Beyond Performative Repentance: Derek Webb’s Fingers Crossed

When I first listened to Derek Webb’s new single, I knew something was up. “The Spirit Bears the Curse” would sound at home at any church on a Sunday morning, and when Webb left Caedmon’s Call almost 15 years ago, it was at least partly to write songs that wouldn’t fit into most Sunday morning services. For example, “Wedding Dress,” from his first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free, compares the church to an unfaithful spouse. The Bible does that too, of course, but churches still don’t like to talk about it, let alone work it into a worship anthem.

So when the big twist in “The Spirit Bears the Curse” comes, I was expecting something, but I wasn’t prepared for this:

now my knees are weak
my speech is slurred
oh, the things you shake
oh, the things you stir
i am calling out the only name
that delivers me from my guilt and shame

oh, alcohol
oh, alcohol
we raise our voices for alcohol

I’ve been following Webb’s career ever since She Must and Shall Go Free, so I knew his new album, Fingers Crossed, would be his first batch of songs following his divorce. I had also heard rumblings and inferences that he maybe wasn’t totally on board with the whole God thing anymore. I started college the year Webb embarked on his solo career, and in many ways, his ways of wrestling with belief and the church have mirrored my own. He has been as important to my spiritual life as anyone I can think of.

And I knew I could have handled Webb walking away from his faith, so long as he did it honestly. That’s what worried me, though. “The Spirit Bears the Curse” turned on a pun. I could follow him all the way into the darkness, but not if a joke was waiting at the end.

I considered not listening to Fingers Crossed, not out of protest, but because of what it might do to me. Ultimately, though, I decided I needed to hear Derek Webb out, even when he suggested I “stop listening” on the album’s opening song:

so if you stop listening now
we can still be friends
if your eyes can see what’s killing me
i’ll need you by the end
but i’ll understand if you stop listening

By the time I got to “The Spirit Bears the Curse” on the album, it sounded different. Instead of coming off as a flippant, even mean-spirited joke, it sounded genuine. Webb was at a place where God wasn’t fulfilling what he needed, and alcohol was the best substitute he could find.

After I saw that, the rest of Fingers Crossed came into clearer focus, and it also illustrated what I see as the difference between the repentance Webb had modeled on his earlier albums, and the kind on display now.

“I Repent,” from his 2004 album I See Things Upside Down, is a catalog of items most Christians would agree aren’t ideal spiritual characteristics, but at the same time, are not going to get you placed under church discipline:

I repent of judging by a law that even I can’t keep
Of wearing righteousness like a disguise
To see through the planks in my own eyes

I repent, I repent of trading truth for false unity
I repent, I repent of confusing peace and idolatry
By caring more of what they think than what I know of what we need
By domesticating you until you look just like me
I am wrong and of these things I repent

While congregations would applaud this kind of repentance, it’s also performative. In other words, the act of saying you shouldn’t be so judgmental is probably enough; whether you actually change your behavior is secondary, and possibly even optional.

But infidelity and divorce don’t make that list. Those things are a lot harder to forgive, and even more difficult to move past. Webb addresses this directly on “Stop Listening”:

we’re with you all the way
no matter what the cost
i mean unless you climb down from the cross
then we will pray for you
oh, we’ll peel back the roof
but in the end we’ll grieve a brother lost

In the aftermath of his divorce, it seems, Webb found himself on a treadmill of repentance, where no matter how hard he tried, he found himself in the same place (or losing ground) afterward.

As Fingers Crossed proceeds, the kinds of isolation and alienation Webb chronicles move beyond familial and relational, to spiritual. The disconnect he had felt in outward ways turns inward, climaxing on “Goodbye, For Now,” the closing song on the album:

so either you aren’t real
or i am just not chosen
maybe i’ll never know
either way, my heart is broken

Those lines hit me harder than anything else on Fingers Crossed, because while I’ve never been in a serious relationship, I spent a good portion of my college life wondering if God just wasn’t that in to me. (If you’re unfamiliar with Calvinist theology, the proposition that God hasn’t chosen you to be saved and there’s nothing you can do about it is completely tenable, even if it’s not necessarily that common.)

I’m honestly not sure why I haven’t gotten to the point Webb does at the end of Fingers Crossed, in which he says “goodbye, for now” to his faith, and probably many of his fans (if they hadn’t left already). There’s never been any kind of burning bush along my path, or even the kinds of friends who could pull me back to my feet when I wanted to lie down in the ash. Maybe I just haven’t hit a stumbling block too large to surmount, or too scandalous to forgive.

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