Absurdity and Hope – A Review of Derek Webb’s “The End”

This article continues our review series on Derek Webb’s latest CD. Over the next two weeks, we will review and offer cultural analysis on every song from the “The Ringing Bell.” Previous posts from this series can be found under the category Derek Webb.

“The End” is the shortest song (1:24) from “The Ringing Bell.” However, its lyrical weight more than compensates for its brevity. Webb alludes to every theme in the album. Immediately he unsettles the hearer with contradictions and riddles. Consider the placement of “The End” as the first track of the CD. The Ringing Bell will violate your expectations. The Ringing Bell is telling a story. The story begins with “The End” and aims to expose the contradictions we all embrace in our fallen world.

The lyrics of “The End” move beyond symbolism. Webb’s use of riddle forces you to invent meaning. He wants you to think. You must participate in every song. You must create significance. The worldview implications of this are many. Vague lyrics force us to employ a postmodern hermeneutic. Yet, Webb remains committed to the meta-narrative of Christian theism. In this review, I will present what seems to me the most natural meaning. In seeking the intent of the author, I may be violating the real intent of the author.

here’s another story about the invisible knives
the elephant in the room trumpeting these lies

This song opens by exposing the enemies of unity and real peace. Criticism and prejudice are often invisible. They cut, they harm and they kill. Such weapons fill our absurd reality. They sever all bonds of peace. The unspoken truth is that we do not like others – much less love them. We can’t get along because we don’t want to get along – especially not with them. Webb displays our great Christian contradiction. We who preach, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” can’t even achieve unity among ourselves.

the slow hate, the hesitating voices in the dark
here’s another story about the invisible wives

Our enmity is not overt. Rather, our hearts simmer with prejudice, criticism, and a love of schism. We defend our disunity with labels, slander and hate. We are voices in the dark – speaking of things that we do not know. We are ignorant yet proud. We have doubts yet are dogmatic. I assume ‘invisible wives’ to mean believers who are alienated from cultural Christianity. These genuine followers of Christ do not fit with the Americanized Church. They are the ‘bride of Christ’ yet do not belong to our subculture. As such, they are alienated and dishonored by our insistence on conformity. Our cultural preferences have demolished all visions of a spiritual union in Christ.

we’ve really got to stop talking and meeting like this
there’s a better way coming and we both know what it is

When we gather with our Christianized ‘tribe’ our dialogues become narrow. We substitute gossip for cultural engagement. In our pride, we assume that others are less Christian than we are. Prejudice loves company. We prefer disunity as the easy way to peace. But such peace is cheap. Christian ethics demand more. “The Ringing Bell” is an exposition of Webb’s better way. To move toward real peace we must abandon our self-righteousness (#2), our fears (#3), our desire to prove ourselves right (#5), labels (#6), our desire for retribution (#8) and our political hopes (#9). We must look to the coming of Christ as the final solution (#10) to the absurdity of our world. These solutions are not new. Such themes are firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

but it’s a hard sell, the ringing bell and you’re licking your lips
we’ve really got to stop talking and thinking like kids

Even as we contemplate open dialogues, our hearts betray our real hope. I take ‘ringing bell’ as a reference to the ringing of church bells, which historically has commemorated the end of wars. Declaring an Armistice Day is a hard sell in our absurd world. While Webb is selling his vision of peace, we lust for war. We greedily consider the prospect of ‘fixing’ others. We see dialogue and unity as a way to impose our opinions. We are selfish children who fight and dissolve friendship over small matters. Our immature thinking cannot tolerate diversity. The absurdity of this world is ultimately our own making.

this is the end
this is the end
it’s just the end

These are words of resignation and frustration. Webb’s knows that his message will fail. Too often as Christians, we retreat to our own little tribes and settle for a cheap peace. Or we establish a rival culture and declare war on all outsiders. These things ought not to be. How can we find achieve real peace and unity? What hope remains for this stiff-necked people?

If my interpretations are on target – this short song has many valid concerns. But his choice of vague symbols has weakened his message. Or perhaps I have merely inserted what I wanted to think Derek Webb was saying.

So what do you think? Have I solved Webb’s riddles? Should we be more concerned with peace and unity among Christians?

Posted by Tony Kummer

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12 Responses to Absurdity and Hope – A Review of Derek Webb’s “The End”

  1. Ron Kinzel says:

    Great Post! I have yet to purchase my own copy, but from listening several times to the free web versions, I realize that I’ll have to spend some time with this album. From listening to it a few times, I really liked the pavlovian imagery of the bell ringing, eliciting the licking of lips. I think that it is apropos to our church culture, seeing that many of our reactionary responses, eventually becomed conditioned. I see this in churches and at seminary quite often. Ask someone about N.T. Wright and watch the conditioned response. Ring the bell and they come out swinging. Rightly or wrongly, I think that many of us react that way with the

  2. Ron Kinzel says:

    Sorry, shall I continue?

