Interview: Derek Webb on Mockingbird

Where Christianity and the world collide, Derek Webb has a lot of things to say. In a recent interview with the artist, Webb talked about politics, government, and some of the issues covered on his latest CD, Mockingbird, which hits stores on Dec. 27.

The following are excerpts taken from the interview:

Your music has always been challenging and Mockingbird is no exception. What kind of responses are you getting from the church and the Christian community as a whole regarding the messages in your music?

Well the American church doesn’t really speak with one voice, so there haven’t been any statements or anything like that from that end, but up to this point, most people have been really supportive. Through the years in Caedmon, we built a really strong community of people, so a lot of those folks have stuck around for some of the solo stuff and they’ve been really supportive, so I think the voices that I hear the loudest are the people who are already in the community who have been in the community for a few years already through Caedmon’s stuff. For the new record, retail has been really supportive and so has my record label; I don’t know if that’s the voice of the church or not, but so far everything is going as it should as far as the response that we’re getting back from them.

Can you tell us a little bit about the meaning behind your use of the mockingbird metaphor?

The whole point of the metaphor is that, if I try to communicate my own ideas, I’m gonna screw that all up, and the best hope that I have is to simply reiterate, reorganize, and re-present the ideas that I’ve heard from others that I believe are true. And in the same way, that’s what mockingbirds do – they hear the songs of other songbirds and they mimic those songs. [Mockingbirds] don’t have their own original song, and in that way these ideas on this record are not my own original ideas – I didn’t come up with this stuff. A lot of the songs have to do with social issues like poverty or war, and when you start to talk about these kinds of issues in the church, typically Evangelicals will call you a liberal, which of course makes no sense. And so I thought, ‘What I need is a good alibi,’ and the mockingbird just mimics the songs of others, and that’s exactly what I felt like I was doing on this record, just presenting the ideas of others.

I found the title track to be somewhat of a sad song, just from its overall feel and from some of the images that you used, such as when you said that you’re “like an amplifier, I just tell you what I’ve heard.” I was wondering if you saw that position of singing the songs of others, especially singing the songs of Jesus, as a sorrowful position.

No. That’s interesting. I don’t really see “Mockingbird” as a sad song. I mean, I’m a musician, so when I play music, I plug my guitar into an amplifier, and the amplifier doesn’t make it’s own music, it takes whatever music is fed into it and makes it louder. It’s really just kind of a speaker by which the music that’s fed into it can come out loudly, and so the whole thought of being an amplifier just means that I’m trying to communicate loudly what I believe is true. And I’m a musician, so I speak in musician’s terms. I didn’t see that as kind of a sad or derogatory type of term. I actually that was the good thing, to be an amplifier. That’s like the most important things on the whole stage because without the amplifiers, you can’t hear the music.

One thing that really struck me while I was listening to Mockingbird was your use of the Scriptures. They come across so differently in your music than in the majority of Christian music that’s out there right now. How do you approach integrating the Word into your songwriting?

For me, I don’t typically sit down with a lot of intention to write songs. Songs kind of come to you when they do, and I feel like a lot of that process is very much out of my control. It’s like saying, “How do you make your children act a certain way or behave a certain way?” You don’t coerce them. What you do is you train them up a certain way and you fill them full of things that you think are going to benefit them in their decision-making, and then you simply let them go and make those decisions. And for me, it’s almost the same way in songwriting. I meditate on what the Bible speaks on these issues and I try to educate myself on the issues that I feel are important for me to address in the music, then and I just wait for the songs to come and they just kind of come out.

