The New Art

The people of Caedman’s Call have always been among the more brilliant artists in the Christian community. But Derek Webb has gone to a whole new plane after leaving that band for a solo career.

Now he has created some of the best art the Christian community has seen in some time.

Here is my short narrative of how the thing developed.

Several months ago, Webb wrote an e-mail to his e-mail list saying that his latest album was simply too controversial for his record label. He hinted at how he was going to have to do something risky and off the radar. So then he sends out another e-mail with the address of another website coded into the message. When you went to www.paradiseisaparkinglot.com you found a set of instructions to chase down little 2 second stems of the song that apparently got him in so much trouble with his record label. These song stems were on flash drives at coffee shops and such all over the country. When they were found, they were uploaded to the website for everyone to see. My friend, Chris Marchand, managed to get one of the ones that went to Chicago. They just released the last stems, which are available at shanebertou.wordpress.com in there completed form…give it a listen. Along the way, there were other links coded into the website and other places for people to download a few songs. All in all, it was giant easter egg hunt that took people literally all over the country and all over the WWW to find his music in what he said was a giant attempt to thwart his record label.

If you ask me, it is beautiful. Webb has done the marketing genius thing once before. His first album was shunned by many radio stations and Christian bookstores because he referred to himself and the Church as the whore of the book of Hosea. Clearly a traditional biblical allusion, but it was too much to use the word “whore” for the “Lord, I lift your name on high” crowd of CCM’ers. Later he released one of his albums for free download if you gave him the e-mail address of five friends that might also want to download for free and give him five more addresses. After about a month of that, he sold his album in stores. Sales of all his albums shot up from basic obscurity and he was getting interviewed by newspapers in Nashville for the stunt. Of course, other artists have done it since then. But Webb was among the first.

Personally, I think the whole thing was a hoax. If you listen to the song, it is clear why his Christian label did not want to sell it. He is touching on some hot button issues and calling some people “sinner” that aren’t ready to be called that. But, I have a hard time believing that releasing the album for free via little 2 second flash drives and Internet downloads is any more legal than just releasing the album independently. Shane Bertou’s blog (linked above) called it performance art, and I would have to agree. We should not be surprised that someone who is such a good artist musically is also a great marketing person. Marketing is the most prolific form of art in our generation.

The more pressing question that will arise will be from the controversy and the discussion in the blogosphere about this song.

The gist of it is this:
Out of the heart, the mouth speaks. Too many Christians only speak about homosexuality. They don’t speak about the tens of thousands dying of malaria and AIDS every year. They must not be real Christians because sexuality matters more to them than people dying.

On one level, I agree with him. A whole host of other emerging church types think that this kind of judgment is at the heart of the whole movement. Two things are in play here. First, we should not be letting far right politicians set the Christian agenda. These politicians have ignited a nearly dominate evangelical movement by making Christianity about who you sleep with. Don’t get me wrong, Christianity has a great deal to say about who we sleep with, but that isn’t the point of Christianity. We cannot let the agenda of a particular political group set the mission of the Christian Church, which is primarily about proclaiming and working towards the coming Kingdom of God.

Secondly, even though Christianity has some things to say about proper sexual relationships, the way that some Christians have been saying it is not helpful to Christianity or the people they are speaking to. The medium is the message. Many have made the medium of communicating the Christian way of life a hate-filled string of thunderous accusations and fear-mongering. And, the same group of people seem to assume that this is a really easy issue and the lines are black and white. I don’t think very many of them have had actual relationships with homosexual people who are trying to be faithful Christians. There are a great deal of them, though most of them eventually give up on Christianity or join churches that are so leftist and marginally Christian that there homosexuality is a non-issue or even a cause for martyrdom or sainthood. That isn’t all of them. I have several gay friends who have refused to give up their evangelical form of Christianity, and can’t see themselves giving up their homosexuality either. I think they would all agree that this can be a torturous place to be (though I haven’t asked them this specific question).

I understand what Webb is saying. Most of the emerging church types are saying the same thing. My question is whether this is an either/or proposition. Do we have to change our sexual ethics if we are going to fight against poverty and sickness in Africa? It doesn’t seem to be a necessary choice. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that the only way to love homosexuals well is to suggest that this is how it is suppose to be. Perhaps the Church could love them better by journeying with them in their day to day trials. In fact, it may be that this is all we are to do in the struggle against disease and poverty and every other social ill. We are to be friends of those who are hurting. Sometimes this may mean bringing antibiotics to a malaria stricken nation. Other times this may mean we have to defend our gay friend’s right to be in the hospital room when their long time partner needs them most.

I pray that I might be called a friend of sinners, just as Jesus was. If that means I am accused of being friends with homosexuals or even Derek Webb, then I am ready for that. Somehow I have to hope that means that people will see something of Jesus in me and they will point and say, “That is what God is like. That is what it means to be fully human.” That is the incarnation of the Body of Christ.

Back to Mr. Webb: He is a brilliant artist. He happens to read a lot of the theologians that I read, and I like that. But, I am not sure that the either/or choice he implicitly presents us in this song is anything like the third way that Jesus proposed. Maybe it is just one more start to a leftist politics. Certainly the current strain of leftist politics is just as bankrupt as the current strain of the politically right. Maybe we can still understand God’s design for humanity to be sexual love between a man and a woman, and yet be willing to honestly stand with our gay and lesbian friends in solidarity. Maybe we don’t have to yell and hate in the process. Maybe those of us of a Pietistic bent can get motivated to make a difference on societal sin in the same way we do personal sin. Certianly the Pietists and early Methodists from whom most of us have inherited our spirituality had no problem putting away alcohol for themselves and trying to teach the poor how to read and write.

Enough for today. I challenge you all. If you want to see good modern art, then trace out some of the Derek Webb links I have given here…and see what has happened in the last few months. Fascinating. And give your comments back here. I would love to hear what you think.

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