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Mixed messages

Music | New albums reveal much about two top Christian musicians

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

Getting to the heart of Stockholm Syndrome (INO), the latest album by the former Caedmon's Call member and outspokenly liberal Christian Derek Webb, is no easy task.

For one thing, the proliferation of "syndromes" in our hyper-therapeutic times will have some listeners needing to be reminded that the "Stockholm" variety refers to a hostage's pathologically sympathetic identification with his captor-and that while in typical Contemporary Christian Music, the captor is Satan (or the world or the flesh) and the hostage the human soul, Stockholm Syndrome is hardly typical. Atop an electronically mashed-up mosaic of several decades' worth of pop styles, Webb lends his Bono-esque voice to lyrics rooted in the awareness that rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's is not always easy.

So far, so good. And it gets better, even bipartisan: In "Jena & Jimmy," Webb exposes the self-indulgence latent in liberal activism by sketching the story of a sexually predatory peacenik who attends anti-war demonstrations to meet vulnerable girls.

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Listeners confronted with an album this imaginative will inevitably research the album on the internet, at which point the plot will thicken. They'll learn, for instance, that INO Records removed the song "What Matters More" from the store-shelf edition of the album. Why? Because in the song Webb resorts to profanity in accusing his fellow Christians of not doing unto homosexuals as they would have homosexuals do unto them. (The unexpurgated, 14-song Stockholm Syndrome, meanwhile, is available from Webb's website.)

They'll also learn that the subject of sarcastic doo-wop send-up "Freddie, Please" is Fred Phelps, the independent Baptist preacher whose notorious anti-homosexuality is so extreme and whose following so small that to attack him as a symbol of Christian behavior and attitudes is to commit the straw-man fallacy.

Finally, for good measure, there's "American Flag Umbrella," in which Webb sings, "Please take your laws off my lover" (a reference, presumably, to pro-traditional­marriage legislation). In the context of "What Matters More" and "Freddie, Please," it's tempting to conclude that Webb is as obsessed with indulging homosexuals as Phelps is with excoriating them.

A similar conundrum emerges from another provocatively atypical CCM album, mewithoutYou's It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright (Tooth & Nail). The group's leader, Aaron Weiss, converted to Christianity as a teenager but was raised in a Sufi Muslim home, and, as was the case with the group's second album, 2004's Catch for Us the Foxes, mewithoutYou's latest draws upon both Christian and Sufi sources.

Among the former are "The Angel of Death Came to David's Room" (in which King David's life passes before his eyes as he resists going gentle into that good night) and "A Stick, a Carrot & String" (a dramatic condensation of Christ's earthly life, from its origins in the manger to its end on the cross, with emphasis on its more obviously redemptive aspects). Among the latter are "The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie," "The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate," and "Fig with a Bellyache."

But it isn't the group's loose-limbed, Eastern-flavored folk-rock experimentalism, Weiss' cantor-meets-carnival-barker vocals, or the fable-like mysticism of the Sufi source tales that will raise the eyebrows of CCM fans. Rather it's the title and chorus of the album's final track, "Allah, Allah, Allah."

Granted, Allah is Arabic for "God" and technically not exclusive to Islam, and the album's liner notes identify mewithoutYou's publishing company as Jesus, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner. But any performer who expects the average post-9/11 listener to know all that has some serious cultural catching up to do.

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