I Cannot Stop Listening: Gut Reactions to the New Derek Webb Album

By Bob Hiller

Remember that song by Garth Brooks where he sang, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers?” Yeah, unfortunately, so do I. It’s this sappy romantic song about how Garth and his wife went back to his hometown and ran across his boyhood crush, the one he had prayed and prayed for God to let him marry. After seeing her he looks at his wife and is just so thankful that God ignored his prayers for the crush so he could marry his wife. God didn’t answer Garth’s prayer. He had a better plan in mind.

How sweet.

I guess there is a certain level of truth in that song, though, it seems to me it is a rather shallow view of prayer. Especially the unanswered ones. While Garth is thanking God for the unanswered prayers, I know people whose faith is near the breaking point because of them. In angst and sorrow they cry out to God for mercy, for hope, for certainty, for healing, for something. And no answer comes. The unanswered prayer is no cause for thanksgiving. For them, it is resulting in a crisis of faith. Where is this God who promises to answer prayer? Why won’t he listen? What’s wrong with Him? What’s wrong with me?

I’m going to be honest, I’ve never had the sort of crisis of faith that causes me to question God’s existence. I’m convinced of the incarnation, resurrection, second coming, and so on. My trials have more to do with whether or not my sins really are too much and whether or not the blood will finally be enough. My struggle doesn’t need someone convincing me that God is real, but it requires a preacher promising He’s gracious.

Where I have a harder time is identifying with someone who is struggling to believe in God at all. When someone is having a crisis of faith that causes them not only to hate God, but to flat our reject Him, I have to work towards empathy. My knee jerk response is to argue, to correct, to fix with the right answer to the wrong questions. I don’t deal well with the doubts and struggles of others, because I am a Lutheran pastor, after all, and I have all the answers! In other words, when someone questions or denounces the God I am so convinced of, I become Job’s worst friend.

This is how I came to the new Derek Webb album, “Fingers Crossed.” Webb, whose album dropped last night, has been a favorite of mine for years. After a stint working in the music section of the Christian bookstore in college, I grew quite cynical towards anything that smacked of CCM. But Webb is different. I’ve always found his music thoughtful, provocative, honest, and, ultimately, gospel-driven. His songs have brought me great consolation and even absolution (something I need quite a bit of). Over the past few years, Webb has had some personal-gone-public sins that have caused many in the “Christian music” community to question his faith and conviction. And (as I’m listening to his new album while writing this blog) it sounds like he’s joined in the questioning. What’s more, some of the songs sound like he’s arrived at the answers–answers I want to correct, I want to discount, I want to dismiss. Maybe it’s all a gimmick, right? I mean, this guy’s music has been damn near pastoral to me, and now he’s having a crisis of faith, maybe even leaving it? I want to sit Job down, shut him up, and fix him.

The last song on the album “Goodbye for Now” (a typically loaded title) is wrecking me. Two lines are particularly haunting:

So either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen. Maybe I’ll never know, either way my heart is broken. As I say goodbye for now.

Excommunication never made much sense to me like abandonment to demonstrate how you’ll never leave.

Now, I want to correct these things. Maybe I ought to decry his Calvinistic leanings and show him the upside of the grace of absolution found in the Lutheran Church. Maybe I’d preach to him about the hidden versus the revealed God. Maybe I could explain the importance of excommunication for the purity of the church and how sometimes if you love someone you have to let them go. Maybe I’d just tell him it may seem like God isn’t there, but sometimes we just need to thank God for unanswered prayers.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s time for me to shut up. Maybe it’s time for insecure me (and everyone who is about to write reviews of Webb’s album) to not review, check the judgment at the bar door, buy him a drink and listen. I don’t know if Webb has left the faith. I don’t know where he stands theologically or spiritually. I don’t know him at all, frankly. But, I know people in his shoes. And, like a great evangelical music critic, I’ve done a bang-up job of diagnosing without listening.

