29 December 2010

Notes: Where I am coming from

by Frank Turk

Most readers will have already read my open letter to Derek Webb, but this post is actually being published prior to the open letter. So I offer it as a post-script or epilogue or prologue (depending on when you read it) based on a phone call I had this week. I had a phone-chat with a reasonably-well-known SBC blogger (name obscured to give him the freedom to be in or out) after I tweeted about Derek's interview (long story, but he called because I didn't want to have a tweet war about the subject), and before the Ozarks canned my cell signal he asked me to at least deal with the interview and what it actually said -- not what I thought it implied.

I think that's a totally-fair request from him, and a totally-fair expectation from Derek Webb, so here is where I'll do that. Consider my letter to be based on what I have here exposited here from the interview.

The right thing to do is to place the interview in context, and the interviewer (Chris Stedman) does exactly that:
Given [Derek Webb's] willingness to reach across dividing lines, I asked Webb about his religious identity and how it relates to his work and his positions on issues relating to LGBT people, Muslims and atheists.
So explicitly, this interview is about Webb's "religious identity", and specifically it is about "his positions on issues", and those issues are specifically regarding "LGBT people", "Muslims" and "atheists". It's interesting to note that this interview offers one question each to the matter of atheism and Islam, and the rest stays in orbit around the question of receiving LGBT people into the church with open arms.

Here's Q1 from the interview:
Tracking the arc of your career, it seems to me that you've become increasingly vocal about your opinions on certain social issues. What's behind that?
So "certain social issues" are at stake here -- not just philosophy of ministry issues, but the actual "social issues" which Webb is speaking of. Here's the first half of his answer:
My wife and I are both artists. Part of the luxury of being an artist is that you not only can but kind of have a responsibility to think long and hard about things on behalf of those who might listen to your music. You can give them a jumping off point for subject matter that might be too tangled for most people in the busyness of their daily lives. I think there are a lot of smart people out there who honestly just don't have the time to think through some of these issues, and it becomes easier to watch CNN, to watch Fox News, to read some random blog and just get your answers and talking points from those kinds of places.
Now, get this: It's the artist, in his own words, who has a responsibility to "give people a jumping-off point for [complicated] subject matter". This is interesting because the second question was "Were you concerns about the risk of taking a stand on such a heated issue?" -- the "issue" being whether "LGBT" is acceptable Christian behavior, because the context is Webb's single "What Matters More" -- and his answer was this:
In terms of my being fearful or not [about the] reaction; I take my job really seriously, and I have tried to make a habit over the years of not listening to people who either criticize me or praise me. Spirituality is a really mysterious thing, and I feel as though I have received various coordinates from God over the years in terms of what I need to be spending my time and my work on, and that's really what I'm listening to. If following faithfully along those coordinates puts me in a season of praise with a certain group of people, that's fine -- but I don't do it to get in those graces, and neither am I upset if that also costs me some people along the road. I would much rather be faithful than successful, and I think that's a real professional difference [from] how some people do it.
So Derek Webb has said this explicitly about himself: [1] he's the deep thinker who is giving people the "jumping-off point" for complicated issues, and [2] if he takes criticism (or praise, as he says -- a point we have to get back to) for those jumping-off points, he doesn't listen. He feels like he has "received various coordinates from God over the years in terms of what I need to be spending my time and my work on, and that's really what I'm listening to".

Personally, I think that's troubling -- because Derek Webb says he's talking with God, and unlike the rest of us who are only invested enough (or maybe only spiritual enough, if I read his first answer correctly) to get our answers from CNN or blogs who ought to listen to him, he's not going to really take on outside analysis of his approach.

Now, that's a pretty clever way to set up one's vocational priorities -- to set the artist literally above criticism. But it seems to me that Derek is not really that disassociated from his critics and fans. Consider the first half of his second answer:
[the feedback] that I didn't really expect was the response from those that are at the business end of the church's judgment, especially around the gay issue. But what was surprising in a good way -- what showed me that I picked the right kind of trouble to get into -- was the response from a lot of people who were really struggling spiritually because they had no language for being who they actually were and believing what they actually believed. For their whole lives they had people telling them they couldn't be a certain kind of person. I was really gratified to be able to provide some small bit of sanity to a handful of people. That was worth whatever judgment or misunderstanding that might've come from the record itself.
There's a second reason to consider this statement, but the first is this: in fact, Derek does consider the voice of his praisers because they are the ones who showed him "he picked the right kind of trouble to get into". The criticisms he got were "predictable" and did not take him off the coordinates God put him on, but the praises: they gratified him.

