Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
For years, Derek Webb has been a mysterious figure in the world of Christian music. While other Christian artists went out of their way to make their fundamental religious beliefs known, Derek Webb followed up his debut solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free with a series of albums that gave conservative evangelicals whiplash. He was more ambiguous than many would like about core theological concepts, and more vocal than people were used to about controversial social issues. Also, one time he said “shit” in a song.
Now, ten years after the release of She Must and Shall Go Free, Derek Webb is about to release a second album centered around the concept of the church, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You (available now for pre-order, and available for purchase on September 3rd). I talked with him about the time in between those two albums, how he deals with doubt, and just what on earth he’s sorry for.
One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years is that, as much you’re maybe outside of CCM-proper sometimes, you seem really determined to write religious music. Have you ever thought about or wrestled with the desire to kind of go secular in some sense or to just do something that was less obviously or blatantly sacred?
First of all, I don’t really believe there’s such thing as “sacred” and “secular” when it comes to art. I don’t accept that framework. To me, art feels very much like a fluid, wholly integrated means of communication.
Everybody has a grid through which they look at the world, to help them make sense of what they see. Even if it’s the grid of unbelief, the grid of the idea that there’s nothing intelligent, there’s no design, there’s no nothing, it’s all random is a grid through which you’re looking at the world.
My job – the job of any artist – is to look at the world and tell people what I see. There are some seasons of life, art, and work where I have seen things and what I have noticed has compelled me to speak about things that are more squarely to do with my spirituality. There are other seasons where I have not felt like there was much to say about that for a season. I don’t feel like I make choices like that. I trust my instincts all the way through.
But also, I can’t operate as though there’s a secular molecule in the universe, which there’s not.
I don’t feel like I’ve ever, nor could I, make some effort to do something more or less spiritual at any given moment. My spirituality is part of my personality, it’s part of how I see the world, and as a result the evidences of that come out occasionally in the art that I make.
I don’t feel like I have my hands on the controls in terms of the extent to which it comes out. I’m just as surprised as anybody else when this year it’s a record about this and next year it’s a record about that. It just kind of happens the way that it does.
So I feel very much like my buddy Dave Bazan, who also grapples, struggles, and has constant questions about his connection to spirituality. He can’t help but write about it, because it’s the thing that he’s thinking about and grappling with. So I write about what I’m thinking about and grappling with. Sometimes that has to do with my spirituality and sometimes it doesn’t.
I love David Bazan’s stuff because I relate a lot to it, and because it helps me to empathize with people that struggle with doubt more than I do. I’m curious how much of those sort of doubts do you also struggle with?
I probably deal with more doubt than I let on. Broadly, from a conceptual standpoint, I can’t really affect what it is that I’m writing about to a large extent. But once those coordinates are clear and I’m on a trajectory making whatever it is I’m making, there is a fair amount of editing. Really, the only input I feel like I have into my creative process is editorial. There are certain choices that I can make in terms of how I frame something, how far I want to go, how much I want to say, how much I might wish to try to hold back, what ways I might seek to protect myself or the people whose stories I might be including.
I feel like there’s a role that I’ve been able to play in my vocation that is connected to, but has a strange relationship with who I am in my personal life. I occasionally will write things that I don’t necessarily believe in that moment but that I wish to believe, in order to give myself guardrails, and to give myself, almost in a liturgical way, something that I must sing over and over; something that I am going to be stuck with and have to live with as part of the content that I take out on the road and the songs that are mine to sing.
In certain seasons and for different reasons I will wind up writing songs that will have more to do with who I wish to be and what I wish to believe than who I actually am and who I am believing at that moment. That’s the strange relationship I feel like I have with the songs.
Some of the time it really is coming out like a bull in a china shop and being very cavalier and very direct and very resolved about something that I believe or an experience or feeling that I have. Other times it’s me being most prophetic about my own life.
Is there an album that’s characterized by that feeling?
