We run a little project here in Maynooth where we make mix CDs of the favourite music we have discovered in the course of the year. As usual, Nelly submitted his a week before the deadline because that is the kind of nerd he is and that is why he lectures on anatomy and the rest of us scribble sermons or buildings or archeological digs on the back of napkins and hope passer-bys throw us some coins.
His mix is great, as usual. But he added a really old Derek Webb song that he just discovered this year. A girl in MCC plays it sometimes and it is quite beautiful. Have a listen:
The video is truly awful but that might help the point I am trying to make. Webb is the rarest of things – something Christians should truly treasure. He is an artist who produces art informed by his faith without allowing his work to be commodified by “a Christian worldview”.
Because he is evangelical and from the south of America and a “Christian contemporary artist”, none of my friends outside the church have ever encountered him. But the man has a turn of phrase that sometimes approaches the level of the greats – his lyrics are almost as good as Aimee Mann’s or Paul Simon’s or you know that fella from Black Eyed Peas who wrote “I Gotta Feeling”.
Derek keeps getting in trouble with Christians because he doesn’t follow the path of individual glory within the heavily industrialized “Christian” music scene. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post he got in trouble for espousing “moral permisiveness“. What Webb actually says is this:
A lot of “Christian art” is about the lens they’re looking through, rather than the world they see through it. I’m not going to criticize anybody for doing that, but I would rather look at the world through the grid of following Jesus and tell you what I see. But that doesn’t presume that all the art I’m going to make will be about following Jesus.
Now consider again that the absurdly tacky compilation of ill-fitting images that make up that youtube video was designed for use in a Eucharistic setting. Surely we have to acknowledge that Webb is right? Amongst his closing comments he says:
I don’t think that Christianity, Jesus or the Bible have failed; I think that Christians have failed to believe it and to do it. If Christians would just look at the life and the words, and pursue Jesus, I think they would suddenly find that it’s incongruent with a lot of cultural Christianity and Christian practice. I would love to see Jesus lead all of us about out of this ghetto of Christian subculture.
The desire to draw stark lines between who is in and who is out is something that Jesus himself seems to oppose. It is a fairly repulsive compulsion when we see ourselves engaged in it but it is also fatal to artistic endeavour. In a weird masochistic lapse, I visited some of the blogs that reacted to Webb’s harmless interview. All of them were pulling their hair out over the fact that Webb didn’t point out who was sinful and who wasn’t. (He did in fact: he says we’re all sinful, “Christians can stop pretending that they’re so different”.)
C.S. Lewis once wrote:
Conversion requires an alteration of the will, an alteration which, in the last resort, does not occur without the intervention of the supernatural. I do not in the least agree with those who therefore conclude that the spread of an intellectual (and imaginative) climate favourable to Christianity is useless. You do not prove munition workers useless by showing that they cannot themselves win battles, however propers this reminder would be if they attempted to claim the honour due to fighting men.
We need artists who will nourish a culture that has been stripped of grace. It seems the minimal conditions to generate them is to show grace to them.
My Best Of by the way has lots of Hold Steady, Arcade Fire and Johnny Cash. But you could probably have guessed that. My favourite album of the year is perhaps my favourite album ever: The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. But Hold Steady’s Heaven Is Whenever, American Grave VI and Treats by Sleigh Bells got an awful lot of listening to too.
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