The second reason to think about what Webb says here is the underlined part. My admission here is that Derek doesn't overtly say, "For their whole lives, LGBT people have had others telling them they couldn't be LGBT, but the church should not judge them for that." But if Derek does not mean my paraphrase by his statement, I'd like to see the paraphrase which will actually fit the context of his comment and still maintain the flow of his thought here.

So we make it to the third question:
How do you think the Christian community can build bridges to the LGBT community?
This is perhaps where the blogger I spoke to needs to take specific note of this conversation -- because as I talked to him, he seemed to think that Derek Webb was talking in abstract terms -- but the question makes the answers rather concrete.

So when Mr. Webb begins his response:
Initially, Christians can stop pretending that they're so different. I think there would be an immediate change in the conversation if we all realized how similar we are and the common language we share.
I find this catastrophically-inverted, but the SBC blogger thinks we should read this generously. We should read it, he has told me, as if Derek Webb was telling Stedman that the church is full of sinners and the LGBT community os full of sinners, and in that we have a common language.

But that's neither the tone of this statement, nor is it the intention of this statement -- and it overlooks the fact that it is not the church which establishes the "difference" necessary to even use the term "LGBT" to describe a demographic.

For the uninformed, "LGBT" means "Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transexual". Now think on this: that is a community which takes its identity from sexual expression and not from, for example, any other sociological accomplishment. The primary designator of one's heritage and people group is sexual practice and orientation -- that's what defines this community. When it is then said that the church is the one making a big deal out of what the "differences" are, it's a little more than a little sly to do so. It's actually accepting the LGBT definitions of how things work -- making others the bad guys for categories the LGBT are actually demanding be taken into account.

Let's be as clear as possible: this is a theme which is overtly stated in the song "What Matters More". Here are the lyrics for the song:
You say always treat people like you'd like to be
I guess you love being hated for your sexuality
You love when people put words in your mouth
About what you believe
Make you sound like a freak

'Cause if you really believed
What you say you believe
You wouldn't be so damned reckless
With the words you speak
You wouldn't silently consent
When the liars speak
Denying all the dying of the remedy

Tell me, brother what matters more to you
Tell me, sister what matters more to you

If I can see what's in your heart
By what comes out of your mouth
Then it sure looks to me like being straight
Is all it's about
It looks like being hated
For all the wrong things
Like chasing the wind
While the pendulum swings

'Cause we can talk and debate
Till we're blue in the face
About the language and tradition
That He's coming to save
And meanwhile we sit
Just like we don't have give a **** about
Fifty thousand people who are dying today
Webb's point in this song is obvious: the church ought to care more about the sick people in the world than about what kind of sex people will have. In fact, it seem that what kind of sex is only a matter of "tradition", and to say otherwise is "hatred".

For the doubters this is where Derek Webb makes his stand on the issue.

That said, returning to the interview, how the church then "stops pretending they are so different" is an intimation of moral guilt to the church which Webb does not flesh out at all -- and I leave it to him to flesh it out in some way other than to huff at people he disagrees with.

Now I say "other than to huff" because this is the next part of his answer:
Another thing that would really change the conversation between the church and the broader gay community -- and it so desperately needs changing -- is the church's response. The church has spent so many years dealing publicly in the morality of the issue, in a way that misrepresents the response that I believe Jesus would have, that Christians have forgotten, or maybe never really [knew] in the first place, that whether your moral response to the gay issue is that it is perfectly permissible in the eyes of the Bible, or that it is totally reprehensible, your interpersonal response should be absolutely no different to gay people.

The response, by the way, is love. Period. It's love and open arms, regardless of your position on the morality.
I find this disturbing for several reasons. First, if we consider the Sermon on the Mount, Christ is classically judgmental for all manner of sin -- including heterosexual sin, greed, and all the trouble which pours out of the heart of man. Jesus publicly decried immorality -- and not merely the superficial kind of the morally-careless, but the deep kind in which one discovers that one does not love God but one's self and one's pleasure. It's simply biblically illiterate to say Jesus' response to public immorality would have been "love and open arms" -- because Jesus rejected anyone who thought they were morally-clean, anyone who thought their sin was not sin.