My new album feels like a series of statements that to some extent are painting myself into the corner in order that I would be stuck, and have to believe things that are really difficult for me to believe all the time.
There are records like Mockingbird or The Ringing Bell which, both are really connected. Both have to do with reckoning with who I am and how who I am collides with Jesus’ command to live at peace, to love enemies. I don’t have that instinct in me. I’m a fighter.
John Lennon was once asked about his connection to the anti-war movement, and why he was so vehement about that. His response was that it was because he knew himself to be a violent man, and therefore it was counter-intuitive for him and he had to lean in. It was like one of the defining things about his personality and art for a long time, because he was terrified of what he knew was inside of himself.
I feel like that’s the reason I almost make any any record, but especially records like Mockingbird and Ringing Bell. Knowing myself to be a violent man, and how counter-intuitive it is for me to respond to violence with peace and love was why it took me two records. There was even more to say beyond that, but I spent two records working through those issues, providing myself with a lot of material that I would be responsible for, that it would be assumed that I believed, in order that I might actually over time come to believe some of those things. There are aspects of this in all my records, and I think my newest one is no exception.
It’s funny, with The Ringing Bell and Mockingbird, it seemed like that was a period where there was the perception among many that you were going overboard in being prophetic to the church. In actuality, it seems like you were mostly just doing that to yourself.
That’s the only real intention I can have: to tell my own story. The choices that I make are inevitably wrapped up in the things that I am dealing with. I went through a few hard seasons of dealing with and reckoning with the violence that I knew I had in me, and my inability to really believe, let alone follow commands that would have me acting very contrary to my instincts. That’s always me speaking to me. I’m always in the center of the bullseye.
I have been just as surprised as anybody when I will make records in that way, and then have those songs or those albums resonate with the moment that other people could be in, or even that segments of culture could be in, or that the church might be in. I’m always surprised at that, and that’s not my intention, nor could it be. It’s not like I’ve got some special wisdom or some special insight into something.
It does seem, though, like sometimes you’re at least speaking about the church, if not to it. In all of your stuff, there does seem to be this huge theme of the church: how the church should relate to the world, and how we should relate to the church. How has your personal relationship with the church, particularly the local church, changed over time?
I’ve never fit very comfortably into church culture and church framework. When I was a kid, and growing up being a musician, the church fumbles with artists a little bit. Even before I had the language to be able to articulate it, I always felt as though I had a fairly unconventional approach to spirituality, or else I didn’t love the terms of it the way that some people did, and the way a lot of my friends did.
To that extent, it’s been hard over the years. Also, I’m a textbook introvert. I’ve never had very many friends. The idea of being in a community of people with whom you’re going to tell your stories and share your life has always been a little terrifying to me, and not easy for me. So that’s made it really difficult, too.
In the last decade or so, I’ve found some really amazing people, and places that felt safe and felt very much like home to me. When I was making my first record I was transitioning into a church, and here ten years later I have very recently transitioned out of a church, into a new church and felt the liberty to do so, which is part of the story.
But I’ve never gone through any long seasons away from the church, regardless of my job or the content of my music. I have always and consistently been gathering with people and hearing the word preached and receiving the sacraments. There’s not been an extended period of time where that hasn’t been a part of my life, as hard as that’s been.
A lot of things, to tell you the truth. But I feel like the album title and its general message is more of a broad model of posture. Growing up, I always heard that the three things you had to learn how to say to keep any relationship going were “I was wrong,” “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.”
This album, maybe really for the first time, is an album that’s crafted for the church. So, for me, that felt like the right place to start, and that felt like the most desperate thing to try to communicate. Being necessarily diverse members of one body as we are, we’re going to have to learn how to say these three things to each other as we’re building a kingdom that is so large that we can’t even see each other around the other side of where we are building.
We sometimes question whether or not it’s even the same kingdom we’re building, because we’re all so different, so diverse, and reach such different conclusions. It’s right for us to do so. It would be arguably more sinful for us to all reach the same conclusions about how to build this kingdom, how to do our work, and how to function in our relationships and in culture. Being one homogeneous group of people would be worse than leaning into the thing that we are told that we are, which is a diverse group making up one body.
