I’ve recently started going to church again, after a 25-year absence.
The reasons are many and varied, but they come down to the fact that I have finally found a church where I feel at home. Churches, in my experience, can be toxic places, full of judgment and exclusion and moral superiority. If I’m going to go to church, that church needs to be a place where I can have as many doubts and as much disbelief as I have, without feeling like that leaves me on the outside. Or even that there is an outside – church should be welcoming to everyone who wants to be there, I think, wherever they are on whatever journey they’re on.
I grew up in a church, but as I got older, I realized I had more questions than the church had answers for me, and I moved away from it. Faith has never come easy for me, and being around people who seem to breeze through it makes it even more difficult. I’ve never really left it alone during that time – or, as Steve Hindalong would say, somebody out there won’t leave me alone, which is more accurate. But for a quarter-century, really the only thing faith-related that I kept up with was the music.
If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know I love a lot of music that falls under the Christian banner. The truth is, I have always been interested in any art that honestly responds to the infinite. Call it God, call it the Force, whatever. The art that moves me most is the art that discusses our relationship to whatever it is that is beyond us, and to my mind, all responses are valid. This includes anger and fear and bewilderment and rejection, as well as faith and love. It’s a messy, complicated thing, and I’m always on board for honest, emotional outpourings to the heavens.
So that’s how I know who Derek Webb is. He’s been on my radar for nearly two decades, first as one half of Caedmon’s Call and then as a solo artist. If Webb is known for anything, it’s for being a provocateur – his work points fingers in a lot of directions, including back at himself, and has been staunchly Christian in nature, yet still piercingly honest. The first Webb song I fell in love with was “Wedding Dress,” on his 2003 solo debut She Must and Shall Go Free. It’s a powerful examination of his tendency to parade his own righteousness around: “I am a whore, I do confess, put you on just like a wedding dress and I run down the aisle…”
Webb has never been your average songwriter. He’s wrestled with the implications of faith for his whole career, perhaps most pointedly on 2009’s Stockholm Syndrome, a difficult yet danceable deconstruction of both church and state. That one caused some controversy – Christian audiences don’t tend to like it when you take them uncomfortable places, and Stockholm Syndrome was partially about confronting the church’s homophobia and racism head-on. It’s a great little record, but a prickly one.
So the church was primed and ready to throw stones at Webb as soon as he stumbled, and he sure did. He was caught in an affair that led to the very public end of his marriage to fellow songwriter Sandra McCracken, and in the ensuing years, he’s lost that sure-fire faith he held on to throughout his career. Webb calls his new album, Fingers Crossed, a tale of two divorces – from his wife and from God and the church. It’s his first in four years, following the more traditionally church-y I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You, and it’s clear that these four years have been the most painful of his life.
And because he is Derek Webb, he has examined these years with the same soul-baring honesty he has brought to everything he’s done. Even if I had not started orbiting the church world again, Fingers Crossed would be a difficult and powerful listen. Every time I spin it, it lays me low. It hurts. It’s meant to hurt. To be truthful, I’m not done processing this record, and I don’t know if I ever will be. This is a record about feeling abandoned by people, about making a terrible mistake and watching as the ones who said they would stand by you left you alone in it. Worse, this is a record about feeling abandoned by God, about the incredibly empty feeling of losing faith.
He addresses the people right up front, on the striking opener “Stop Listening.” Over what will become the framework for this album – gently picked acoustic guitars atop uncomfortable, off-kilter electronic percussion – Webb exhorts those who are grieving his separation from the faith to either come at this work with an open mind, or tune out: “If you stop listening now, we can still be friends, if your eyes can see what’s killing me, I’ll need you by the end, but I’ll understand if you stop listening…” He takes on the voices of the church in the second verse: “We’re with you all the way, no matter what the cost, I mean unless you climb down from the cross…”
For those who keep listening, Webb lays himself bare. The most gut-wrenching moments of the album paint him as a wretched, lonely soul, drinking alone and crying out in anguish, yearning for his lost love and his lost faith, hoping to repair his severed connections, but not sure how. “A Tempest in a Teacup” is a searing portrait of deconstruction, of a man with nothing left: “Something deep down in my heart, something that made me who I was, invisible, I guess it just didn’t pan out, I guess it’s just another heart I broke, another dream I woke up…”
I can barely listen to “Love is Not a Choice,” a song in which Webb admits that he sometimes wakes up and doesn’t remember where his wife and children have gone. “I’ve chosen not to love you anymore,” he sings, but he knows that he has no control over it. “And deep down the only one you want is the one who you betray, the one you can’t have, who’ll never take you back, who you think you never loved and who never loved you too, sometimes you need the lie to be the truth…” (This is absolutely a one-sided record, by the way, and I do wonder how McCracken feels hearing these songs.)