But from a language standpoint, I feel like the majority of Christian music that’s out there at this point … is more concerned with creating a song that is spiritually commercial, if you will, being more commercial for Jesus or commercial for some kind of moralism or spirituality rather than being an actual document of spiritual truth or spiritual experience. And I think that’s why a lot of it ends up sounding the way it does – it all kind of sounds the same. And that’s one of my great concerns with the majority of the Christian music out there; the reason why I don’t really listen to any of it and don’t really think much of it is because I feel like the majority of the Christian artists who are out there are only writing songs about the most spiritual top two percent of life, and Scripture gives us a framework to talk about and to deal with and to process all of life, everything in creation. Anything Jesus is Lord of, I can write a song about, and he’s Lord of all things, and yet our Christian artists are only writing songs about the most spiritual top two percent of all those things, and that leaves ninety-eight percent more stuff that we can write songs about that no one seems to be covering. I mean, Scripture gives us a framework for things like politics and government, it gives us a framework for things like family and sexuality, it gives us a framework for all these, and yet for whatever reason Christian artists are only interested in writing songs about that top two percent.

And I think that’s a problem because when you look at the art coming out of the Church, you would suspect that Christianity was only one-dimensional and that it was pretty much irrelevant to modern life, and that’s not true. Scripture speaks clearly about everything that’s going on in our culture right now, but our Christian artists are not putting that Biblical framework into our music or into our paintings or into the art we’re making. And I think that’s a real problem because when people look at the Christian worldview, or any worldview for that matter, typically what you look at coming out of a movement is the art to find out what that movement is all about, what those people are all about. You look at the art coming out of the movement. And if you look at the Church in art right now, you’re not going to get an accurate picture of who our great Creator God is. We spend the entire first chapter of our Bible marveling at God’s creativity as He creates all things out of nothing. He was a creative God, and yet we can’t manage to make any better art than we’re making. And I don’t think that represents His character very well, and I think we need to really maybe stop and focus on that as artists in the Church and take seriously the role that we have [in] representing the character of God by making really good art, saying things really artistically rather than just dealing with that top two percent.

Why do you think Christian music tends to be that way?

I think of lot of it is commercial. The way things work in the Christian [music] industry – I mean, it’s very much like any other art industry or music industry – [is that artists] know what works. [Artists] know certain formulas work, and I think that’s why you see the big worship music movement and trend passing right now. The reason that bands – who have no interest in making worship music and maybe aren’t really called or gifted to do that but are capable of it because they’re musicians and they can learn the songs and they can play the worship songs – are coming out with worship records is because that’s what’s playing on the radio. That’s how you get a hit right now … you put out worship records. And so Christian artists, under that commercial pressure to try to sell records and to try to have a hit, are, in my opinion, making art that’s kinda compromised. And I think it’s really taking our eye off the ball as artists in the Church in not taking more seriously how we are communicating the character and creativity of our God. [Artists] are more concerned with having a hit this year and then following whatever next year’s trend is next year, and I think that’s a really dangerous precedent.

Going into some of the songs more specifically now, one of the tracks that really spoke to me was Rich Young Ruler. Can you tell us about some of your reasons for writing the song?

