Impressions of Derek Webb aren’t easy to form. The Christian singer-songwriter from Nashville, who has sold more than a million albums while regularly giving them away free at his concerts, wouldn’t call himself an iconoclast. But he is on a mission to change perceptions about humanity and the world we live in.
He has received ample criticism from fellow Christians whom he says look at social ills too simplistically, a stance he elaborated on during a recent phone interview with LEO. His new album, The Ringing Bell, is out now.
LEO: Why do you think you’ve faced animosity from the Christian community, and what do you think that community needs to learn and understand?
Derek Webb: My problem is that I’m kind of a niche within a niche within a niche. I am in a really conservative market. I came from a band that was moderately successful, and now I’m singing protest songs. So, yeah, I think that when you add all that up, it makes sense that it would be polarizing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Why it’s polarizing? It’s just logical. Culturally, the church in America has gotten co-opted, not only co-opted, but managed to completely oversimplify some of the most complex social issues around: the value of human life all the way to things like health care, poverty and war. There’s so much nuance to the conversation, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of nuance in the church.
LEO: Is it because the church thinks too literally?
DW: There probably are occasions where that’s true. But in a broad sense, I just don’t know. The church has ceased following Jesus and now follows each other. Christians kind of follow each other around culturally. The whole idea of following Jesus is a ridiculous thing to do, because he was a hard guy to follow. Especially when he starts talking about loving and even giving up your life for the people who disagree with you and hate you the most. If anything, we do the opposite of that. We protest and boycott and picket the people who disagree with us and hate us the most.
LEO: Have you ever been confronted at your shows?
DW: I remember I played a show down in Texas in a pretty conservative area in a college down there. I sang a song on my last (solo) record, Mockingbird, “A King & A Kingdom.” In it, I talk about how Jesus was not a white, middle-class Republican. The church seems to be in the business of convincing people that he was. There were literally 20 people who just stood up and kind of vacated. Probably on a nightly basis, I see people expressing their dislike with what I’m doing by just getting up and leaving.
LEO: Do you find it hard to concentrate on songwriting because of the nature of your beliefs?
DW: Every artist has a particular way they see the world. The job of the artist is to look at the world and tell people what you see. Part of the way I look at the world is through the grid of Christian faith. I’m not writing songs about that grid. Some people do that. I don’t do that. Christians are the only people in the world who market their music through their worldview, and that’s ridiculous. Ultimately what I’m doing is telling my story. It’s totally subconscious for me. Hopefully the work that I do is integrated with what I believe. I don’t write songs about being Christian, I write songs as a Christian, and there’s a difference.
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