Second, the interpersonal response that Christians provide to most people is not stoning, or shunning, or any manner of real moral approbation. It's just apathy. If he wants to get on about that, I'll applaud him -- but to say that most Christians somehow treat LGBT people with anything more-active than simply passing them by is just ignorant of the average Christian. Worse, it plays to anti-Christian stereotypes which do not serve anyone well.

Last, for a fellow trying to creating jumping-off points for Christians into complex issues, it would be useful to define love in a little more nuanced way -- perhaps in a more biblical way -- than to make it group hugs as if fellowship and interpersonal respect looked like a Michelob commercial.

Here's Derek's next answer to the question of whether he is "too Christian" or "not Christian enough":
You can't please everybody, and I don't do this to please everybody. But the job of any artist is to look at the world and tell you what they see. Every artist, whether they acknowledge it or know it, has a grid through which they view the world and make sense of what they see. Even if it's a grid of unbelief -- that you don't think there is anything orchestrating the world and that everything is completely random -- that is a grid through which you make sense of the world.

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.

The year I made Stockholm Syndrome, there were a lot of triggers that brought issues of race and sexuality to my mind. I have a lot of friends and family that have suffered because of the church's judgment; my best friend in the world is gay. I felt a lot of people around me drawing lines in the sand, and that year I decided: I don't want to draw lines and have to be on one side or the other, but if someone's going to push me to one or the other side of the line, I'm going to stand on the side of those being judged because that's where I feel Jesus meets people. Making Stockholm Syndrome was about that journey. That same lens, this year, brought Feedback to life. They are very different pieces of art, but the exact same ethic brought both of those records out.
That statement is the subtext -- perhaps the presuppositions -- of the rest of this interview for Derek Webb. It tells us explicitly his state of mind and what is driving him to make certain judgments of his own.

And let's make sure this gets clarified: in spite of Webb's explicit beef with the church making "public moral judgments", he is himself making public moral judgments about the church -- and juxtaposing himself against the church on certain issues. How he can justify himself and condemn the church is for him to explain, but I think it is obvious to anyone reading where he comes to this conclusion -- and it stems from his position as an "artist" who is set in some coordinates by God himself.

It's also interesting that he here again stresses that people who are being "judged" are not actually subject to Jesus' approbation. The church or the religious people might judge people, but not Jesus: he's about "meeting people". This is another point which I want to make explicitly to the SBC blogger if he is reading: this riff of Derek Webb in this essay is where I find him most obviously soft-soaping the problem of sin. This is the way Joel Osteen talks about sin; this is the way Oprah talks about sin. This is not the way people who are serious about sin being a problem for mankind which sets them at odds against God speak about sin. Sin is not the fault of the church which drives people away: sin is what comes out of a man by the overflow of his heart (a saying of Jesus, btw; a saying he can use against others but not in a balanced way), and God judges it.

There is more to this interview, and I ask the reader to read it for himself. This post is already twice as long as I intended to make it, but the perspective that we ought to deal specifically with what was said in the interview rather than with what we think was said is a legitimate one. I hope I have done that here, and look forward to other comments on this subject.


Mark Lussier said...

I know a Christian man who recently opened an art gallery in town. His premise for using art as an evangelistic tool seemed interesting to me, but I wasn't aware of the context until now! We parted company as close friends several years ago, when he elevanted the feed the hungry and clothe the naked part above the repent part of the gospel. I thought he was starting to head back toward sound doctrine and good orthodoxy, but now, I realize he's heading further down the path of denying the power of the gospel, which is the cross and Christ crucified.

Phil Johnson said...

Right on, Frank. I hope this post doesn't get buried by the "Open Letter" or missed by people accustomed to only one PyroPost per day.

Anonymous said...

I read the Pyros often, but rarely comment.

This post is comment-worthy. Exellent thoughts, Frank.

DJP said...

Really terrific.

A Turk Twofer! Sweet!

candy said...

