving some flack from the conservative community about singing with an "unrepentant homosexual." I also saw that you played at the GCN conference and have been very active in loving your gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Have you reached your own theological conclusions on this? Or are you, like much of the Christian community, still *wrestling* through your thoughts? (which is fine, by the way, and necessary!) Looking forward to downloading your latest!
I have always been concerned watching the way the church fumbles with their treatment of and response to the LGBT community. I have had many close friends and family members who have been at the business end of the church’s judgment on those issues. And I have been largely reluctant to talk publicly about my opinions on the morality of the issue, something I believe the church has said enough about at this point (and recklessly so, which has done more harm than good).
The main reason for my silence on this issue is that answering would likely remove me from the unique position I am in to be able to stand between these two groups, to try and hold hands with both and work for reconciliation. I am ok with being disliked and potentially misunderstood (and therefore judged) if it means doing my job well. Answering essentially anonymous people online to their satisfaction only benefits them, and potentially destroys the relationship I have on one or both sides.
I am less interested in discussing or seeking to change anyone’s mind regarding their opinion on the morality as much as I am interested in engaging how people in the church treat gay people. I believe this is an honest point of unity even for those who vehemently disagree on those points: whether it’s your opinion that the Bible prohibits or permits homosexuality, your opinions should in no way inform your response to gay people. In either case, the response is love. Not just tolerance, but love. Tolerance is a secular value though it feels like wisdom in many cases. But honestly, who wants to be ‘tolerated’? I don’t wish to be simply ‘tolerated,’ I wish to be loved. And this is what we must strive for if we wish to in any way communicate the priorities and mission of our savior.
Since I am bound to fail at striking the correct balance, my m.o. has typically been to favor recklessly over-loving rather than fearfully under-loving, repenting all the while.
From Mary: You tend to avoid making direct doctrinal/opinion statements in the media or through the limited venue of twitter. Based on your personal experience, is there ever a valid context for more concrete theological statements or discussions? Is that something that should only be approached on an individual basis, or is there ever a suitable time for more public discussion?
I have simply tried to avoid giving short answers to questions for which there are no short answers. And I know there is a real temptation in our culture that we must. But that is a lie. Just because someone asks doesn’t mean you have to answer, especially if goes against what feels like wisdom or against your conscience. So I do think there can be moments to make bold public statements, but one must always do so in a way that is loving and measured, never cavalier.
And if you’re ever cornered into a complex situation, do what Jesus did: ask a follow-up. Answer with a question. Make sure you understand what’s being asked and who is asking before you even consider answering. Anything less is irresponsible and reckless, if not a destructive witness.
Some short answer questions from Ryan: Do you watch Shark week? What are three fiction books you like? When you are performing, what's your go-to meal after? (Pizza? Buffalo wings?) How many pushups can you do? If you could wake up with one skill at an expert level, what would it be? You're driving from Maine to San Diego, CA. You can take three people. Who do you take? (Can't be your wife/family.) What's one place you'd visit on the way. Cubs or White Sox? (Don't dodge this question Derek.) All that to say, Derek. We love you and we appreciate your voice. And I really don't give a @)#$* if you take this stance or that stance. We hear your music. We know your heart. And that has made all the difference.
No. Daemon (by Daniel Suarez), Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (by Robin Sloan), and Makers (by Cory Doctorow). Pizza (Dominos thin crust, delivered to hotel room). Maybe 50. Car repair. Alive or dead? (sorry, you didn’t specify and I just talked about answering questions with questions) Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Honestly, I don’t follow sports. And, thanks, Ryan.
Derek's new album, which released just last week, is entitled I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, & I Love You. Derek says the themes on the album include battling cynicism (“Everything Will Change”), coming to terms with who God made you to be (“Eye of the Hurricane”), Jesus’ nearness to those who are disenfranchised (“Closer Than You Think”), unity among the divisions of the church (“A Place at Your Table”), the hard work of marriage (“The Vow”), and God’s great love (“Love Part 3”). He says that the album is “easily the most confessional and autobiographical work of my career.” Be sure to check it out.
Here's a cool acoustic performance video of "The Vow" :