Webb’s album is beautiful, painful, and heart-wrenching. It exposes my inability to handle someone whose trials might challenge my faith. But, that’s all the more reason to keep listening, (despite the permission he gives his old fans to stop listening given in the album’s first song), to keep struggling, to keep praying. Yes, to say prayers for Derek Webb or for anyone you know who battles with the silence of God. But, perhaps, those prayers shouldn’t merely be for Webb and others to see God’s hidden plan in unanswered prayers or for them to come around to seeing the truth as clearly as we do, but rather, ours is to join in their lament, to cry out with them. The closing words of the 44th Psalm might be a good place to start as you cry out with them,

“Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

“Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Psalm 44:23-26)

My faith is clinging to the hope that such redemption will come. But, hope is hard. Weeping tarries for the night and joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). But, it’s a long night. I mean, there is One who has come through an even greater abandonment than we can conceive of and found that morning. I know this too shall be made right. But, in the meantime, in this time of unanswered prayers, it is right to weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, and hope for those who don’t.

15 thoughts on “I Cannot Stop Listening: Gut Reactions to the New Derek Webb Album

  1. Man, we need to talk! We’re launching s Movement that isnaddressing this very tensio with real conversations with real people dealing with real crisis. Derek is on our radar and we’re going to be making room for him to share more of this …
    Hit me up – email below!
    KC Clark

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  2. “Or maybe, just maybe, it’s time for me to shut up. Maybe it’s time for insecure me (and everyone who is about to write reviews of Webb’s album) to not review, check the judgment at the bar door, buy him a drink and listen.”

    Bob, I was looking for some early reviews of Derek’s new album and came across your blog post. I just wanted to say thank you, especially for the part I quoted above. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for being honest. Spiritually, I am in a similar place as Derek and as always, his music and his personal journey resonate with me. You wrote that you have a hard time identifying with those of us who struggle to believe in God. I think it’s incredibly valuable for you to be able to say that, and at the same time withhold judgment and choose to listen. I believe this kind of attitude would transform the church. There is much more I could say, but I think I will leave it at that.

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    1. Thanks, machba! I pray we all (certainly myself included) can lean to have a greater spirit of humility in these conversations. May Christ’s peace be with you.

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  3. I enjoyed the album but I’m confused… lots of people like Rich Mullins, Brennan Manning struggled with alcohol their entire lives but they didn’t stop calling themselves christians… Johnny Cash walked that line between the sacred and profane and he still called himself a Christian… his failures allowed him to help Kris kristopherson and Waylon Jennings get off drugs, he was such a powerful Christian…religion is what needs to be detoxed not the relationship with Abba! “God loves us as we are and as not as we should be”… Brennan Manning…

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  4. Wow… What great words about this album. My heart hurts, I don’t know if it’s for Webb, or myself because I want so badly for our thoughts to align, or what. But man you have some great thoughts. Thanks!

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  5. I appreciate these thoughts. Derek Webb and David Bazan were my musical kindred spirits as a questioning Baptist, and they’re the only two musicians from my Christian days that I’ve kept in my life. Broken-hearted is a great way to describe the loss of faith. But as you’ve aptly noticed, Webb, and Bazan before him, may have stepped to the other side of the fuzzy gray line, but they’re still in the conversation we’re all having. What is this? How did/do I feel so strongly about something that might not be real?

    The attitude in this post really helps people like us keep listening to the people who claim to have answers we want so badly to be true.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Ryan. If I can ask, what was it that started you questioning God and/or doubting Christianity? I hope the question is not too forward.

      Peace

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      1. Not too forward. It’s a good question. The short version is as follows:

        Circa 2001, in Christian college, in a time when conservative politics and Christianity were a little too close to each other, I started feeling uncertain about that combination. While my faith wasn’t wavering, my childhood politics weren’t holding up to scrutiny, and that felt uncomfortable. For the first time, I was open to the possibility that other people might know better than I did. I had spent my teenage years evangelizing, and studying apologetics, but the only people I listened to were people I already agreed with. The saved v. lost binary was powerful to me.

        Hell was the first domino to fall. Even if I had technical, doctrinal retorts to the problems of hell, on a more visceral level, I couldn’t stomach it anymore. Finite human lives, finite sins in a temporal plane, leading to eternal pain and eternal separation from a supposedly all forgiving, all loving God. I could spin the doctrine all day, but I couldn’t make sense of that tension. From there, it all fell apart within a year.

        If hell isn’t real, I don’t require saving from damnation.
        If I don’t require saving from damnation, what function does Jesus serve?
        If Jesus doesn’t serve a function, what’s the point of Christianity?
        And if Christianity doesn’t serve a function, why am I clinging to these political beliefs that I can see in front of me are causing so much pain to people.

