Saturday, May 12, 2007

USA Today: Webb & Jones

Rickie Lee Jones (Left)
& Derek Webb (Right)

You might not expect to find folk-rock renegade Rickie Lee Jones and Christian singer/songwriter Derek Webb on the same concert bill. But on their latest albums, the troubadours do share a goal: They both want you to get to know Jesus better — and not necessarily through messages provided in mass media or houses of worship.

Jones' The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, released in February, was inspired by a different spiritual journey than that informing Webb's Mockingbird, which has been generating praise, and some controversy, since last year.

"I came to religion wanting to take what's beautiful about it,," says Jones, 52. "I think we are spiritual beings, but Christianity's position in the culture can be so aggressive that it makes people defend themselves coming to the table."

So in 2005, when Jones' friend Lee Cantelon asked her to take part in a spoken-word recording of The Words, his book outlining Jesus' teachings — and distinguishing those teachings from what Cantelon views as the dogmatic interpretations that have evolved in organized religion — the project seemed a natural fit. Jones decided that she would rather sing than speak, though.

Jones wouldn't define the lean, starkly atmospheric songs she co-wrote with Cantelon and Peter Atanasoff as Christian music. "I guess I assume that would mean a Christian person trying to convince me of something, to sell an idea."

Webb, 32, began his career in that market, as part of the Christian band Caedmon's Call. "But as I looked around, I thought, 'where are our artists who are talking about politics? About the government?' It's the job of creative people, and especially those who are followers of Jesus, to be radical truth-tellers. That's what the prophets did."

With Mockingbird, his third solo effort, the Nashville-based artist wasn't concerned about ruffling feathers. On one track, A King and a Kingdom, he sings of "two great lies," identifying one as "that Jesus was a white, middle-class Republican, and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like Him."

Webb muses that Jesus "wasn't a white middle-class Democrat either, incidentally. The point is that he didn't walk any party line. But I think that the church, especially where I live, makes a terrible habit of co-opting the more conservative political party.

"I'm not saying the church shouldn't be concerned with issues. My problem is that they've grown so predictable, and Jesus was in no way predictable. The people he loved most lavishly were often socially stigmatized, and he reserved some of his harshest language for the law-keeping church leadership. That's the opposite, in a lot of cases, of what the evangelical church puts forth."

Webb espouses the kind of evangelism he associates with Jesus' original followers, "which was telling people about Jesus and what he did. But the church in the West has made some distinction between that and acts of mercy: caring for the poor, clothing the naked, caring for our neighbors."

Jones, who defines her political leanings more firmly to the left, echoes Webb's concerns. "Capitalistic religion inhibits the idea of service. You're supposed to be in the business of serving yourself, and if you don't do that, you must be some sort of tree-hugging idiot."

On Sermon's Where I Like It Best, Jones sings wryly, "See all those people praying on TV and the churches/They like to make a big parade out of what they're doing." Jones explains: "What I'm telling people is that prayer belongs to you, and you have to take it back."

Webb, who has a new album, The Ringing Bell, due in May, admits that he's been getting fewer invitations to play in churches since Mockingbird's release. But he has no regrets about answering to what he considers a higher authority.

"I hope to tell people what I really see when I look at the world," Webb says. "I know the issues can be complicated, and that a 3½-minute pop song isn't the best venue for some of them. But it's the only medium I have, and it's as good a place as any to start."

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