Tomorrow, the latest installment of the much-reviled “Voreplay” series. But today, one album in particular!
We have a long and complicated relationship with Christian music. Actually, make that “Christian” music, as music itself is not capable of an incarnational lifestyle modeled on that of Jesus Christ. It’s just music. And while we generally make it a point to bypass anything that might fall into this genre, this was not always so. When you work at a Christian sports camp and “secular” music is pooh-poohed, you may find yourself (as we did) rather enjoying the musical stylings of DC Talk, Newsboys and Steven Curtis Chapman. You may find yourself (as we did) jumping up and down and singing along to these songs as performed — with tambourine! — by the SB2W Dining Hall Band. And you may have tasted (as we did) a little of the joy that comes from what was, plain and simple, worship, which as Frederick Buechner observes can cause one
to sing songs for [God], create beautiful things for him, give things up for him, tell him what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.
A Quaker Meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening — unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.
“Joy and foolishness.” An apt description for confessing that, yes, we were once Stryper fans.
If anyone is judging us right now, we invite you to put down your rock and go look inside your glass house at your glass music collection to see if there’s not a glass copy of some old DC Talk album in it.
What? There isn’t? Well, moving on then.
We find the labels “Christian” and “secular,” when applied to art, to be not only misleading but flatly wrong. Most “Christian” art — fiction, music, film, take your pick — is terrible. And by terrible we mean “cringe-inducing tripe.” The most spiritual books we’ve read, CDs we’ve listened to and films we’ve watched don’t have any labels slapped on them. We made it a point during our second summer together at camp to create a “Secular Jesus mix” for the dining hall that included, among others, U2, Wilco, Daniel Lanois and Rufus Wainwright (this one pushed the envelope a little).
This is not to say “Christian” art is without merit, only that we generally skip that part of the menu. We’ve spent time ruminating on this subject before, so let’s cut to the chase.
Derek Webb, the former frontman of Caedmon’s Call, has had more success than most breaking out of the Christian music ghetto. His previous album, The Ringing Bell, had some catchy little numbers on it, notably “I Wanna Marry You All Over Again.” His newest album, Stockholm Syndrome, features him covering but not concealing a black eye. Provocatively, the Stockholm syndrome Webb suggests is between Christians and the church. Throw into the mix the fact that Webb’s label deemed the album too controversial to release (more on this in a moment), and we were intrigued.
The only way we can think to describe this album is to call it the OK Computer of Christian music. It is moody and atmospheric, full of electronic blurps and sizzles, generally devoid of choruses, and shot through with pessimism and lament. One song begins, “I was killed in a shopping cart.” Another features the refrain “Becoming a slave/Is easier than you think.” We can’t imagine anyone mistaking this for praise music.
This is another way of saying it will appeal to virtually no one. If you drew a Venn diagram of this album (which we just spent fifteen minutes doing, but now cannot find a way to scan it so as to upload it here), it would feature two circles, one called “People Who Listen To Radiohead” and the other “People Who Listen To Christian Music.” The circles would just barely overlap in the middle, and the teensy tiny piece of shared real estate would be Stockholm Syndrome. There would also be an arrow pointing at this area and next to that arrow it would say, “Us and seven other people.”*
So why was it deemed too controversial? For one song, apparently: “What Matters More,” which touches on homosexuality while tackling the broader theme of Christian hypocrisy and moral self-regard. “If I can tell what’s in your heart by what comes out of your mouth,” Webb sings, “it sure seems like being straight is what this is all about.” Zing!
Truthfully, we like the idea of Stockholm Syndrome more than we like actually listening to it. But it’s growing on us. It’s a subversive little gem full of sentiments about hollow Christianity ( “The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum”), moral complacency ( “Black Eye”), and judgmentalism (the Freddie of “Freddie, Please” is Fred Phelps, he of the “God Hates Fags” clan; as Webb croons, “Brother, you’re the one who’s queer”). We recommend it, with reservation. If you’re going to dabble in “Christian” music at all, this is the place to start. Mostly we’re just glad someone out there is acting like a prophet.