Why Does Derek Webb’s “Mockingbird” Rub Me the Wrong Way?

mockingbird.jpgAbout a year or so ago, singer/songwriter Derek Webb made his album “Mockingbird” available for free download for a limited time. If you do not know his name, he plays guitar for Caedmon’s Call in addition to having a thriving solo career. His primary purpose for this was to get this album with its deep, personal subject matter into the hands of more people in order to get more folks thinking about the topics within the album’s tracks.

The album’s 11 tracks deal mostly with social conscientiousness and social responsibility in light of the Christian paradigm. This is an idea I can get behind because somehow good works, charity, and the like have been hijacked by liberal secularism and the church, in this respect, has gone the way of the dodo, generally speaking. GoodDerek Webb works is more than just being nice to people or saying “please” and “thank you.” Doing good works involves expending your talents, time, and energy on something or someone that can not benefit you in return. In other words, there is no return on investment (at least not a tangible one). Webb speaks to these types of issues on “Mockingbird”. Songs such as “Rich Young Ruler” speak of how rich we are in the west and it is so difficult to see poverty though it is all around us. And our riches can sometimes provide so much comfort that it is hard for us to think about doing anything about it.

But Derek goes even further and in my opinion gets a little off track. He even attacks warfare (no pun intended). Now that last sentence may sound strange and I in no way enjoy war or the idea of war. However a person who is willing to say unequivocally that all war is all bad all of the time is not being honest with himself. The song “My Enemies Are Men Like Me” declares “peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication; it’s like telling someone murder is wrong and then showing them by way of execution.” It goes on to suggest that war only hurts and never helps. Being that this album was released in 2005 one can not help but think of the American war on terror when hearing the lyrics of this song. Also I think of the great public support the American military received during WWII. But let me go on.

Another poignant moment on this record is the song “A New Law” which in my opinion is the best crafted song on “Mockingbird”. With it’s tongue-in-cheek tone “A New Law” questions Christian knee-jerk reactions to certain ideas and behaviors. Many Christians, according to Webb (and I agree), seem unable to understand or handle the freedom we have in Christ. They, like old Israel, simply want to know the regulations they must follow, to follow them, and not worry about the rest. Many Christians do not get what the apostle Paul is saying in Romans 7:1-6, or what the writer of Hebrews is conveying in chapter 12 verses 18-24.
Webb sings:

Don’t teach me about politics and government
Just tell me who to vote for

Don’t teach me about truth and beauty
Just label my music

Don’t teach me how to live like a free man
Just give me a new law

I don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me

I want a new law
I want a new law
Gimme that new law

Don’t teach me about moderation and liberty
I prefer a shot of grape juice

Don’t teach me about loving my enemies

Don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit
Just give me a new law

So what is it that makes me so uncomfortable about this album? Many of the ideals discussed are ones that I want to see take root in my own life. But there is something in some of the songs to which I can not quite say “amen”. I see contradictions and biblical ideas taken out of context. Does Webb oppose all war at all times? How can that be? Should all nations never fight another battle? The problem is that wars are not started by governments or nations with good intentions. It is the Husseins, the Hitlers, the Napoleons that start wars. Should good men sit and do nothing? Was Great Britain wrong for waging so fierce a war with Germany? Belligerent nations do not love peace. If a man threatens my family will I not fight him? Indeed I would, even to the death. If a nation aggressively attacked the United States thus endangering its citizens, how would we respond if the president, the commander-in-chief did nothing. What if, as the bullets were flying and the foreigners were storming the beaches of California or South Carolina or Florida, our president went on television and declared “My fellow Americans, we will not fight back this enemy because ‘peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication.’” The thought is inconceivable. But is this what Webb is asking of us? Indeed God has allowed and even used war throughout biblical history. War, like a firearm, can not be evil by itself. It is the manner in which it is used that makes it evil. To fight off an enemy for one’s family’s sake is noble. To pick a fight because you do not like the way another man looks is evil, however Webb does not seem to differentiate. He simply paints war as something that good people are expected to avoid. Indeed good people want to, but what can they do when evil people come calling? I believe some of the sentiments of “My Enemies Are Men Like Me” throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Then as I mentioned before, “A New Law” sardonically states “don’t teach me about moderation and liberty, I prefer a shot of grape juice” and I agree that Christians should learn to understand liberty and moderation instead of weighing one another down with man’s rules, but I think Webb overstates the point without proper clarification. I can not help but recall Paul’s discussion of freedom in I Corinthians 10, especially verses 23-33: all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. I avoid alcoholic beverages and I counsel other Christians to do the same. But it is not because of some outdated or fundamentalist rule that I do so. What I would say in response to this statement of Webb’s is that I live in the conservative south. I understand that most other places alcohol in moderation is viewed as being as any other drink. But here in the Bible belt Christian’s are equated with teetotalers. If a local preacher, who was known to be a preacher, walked into a bar, sat down, and ordered a drink (though he was moderate and had only one uninhibiting drink) others who saw him would have one thought: hypocrite! “Look at that preacher. I wonder what his congregation would say. He tries to be so holier-than-thou but he’s just like the rest of us. He’s nothing special.” The disparaging remarks and rumors would go flying. I do not drink alcohol because it would hurt my witness. If a person in middle Georgia knew I went to church and then saw me in a bar that person would think it scandalous. That is simply the nature of the southern culture in which I live. But thankfully I do not care for alcohol anyway, so that makes it all the easier for me to be more concerned about my witness than about bucking traditions and popular opinion. I do not care about those things; I care about spreading the gospel of Christ. Now one thing Derek and I could agree on is that I would never judge a brother for moderately partaking of alcohol. I do not judge Derek for doing so (however I do wonder why Christians who drink feel such compulsion to defend it). For me it is all about avoiding “even the appearance of evil”. The point of the song would have been better served if this line had been omitted.

All ranting aside I believe this is a great, well-written album. With the exception of a few moments such as I have addressed here, the lyrical content of “Mockingbird” make it a very challenging work of art. But I am disturbed by some of the blanket statements and what I perceive as misapplications of Jesus’ teaching. But I of course often find myself at the mercy of my white male republican outlook on life. It can cause me to look at a homeless man and see a bum who should get a job. It causes me to look at a drug addict at the end of his rope and see a person who is reaping what he has sown and he should have made better decisions earlier in life. I know these statements sound cold, but I am just being honest. I have not learned adequately enough how to love as Christ loved. Perhaps the parts of this album that I find disturbing are simply challenging me to move beyond my current comfort zone and level of maturity. But the jury is still out.
Josh H.

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