On Wednesday, I wrote about Derek Webb’s new song, “The Spirit Bears the Curse,” and how it unnerved me. Unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one, and “What is Derek doing with this song?” is a common question. One friend asked: “Do you think he’s championing alcohol-abuse or being ironic—exposing its idolatrous potential?” [Here is the song if you haven’t heard it yet.]
I don’t think this question is easy to answer. It’s hard to know exactly what Derek is doing. Derek is a smart guy whose work is layered. And that’s true throughout this album, Fingers Crossed. Also, he is a human, and it may be that Derek himself doesn’t exactly know what he’s doing. Who of us does?*
But having limited knowledge is not the same as knowing nothing. So I think we can take a crack at my friend’s question. My answer is complicated though because I think “The Spirit Bears the Curse” doesn’t easily fits as either championing alcohol-abuse or being ironic. Let me explain.
First, no one champions alcohol-abuse. That’s way too weird. And that’s why celebrating drunkenness often masquerades as “partying.” But “The Spirit Bears the Curse” doesn’t work as a party song either. It is too dark for that.
You hear the darkness in the transition that intros the song. You see it in the visual starkness of the PowerPoint slides (though I get that it is also a nod “praise team” operations). And it is there in the musical layers under the melody, the subtle, perhaps insidious, way in which Alcohol is introduced, the manic presentation of that word at the end, and then in the visual and musical conclusion that is both lonely and despairing. In the main, it sounds like a typical worship song, but there is darkness too: around the edges, flowing underneath, and at key moments. These things keep this song from being an anthem to alcohol-abuse.
I also want to add that the genre is all wrong for a kickin’ Let’s get drunk; isn’t alcohol awesome?! kind of song. By putting these lyrics in the mode of an evangelical praise song, the register shifts up. In this genre, you can’t celebrate getting drunk; you have to worship it.
But worshiping Alcohol is such a crazy thing to do and be serious about, that one wonders if Derek is being ironic. But I don’t think he is. A few years ago I might have said he was. A few years ago I might have said that this was either a dig at CCM/evangelicalism, a wake up call to our idolatries, or both. It still works at those levels but something much bigger and deeper and sadder is going on here.
Given the trials of his life right now, as described on this album and publicly on the web, I don’t think we can say—and I don’t think Derek wants us to think—that he is standing outside of idolatry and speaking about it “prophetically.” Derek’s glorying in Alcohol is real and personal. And so is his experience of the darkness that comes from serving a god who lives in a glass. If Derek is a prophet, he is Jonah getting swallowed by a fish. And it is an intensely personal and non-ironic experience.
The fact that Derek is sharing that with us is remarkable. That’s part of what’s unnerving about it too. As always, Derek is transgressing the boundaries of what one ought to say. He gives us a window so that we can look into the private spaces of his life. And what we see is horrifying. Derek is being eaten by a monster even as he worships it. But as the light of this truth hits the glass, the window becomes a mirror too, and we see ourselves right there with him.
Is our love of sin ironic? Yeah, I guess. But I’d rather call it tragic.
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P. S. Some of the best conversations I’ve had over the past few days have been with addicts of various stripes who are currently in recovery. Are you in the middle of a tragedy? There is real hope. Let’s talk.
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, Jonah saying,
“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.
When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
—Jonah 2, ESV
- When God speaks, He does so in concert with a perfect knowledge of everything, including His perfect will. God is not figuring it out as He goes along. We, however, are people in progress whose knowledge and ability to know is limited and obscured. Derek knows this and so should we.