        I decided I had to start from the beginning. I had to establish that there’s a reason to believe that God exists at all.

        And I never got past that point. Bertrand Russell drove the last nail, I think. I came to see that I’d been handed a religion based on bad logic, and when held up to scrutiny, that logic fell apart.

        I felt like I’d been catfished. I’d lived my life for someone/something that might not exist at all. All the apologetics in the world can’t soothe that wound.

        People go different places after that experience. Some become angry internet atheists. Some try to forget it. I can’t do those things. Every once in awhile, I can spot someone that’s been through what I’ve been through, and I try to cling to those people, because it’s lonely being an accidental non-believer. It’s not a choice, it’s something that happens to a person. The David Bazans, Mike McHargues, and Derek Webbs of the world make the world less lonely, and I’m grateful for them.

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      2. Thanks for being so open with this, Ryan. If I can ask (and forgive me if I’m too pushy), how did your Christian friends/family react? You talk about loneliness. We’re you ostracized? We’re folks understanding? A mix? Or was it all attempts at arguments back in?

        I’m also curious about your comment from the first post about wanting this stuff to be true. Flesh that out for me. It sounds like the opposite of CSLewis who came in to the faith kicking and screaming. It is a very interesting comment to me.
        If you don’t want to answer this in a public forum, please feel free to email me at pastorbob312@gmail.com .

        Peace

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      3. At that point in my life, I had enough evangelical bravado left in me that my family knew trying to argue with me was pointless. Spending one’s life selling eternity to people tends to develop a confidence that stays with you, even if the faith doesn’t. It certainly created distance between my mom and me, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t talk about.

        The loneliness was internal. For a long time, life felt like a never-ending funeral. I’d spent my life believing that without God, nothing really mattered. So when God went away (in my head, anyway…semantics), there wasn’t a replacement for all the meaning and intimacy I’d felt as a Christian.

        Re: wanting it to be true – life was a lot simpler as a Christian. Everything had a rhyme and reason, and there was a certain amount of peace in having the grand existential issues figured out. Emotionally, I was more satisfied back then. So even today, I long for that kind of peace. Coming to believe in God again would achieve that, I think. But so far, I haven’t found a way to pull that off. Belief seems to be something that happens to a person, or stops happening to them. Science Mike has been helpful in thinking about ways to fake it, but it hasn’t been fully successful to date.

        I’ve written about this in longer form here (http://faithlikeaman.blogspot.com/2012/12/losing-faith.html) Many of the 2012 post about related to the topic.

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      4. @Ryan Blanchard — from a fellow “accidental non-believer”, thank you for sharing your story Ryan. Much of your realization, experience, and thought process is similar to mine. After 27 years, this is the year that I feel I’ve finally gone as far as I can go on the Christian path without some kind of divine intervention. What I sometimes tell my friends is that I now truly understand the meaning of “Lord, I want to believe…help my unbelief.”

        You mentioned Science Mike. I recently listened to the Liturgist podcast episode on “Spiral Dynamics” and it really blew me away….lately I’ve been contemplating a lot about the human experience and condition and I thought that episode had some really interesting ideas.

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  6. I agree with you. The response of the church can love and encourage or utterly break a person when a longtime believer begins questioning things or “crossing the line.” I’ve only listened through the album once. But, from what I’ve seen and heard from Derek, it appears that he began exploring and made (at least one) seriously wrong choice that he will never stop regretting. I don’t know how the church or his friends made him feel. But, it sounds like they may have increased his sorrow and confusion. Derek’s story is so interesting. In a way, it seems like a microcosm for what many who grow up in the church experience in this life. I think you’re right. I think it’s time for you, and me, and all of the other “know-it-alls” to shut up and listen, really listen – seek to understand and love.

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  7. Wow. I found your site looking for something to explain what I’m listening to. Found Derek’s new album on Apple Music it’s very uncomfortable for me. I too, am a pastor, and can relate to this post. Like you, my struggles have never dealt with God’s existence or presence, only my own sin and the power of grace.

    This album is uncomfortable for me, but it is powerful. I am humbled at how unable I am to comfort someone struggling with the issues Derek is dealing with. Maybe that’s why I am listening. To help me to LISTEN.

    God bless, brother.

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