I really liked this article. I commented on a link a local pastor posted by Shane Claiborne that was similar in tone as Derek Webb's interview. I was distressed by the endorsement of Claiborne's article by this pastor, and his way of dealing with my comment was to simply delete it because it was not glowing like all the other comments.

Jugulum said...

Excellent post.

I'm not sure this affects your points about the interview, but I think you misinterpreted the reference to "tradition" in Webb's lyrics. You read "tradition" as something like "the merely traditional view that homosexual behavior is wrong", right?

Here are those lyrics again:
"'Cause we can talk and debate
Till we're blue in the face
About the language and tradition
That He's coming to save
And meanwhile we sit
Just like we don't have give a **** about
Fifty thousand people who are dying today"

I read that as having quote-marks around "He's coming to save". i.e., "the language and tradition of 'He's coming to save'.

To paraphrase, "We talk about God saving people as though we love them, but when it comes to sick people, we act like we don't really care." (Though looking back at the second stanza, "people who are dying" might not mean simply "sick people". It might mean "people who are dying, after being driven away from the gospel by the rhetoric we use, and by the rhetoric to which we silently consent when it's used by others". In other words, if we really loved gay people and wanted to save them, we would use different rhetoric and we'd actively criticize over-the-top rhetoric from others--i.e. we'd confront what we see as sin in a more loving, gentle way.)

I'd love to see him clarify this point--flesh it out graciously, without huffing at people he disagrees with. "Be genuinely loving & sympathetic when you confront what you think is sin" is very different from "Seeing it as sin is hateful"--and the former is generally a good exhortation. But I get the idea that he's actually saying both.

jigawatt said...

Cent, I'm glad you mentioned the double standard. I remember somebody making this comment about Derek after the announcement of his tour with another artist, an out-of-the-closet Jennifer Knapp: I wonder if he'd go on tour with a Christian who "came out" as against helping the poor.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Yes, Derek Webb's postmodern "half-caf" gospel is what Nashville is producing more and more of these days. Artistic license never gives a Christian permission to blur the lines, but Derek Webb seems quite content to sacrifice Truth by establishing his "love, peace and acceptance plan" on the altar of compromise.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

This post is equally as important as the other one, Frank, and I almost wish they each had their own day. You do an excellent job pointing out the very quotes from the interview that caught my attention as well, and handle each one very responsibly.

What really stood out to me in general (in the interview) was the sense of arrogance coming from Webb. He believes that smart people simply don't think issues through fully because they are too busy. He believes he's got some inside kind of "coordinates" with God that makes him certain that he's on the right path. He's in no way concerned about the fact that it "has cost him some people along the road," but almost proud of that fact. (I'm safe in assuming it's fellow believers, not LBGT or atheists who have parted ways with him.) And he makes a kind of mushy teeter-totter remark about what the Bible actually says on the issue when he says "...whether your moral response to the gay issue is that it is perfectly permissible in the eyes of the Bible, or that it is totally reprehensible,...The response, by the way, is love. Period. It's love and open arms, regardless of your position on the morality." So he's unwilling to draw a line himself, but if someone else draws the line, he's on the side of the ones who choose immorality to define themselves.

I really appreciate your willingness to responsibly take him to task on these issues. Too often it seems there are lots of "Christian artists" who have a platform to share their views on moral/social issues, and they do a horrible job representing the Word of God incarnate. And very few seem to speak up and challenge the rhetoric.

Robert Warren said...

I often wonder about these condescending ar-TEESTs: are they like this in the beginning or do they learn condescension and arrogance in some finishing school or graduate program? They're actually analogous to the Biologos folks; but instead of jettisoning Creation theology so they won't be embarrassed in front of their worldly buddies, they toss out the behavior that should be expected of repentant and forgiven sinners.

Note to Mark Lussier: Do you think there is a "feed the hungry and clothe the naked" part of the Gospel? I rather think those are expected outcomes of the Gospel; they are a reflection of the Grace the Lord shows to believers and are a result of the Gospel.

Keith said...

Webb fits the form of the men mentioned in Titus 1:10-14. Frank, I am encouraged by your boldness to call a false teacher to repentance. Thank-you for your post.

Denny Burk said...

Great analysis and critique. This is really helpful.

trogdor said...