    …best of intentions and noblest of motives, but the conflict is inevitable when we train ourselves to be reactionary, rather than to first think more highly of others than ourselves or to first turn the cheek. We do know a better way but we choose our way. I don’t know if that’s what he’s shooting for, that’s what I’m getting. Like you, I think that his vagueness weakens his message in some ways, although I like being pushed as a listener. Again, thanks for the post. I’m looking foreward to the others. Congrats on the site as well.

    Ron

  3. Brandon Rogers says:

    I can’t say I’ve made progress in figuring out Webb’s puzzles. But I will agree that I enjoy being made to actually listen to the song and try and figure out the message (..yet too much obscurity in song-writing gives the author a sort of “monopoly” on the truth he’s trying to present. If there’s a message that needs to be heard, it need not be so shrouded that nobody can understand the objective intentions).

    Also, I appreciated Ron’s comment about Pavlovian imagery. I was not so clever in seeing that. I think he may be on to something with his description of automatic (or “conditioned”) Christian responses. If we hear the word “Christian” put in front of something, we consider it orthodox and safe. And in the same way – as Ron mentioned – we have automatic responses to certain names or titles without ever thinking about content or truth.

    I’m really enjoying these posts. Thanks so much for your efforts. Perhaps Webb will end up reading them and actually throw in his own comments to clarify!!

  4. Tony Kummer says:

    The angle on Pavlov fits very well. Thanks for contributing. I can see the point about prejudice being fed by our social conditioning. If that was Webb’s point – I agree. :)

    You can read about Pavlov’s ringing bell experiments here.

  5. Some of these concerns may ring true within the Seminary community, as I remember the sense of radical segregation there. I thought I would find such great fellowship from other Reforming students, but alas we simply found new ways to draw lines and establish “tribes”. Such is the cost of mass grouping so many embryonic theologues. However, in my experience, this is not so much the case in the outside world.

    Apply Webb’s ideas to the real world, and I’m not so sure about his intentions. What constitutes Christian unity in his mind? Is he an ecumenicist? Given his postmodern style, does he adequately understand the nature and importance of Truth itself? Here’s where such vague references break down.

    In the wildly diverse and metropolitan culture of South Florida where I minister, these concerns do not ring true unless he is calling for a radical ecumenical unity. Does he want me join in with the homosexual MCC church down the road just two miles away? Would he have me ignore concerns about the Episcopal priest down the street who preaches a gospel of inclusivism that doesn’t require faith in Christ for salvation? Who also denies the reality of Hell? Should we blunt that which distinguishes our church from these in the name of Christian unity? In the real world, this is the only way I understand Webb’s message to apply.

  6. Tony Kummer says:

    Great thoughts Klay. Being among real diversity of wordviews puts a different spin on unity and peace. I think you asked the right question – who does Webb want us to make peace with?

    I would add – how are we to love so called Christians who pervert and discredit the Gospel?

  7. Tory says:

    I really cannot get into this sharp post modern turn Webb is taking. As soon as you reach for it, its gone. Maybe its because I am intellectually dense, but I really find this kind of ambiguity nauseating, and not overtly helpful. I would venture so far as to say that the Ringing Bell doesn’t even make sense, the pop culture version of esotericism.

  8. Pingback: Repentance and Hope - Review & Interpretation of Derek Webb's

  9. Larry says:

    Thanks so much for an insightful review. A couple of notes on my take with some of the riddles:

    1. I think the reason the knives are invisible is because all our talk of peace is one-sided… I want peace as long as you (fill in the blank). All of our peace is conditional, if you want peace on different terms – my desire for peace quickly turns to war.

    2. I really liked the idea that the wives could mean the church – I had taken it to mean the invisible things we’ve married ourselves to and are, therefore, unwilling to let go of and all too willing to fight for (whether wrong or right) – I think that ties into the next concept of conditioning.

    3. The Ringing Bell is a Pavlovian comment (as others have pointed out) dealing directly with, again, our desire for peace being predicated on conditioned ideas… if you do anything that goes against those ideas, my preconditioning will turn my desire for peace into a desire for war.

    Just my 2 cents – enjoying this series.

  10. Tony Kummer says:

    The knives still puzzles me. I can see your point. Thanks for commenting.

  11. An entire review. 10 responses. And the word “abortion” doesn’t appear one time. Folks, that’s what this song is about. I’m sure other metaphors will arise, but that’s the subject where the song begins. Listen to it again from that perspective, and you’ll find the review transforms itself dramatically.

    Note: the sound you hear at the beginning of the song is an ultra-sound machine.

    Gabriel Peter

  12. Brother Hank says:

    Well Gabe, you definitely caught my attention. How’d you know about the ultra-sound machine?

    Brother Hanks last blog post..Living Dangerously…at Walgreens: What can our Purchases at a Pharmacy Tell us About our Theology?

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