With Rich Young Ruler, it’s the same as in the story of the rich young man in the Bible who comes to Jesus and claims to have kept all of the law and everything required of him, and Jesus says to him the only thing left for you to do is to sell all your possessions, give it all to the poor and then come and follow me, and that is the one thing that that young man cannot do to follow Jesus; he can’t lay down his wealth because he’s so wealthy. And that story is not about wealth; it’s about idolatry. It’s about what are the things that we are unwilling to let go of to follow Jesus, and it can be anything. It could be our religiosity, it could be anything. We can make an idol out of just about anything – the human heart can. It was John Calvin who said the human heart is like an idol factory constantly manufacturing new things for us to worship, and that’s unfortunately how we’re made. But I think in a song like the Rich Young Ruler, I think it’s significant that the particular idol in that story was that young man’s wealth, and I felt like the analogy fit very well when applied to America. I think that America is like that Rich Young Man. We at the Church in America are a people who are in many instances unwilling to give up our wealth to follow Jesus. We live in a time where American Christians are very wealthy and yet just in Africa alone for instance, we have 6,000 people dying every day from lack of water, lack of food, from mosquito bites, from lack of basic vaccinations. Our animals, our pets here in America get better treatment than our human being neighbors in Africa right now. And in a time of such tremendous resource and wealth and technology, the fact that anyone is dying for these reasons on the Church’s watch is a sign that we need to reclaim our priorities, because we are commanded by Jesus – it’s the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbors. And clearly in that story, our neighbors are anyone who has need that we have resources to meet, and we have the resources to take care of the extremely poor in the world who held a special place in Jesus’ heart throughout his ministry. But we on the whole are choosing otherwise, and I think that that’s certainly something that needs to be addressed and while the Church is slowly acting towards helping out with some of the situations that are happening in our world in our culture right now, I think from what we know of the wealth of the west and what we know of the tremendous need in Asia, Africa, and India, I think we’re depending too much upon the government, the American government, to go and to help these people. The Church is the only institution on the planet with the moral imperative to go and to love and to take care of these people. It’s not really our government’s job - the government should have to get in line behind the church to go and to do this work. But we are unwilling, in many instances, to part with our wealth to follow Jesus, if it means following him into Africa to care for AIDS orphans, or if it means to follow him into India to try to break apart a caste system that dehumanizes people. And so I think that that’s an important issue to bring up, and that’s why so far I’m encouraged that the song seems to be striking a chord with people.

One of my favorite tracks on the album is “A King, A Kingdom.” It really came to me when you said, “My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man … it’s to a King and a Kingdom,” because how many people do we know who are Christians, but are so passionate about other things, be it for their country or anything else, that it really becomes unclear what their “first allegiance” is. For yourself, what does it mean for you to have your first allegiance to His Kingdom in your everyday life?

For me, what it means is that we see our role in the building, in the proclaiming of that Kingdom, and we take that seriously, and that trumps any other allegiance that we have. I am a member of this country, I am a citizen, and I’m proud to be a citizen of this country. I’m very fortunate, anyone living in the west is very fortunate. But at the same time, when it comes to making decisions on how I’m going to love my neighbor and what it means for me to love my neighbor – and not just my neighbors here in my own neighborhood, in my own state, or my neighbors here in America, but also my neighbors in other parts of the world that are very much a part of our global community at this point – and even further in the message, the even harder teaching of Jesus to love my enemies in the same way, when I think about those issues, I cannot think as an American. I have to think as a member of the Kingdom of Jesus. I have to look ahead and hope for the government that is coming that will have King Jesus sitting on the throne making right and righteous decisions for His people. And that is not the government that we live in today. We don’t live in a theocracy here in America, this is not a Christian government and America is not the righteous hand of God dealing out His righteous judgment upon the earth. [America] is just as fallen a nation, just as broken a governmental system as anyone else. And so I think with that knowledge should come humility on our part, but I think we’re very arrogant as a country. We’re very arrogant people, and I think that the allegiance issue is especially important where you find an arrogant people, because of the primary teachings in Scripture is to be the last, to be the least, to be humble, to consider others more important than yourself, and all of these are very hard teachings for us here in America because we’re such a proud people. So it’s important for me always to try and bear in mind that the primary government that I’m going to be concerned with is my King and His Kingdom coming, and proclaiming that Kingdom. Where I see hunger, I need to proclaim the Kingdom where there will be no hunger by putting food in people’s mouths. This is part of proclaiming the Gospel. We’re to proclaim Jesus coming and his Kingdom coming behind him. That is the Gospel proclamation and the way that we proclaim that Gospel is, when we see people who are sick, we proclaim to them a Kingdom coming where there will be no sickness. And how do we do that? We do that by caring for them, by giving them life-giving drugs. Where we see war we’re to proclaim a Kingdom coming where there will be no more war, where there will be peace. And the way we do that is we work for and we get creative in the ways that we promote peace, and we learn to be preemptive about peace. This is the Church’s job, to proclaim this Kingdom. We’ll fail to do that if we forget that our primary allegiance is to this Kingdom, and that’s why I think that that’s an important idea.