The least-surprising revelation in the interview comes from the line "my best friend in the world is gay". By my admittedly unscientific survey, a similar line would appear in roughly 99.44% of all arguments by professing Christians for legitimizing specific sins. It maybe would have been more honest to have led with that and let us know upfront the origin of such 'convictions'.

Paula Bolyard said...

Robert said, "I often wonder about these condescending ar-TEESTs: are they like this in the beginning or do they learn condescension and arrogance in some finishing school or graduate program?

Perhaps at their so-called "Christian" colleges? See the recent statement by the president of Belmont University, in Nashville, which attracts a plethora of Christian ar-teests.

"The Belmont family, like any large family, comprises a rich and diverse mix of people. Within our student community there are many gay and lesbian students as well as gay and lesbian faculty and staff.

In the ten years that I have served as Belmont’s president, sexual orientation has not been considered in making hiring, promotion, salary, or dismissal decisions.

SolaMommy said...

I'm so glad I have Derek Webb to do my thinking for me.

Word Verification: whindmat

Is that like "windbag?" ;-)

FX Turk said...

Be careful that what we are talking about here is the need of the church to call sin "sin" and not whether there needs to be a moral cleansing of the social order. Working at a job next to a LGBT person is not the same as failing to tell them, when the question is evident, that sexual sins are all sins from which the sinner must repent.

We call all men to repentance, even the ones who are not gay. Even you personally.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

Okay one more comment, then it's lights out for me: on page four of the interview, in a nutshell says that unless you have a friend our a family member who is gay, you should not be heard. (I would cut and paste, but I'm using my phone,and it's tricksy.) So you should ask Derek if he really means that. Pastors? Elders? Bible teachers? All shut your mouths if you don't personally have gay connections? And here's a deeper thought to ponder: men who have pulpets should guard their tongues when it comes to giving their opinions, and instead preach the word. And artists and housewives and bloggers and lay persons should aim to be like them.

Paula Bolyard said...

Frank said, "Be careful that what we are talking about here is the need of the church to call sin "sin" and not whether there needs to be a moral cleansing of the social order.

I didn't mean my comment to come across as a call for a Grand Inquisition. Rather, I think it's not a small matter that a lot of postmodern, liberal theology is coming out of Christian colleges. That includes acceptance of the LGBT lifestyle. Parents think they're sending their kids to a Christian college where Christian doctrine and practice will be upheld (because, after all, it's in their mission statement). The reality is something quite different. Classic bait and switch.

Liberal arts....I don't think that word means what they think it means.

Paula Bolyard said...

Merrilee said, "in a nutshell says that unless you have a friend our a family member who is gay, you should not be heard."

Right...and unless you personally know a murderer, you're not allowed to say murder is wrong. Brilliant.

jigawatt said...

The last song on Derek's album "She Must and Shall go Free" has this refrain: "If you love me [Jesus], you will love the church."

Sir Brass said...

"We call all men to repentance, even the ones who are not gay. Even you personally."

Why Frank, that sounds awfully close to saying that the Gospel is for Christians too. How dare you confront my self-righteousness like that. ;) [/sarcasm]

Love it!

bobbyghandi said...

You should have sat down and had coffee with him before you blogged this.

DJP said...

Shouldn't you have sat down and had coffee with Frank before saying that?

Before you answer me... send me a pound of coffee. Ground. Kona. Peet's.

Thank you.

Robert said...

I know I'm extremely late to the show (been gone on vacation...actually drove through Little Rock on the way back), but I wanted to thank you for both of these posts, Frank.

I agree that we (the church) need to call sin out for what it is. And we need to realize where it comes from. "But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death." (James 1:14-15) Sin comes from our own hearts, where our lusts are. I would submit that people who look through their own "lenses" at the world are going to skew the truth to match their own understanding. We need to read, study, and know the Word of God so that we can rightly divide it as we apply it to our lives.

Mr. Webb needs to spend more time in the Word and humble himself before God and His Word (Isaiah 66:2) so that he can get a better understanding of what the love of God is like. For it is clear to me that this "open arms" type of love is from an idolatrous god that he (Webb) has created in his own mind. I pray that his eyes may be opened to the truth of Scripture and that he might repent of his sin...just as I hope that we are all praying for each other's (mine especially...I'm the worst sinner I know) repentance as we pursue sanctification.