Similarly, “I Will” is devastating: “Oh God, take us back to the place where this all began, where I’m holding her hand with no shame and no damn regret…” Webb’s albums have been one-man shows for some time now, but he’s never sounded this alone before.
The heartbreak of divorce is one thing, but when he digs down into his feelings of abandonment about God, it’s quite another. He can point to his mistake in his marriage, but in song after song on Fingers Crossed, Webb doesn’t know what he’s done to make God fall silent. “Easter Eggs” is the most elegant metaphor for the unsolvable mystery of God I’ve heard in a long time, portraying God as the Easter Bunny: “When our backs are turned, he sneaks around, hides the sweetest things for us… but us kids have a thought that mom’s been making it up, so our hearts won’t break like Easter eggs…”
It’s the bridge of that song that really gets me, though: “Either this is what you wanted, or I’m not praying hard enough, in either case you can’t be trusted, so I think I’m giving up…” I would have to raise my hand and say that I’ve felt like this so many times. The mysteries remain mysteries, and I can’t possibly pray hard enough to untangle them. God stays hidden. The album’s title track finds Webb staring down infinity with the newfound thought that perhaps there is nothing to save him: “What if there’s no sin, there’s no cross, there’s no them, there is no us, there’s just you and what you do, and how you pay for what you choose…”
The song guaranteed to attract the most attention here is “The Spirit Bears the Curse,” which masquerades as an expert troll job but is actually a soul-crushing admission. It’s a worship song, with the exact cadence and language of modern church music, all early Coldplay and water metaphors: “We raise our voice, we raise an offering, would you come near and quench our thirst…” The twist, though, is that this song is about alcohol, and it plays like a joke: “I am calling out the only name that delivers me from my guilt and shame, oh alcohol…” But on repeated listens, it’s obviously heartfelt, the work of a man who used to find fulfillment in one place, and is now finding it in another. Alcohol does for him now what God used to.
For a certain segment of Webb’s audience, that’s going to be a very hard admission to deal with. I said this when I reviewed Webb’s set at AudioFeed this year: those are the people who most need to listen, particularly to those who leave the faith, about why they leave. These stories don’t end, and people are not relegated to “good” and “bad” boxes. They’re people, with stories, and if I know anything about the faith Webb used to proclaim, it’s about loving people, listening to their stories and being part of them.
Webb himself leaves some hope, however subtle, in the final song, “Goodbye, For Now.” The last two words are pointed – the song is the saddest thing here, bringing his marriage and his faith together in a forlorn farewell to both. “So either you aren’t real,” he sings to God, “or I am just not chosen, maybe I’ll never know, either way my heart is broken…” But that “for now,” repeated in each chorus, is like a faint promise, echoed in the climax of the first song: “If we can get through this we may have a shot at something even we can’t tear apart.” The album ends on an unresolved chord, the musical equivalent of “to be continued.”
I hope so. As someone who has loved Derek Webb’s work for a long, long time, Fingers Crossed is a difficult and painful listen. It’s also a brilliant one, honest and true to where he is. I expected nothing less. I don’t know how often I am going to revisit it – how often I physically can revisit it, given what it does to me – but I hope that the people who most need to hear an album like this don’t stop listening. Webb’s voice remains important, crying out in a different kind of wilderness, but speaking truth just the same.
Buy Fingers Crossed here.
Next week, Beck and a couple others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.