For me, it felt like learning to say those three things to each other was crucial, and if we can learn how to say those things to one another, then we have to learn how to say them to everybody else. There are a lot of folks in the world who have been at the business end of the church’s judgment in a lot of ways, for whom it would be really restorative and healing to hear from us in ways that could be appropriate that we were wrong, that we’re sorry, and that we love them.
That just seemed like such an important part of the message that, although at different parts of the album I do have specific but different audiences that I’m trying to say that to, there was a bigger, broader reason for the title and for the concept that goes well beyond my intention in terms of those specifics.
I assume you’ve taken a lot of push-back from different sides over the years, though.
Well, sure. And that’s just part of the job. I’m not one of those people that is super concerned about what people think about me. I don’t have that part of my personality. My wife does, and I don’t. I definitely understand, having lived very close to somebody who does, in a healthy way, have a real concern for being understood. I just don’t have it.
And I’ve been pretty focused over the years. I’ve got a job to do and I take my job very seriously. So when there have been moments where it might require of me a little bit of my reputation or a little bit of misunderstanding, or it required me to say something that I knew was probably more nuanced than the medium in which I was saying it, I still felt it was important to try and to do it.
Those are the calculated risks that you take. If it was to the ends of my doing my job well, I don’t think twice about my reputation being ruined or my being misunderstood. That doesn’t bother me in the least. So inevitably it’s happened a whole bunch of times, and not with the same group twice. It’s just one of the hazards of the profession, in the only way that I know how to do it.
So [“I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You”] is not remotely for them?
For people who I’ve bent out of shape over the years? I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it is.
Looking back on the last ten or twenty years, I don’t see a lot of things I would go back and recant, that I find myself now not believing or something. I might have framed it differently. That’s really become so much more my concern over the last few years, especially in the more recent years, with some of the harder subject matter that I’ve tried to go after.
I’m not really concerned as much with changing people’s minds about what they believe, nor do I believe that I can even do that. I’m just concerned with looking at those beliefs, being aware of them, rethinking them all the time. I’m not causing folks to not change their belief, but maybe change the posture from which they express that belief, like the way that they say it to people.
That’s really so much more a concern of mine, is how we treat one another and if we really take seriously that what we believe should inform the way we love God and love people. So if our theology never becomes ethics, it’s really useless to us. It’s really harmful and could be potentially destructive in our relationships, and could cause us very much to be nothing more than a ringing cymbal or a clanging gong.
So I wouldn’t necessarily apologize to somebody for trying to be a voice to an issue that has no voice that I perceive is important. But I might wish to say, “I could have handled that differently,” or “I could have said that in a way that was less cavalier or more gentle.
Do you have an example of a song that you feel like you should have been more nuanced in?
The best example is an old example. There are certainly more recent ones. I didn’t write a lot of songs for the radio when I was in [Caedmon’s Call]. There were two of us writing songs. I was writing about half, and somebody else was writing the other half. The guy who wrote the other half of the songs, who was a great friend of mine for a long time named Aaron Tate, had a real knack for writing resonant songs. He was a real student of pop music and just knew how to say important things in a way that was really winsome and catchy. All of his songs wound up on the radio.
So if anybody knew Caedmon’s from the radio, they didn’t know any of my songs. There’s only one song they might have known, and it was a song called “Thankful.” The song “Thankful” gets into some of my basic theology, theology that I still, to a large extent believe to this day. At the time it was the one single that was something that I had written. It was kind of a big song for us, something we played a lot, and was a real identifier for us and for me.
If I went back to those moments, there’s no way I would have written that song. I certainly wouldn’t have written it that way. It wasn’t sensitive. It was too cavalier. Other than me feeling justified in making a bold statement about something I believe, I don’t really see what good came of it. That was at a point when I cared more about theology than I cared about people, which I’ve since realized were my least loving years.
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