This is the first installment in a series of monthly-ish interviews between myself and various Mockingbird writers and members of the Mockingbird community. These posts will explore some aspects of each individual’s personal story and some aspects of Mockingbird’s larger story and ministry as we celebrate its 10th Anniversary.

First Mockingbird Board Meeting, 2007

Charlotte Donlon: What has surprised you most about Mockingbird since it was started ten years ago?

David Zahl: Well. I’m a little surprised it’s still here. When we started, our vision was (purposefully) rather vague. We had our theological convictions in mind, and a good deal of sincerity/energy, but we didn’t know how the logistics would work out–or if they would. So I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see the scope increase and a focus develop, the demographics expand and new projects continue to sprout up. Because there was no guarantee that interested people would come along with good ideas and the ability to carry them out. Yet that is exactly what has kept on happening. And I praise God for it. I’m so fortunate I get to be in the position to say “yes”.

What else? I’m surprised we have a print magazine. Wasn’t sure we’d be able to pull that off. I’m surprised we have a weekly podcast that features such a cool range of guests and sounds so professional. I’m surprised the website has gathered so many amazing voices and that new ones are joining us all the time. You can’t force that.

But if I had to give just one answer, I’d say I’m surprised I still have so much fun doing what I do. There have been moments of discouragement and static, but for the most part, I wake up in the morning and am excited about what I do. Given what most projects are like over the course of their lifetime, I don’t want to take that for granted.

CD: What do you regret most with regard to Mockingbird?

Lost bird

DZ: I have several regrets, actually. The first thing that springs to mind is that there are some relationships that haven’t gone how I would have planned or hoped. When I look back at people who used to contribute and are no longer around or people who have been disappointed for various reasons, that hits me. We’ve always tried to prioritize relationships over programs, and while you can’t please everyone, there are some interpersonal things I would do differently if given the chance.

I also regret the tone of (some of) the posts from our first few years. We were finding our voice. There was a measure of thinly veiled anger (some not-so-thinly veiled) about a variety of things, and I’m not sure the internet was the best place for that kind of venting. You can’t talk about grace in an overbearing way and have it come across. At least not with much oomph. Sadly, we still have that reputation with some folks. But today I’d say we talk as much if not more about what we’re for as what we’re against, and in the process are hopefully a bit better at treating people with dignity. I’m certainly not as worried as I once was about getting everything exactly “right”. That approach tends to stifle creativity and lead to fights.

CD: Not to write all of that off as a maturity issue, but was some of that just the nature of being ten years younger then? And maybe even needing more time with the Mockingbird message?

DZ: I hope so. I hope that as grace has infiltrated our hearts and lives, we’ve been able to give each other (i.e., our fellow humans and fellow Christians) a bit more space. Come to terms with the fact that it’s okay if we disagree sometimes and that we’re all works in progress. Sometimes that feels like a linear thing, sometimes not. Spirit’s work I suppose.

CD: I’ve heard you mention “high culture,” “low culture,” and “in-between culture.” In the last week or so, what are some examples of high, low, and in-between culture that you’ve engaged with and appreciate?

DZ: Well, “low culture” is easy. I watched the finale of Sherlock season four the other night (it was weirdly awful!). I also just finished Norm McDonald’s new book Based on a True Story, which is a completely fabricated memoir. I found it to be extremely funny. My wife and I binge-watched Search Party over new year’s. It’s a fun show about millennial paralysis. For “in-between culture”, I guess documentaries count: I loved Finders Keepers (2015) and hope to write about it soon. Anything writer-director Nicole Holofcener has had a hand in. We re-watched her Friends With Money the other day and it stands up. I’m seriously into Jimmy Webb’s solo records at the moment, which are a bit niche I guess.

Conference-final version

My engagement with high culture happens most when I’m reading for Mockingbird, or for my work at our church. I just read Mary Oliver’s new book of nature-centric essays, Upstream. She’s such a beautiful writer. She could write about the phone book. Christian Wiman has a new volume of poetry out that sounds super promising. I recently got my hands on the edition of W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being that includes the introduction by Alan Jacobs, who I think highly of. It’s fantastic. I also read comic books. My wife and I listen to a lot of podcasts. There’s just a bit. I could go on. I’m always consuming stuff.

CD: You’ve mentioned before that you connect more with music and the ongoing stories of musicians than you connect with movies that have endings. I have a 14-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. If I was to teach them about some musicians in some sort of hypothetical homeschool course, who would you recommend we study?

DZ: The biographies of classical musicians are absolutely fascinating, especially Beethoven, even though that’s an obvious answer. There’s some very dramatic and unusual stuff from his life, not just the deafness but his relationship with his nephew Karl. In pop music, Brain Wilson definitely. He has a child-like, unfiltered quality to him and an enormous capacity for both beauty and suffering. There are some deep wells with Brian and the whole Wilson clan. What you see is not really what you get. I find Michael Jackson to be about as interesting of a human being who has existed. Some parents may be hesitant to go there, but they’d be losing out on some great conversations about fame, race, talent, law, grace, etc. I would say Kate Bush is another fascinating figure, and I’ve learned a lot about her recently. She is someone who pioneered popular music in a creative way by incorporating high art conceptualism and ballet and German music. The Beatles, of course. There’s a lot there with regard to group dynamics, religion, craft, the ‘60s. Kids love The Beatles and their music. Same with The Beach Boys. Both of those bands made music that appeals to children, teenagers, and adults alike. That’s very hard to do.

CD: As we enter a new year, can you give some thought to what you want more of for your life and what you want less of for your life?

DZ with kids

DZ: Ha. I’d like to eat more healthily for sure. I had a physical last week, and we just finished the Food & Drink issue of the magazine, so that’s on my mind. But a bit more seriously, I’d say one of the biggest difficulties for me personally is being present—especially with my kids during these baby and toddler years. When I’m sitting with my five-month old and thinking about checking my email, that provokes deep sadness in me. What else? I should probably have more male friends my age. My wife seems to have more friends than ever before, and I seem to have less. For whatever reason fatherhood doesn’t seem to be the commiserating bonding thing between men that motherhood is between women. Of course I’d like to exercise more, be on my devices less. I’d like to travel for pleasure, which will actually happen this summer during my sabbatical.

CD: What are you going to do during your sabbatical?

DZ: The hope is to spend some time genuinely “off the grid”—say a prayer that I’ll actually be able to do so. I’m looking forward to working with my hands and doing projects around the house and some gardening. Exercise. Reading a bunch of books—and not writing about them! We’re also going as a whole family on a long-ish trip to England, Denmark, and Italy.

CD: Do you have any regular rhythms or rituals that help you feel more connected to God?

DZ: I’d say church on Sunday has become an oasis for me spiritually in a way that might be difficult for some people who work at a church. When you go four times on a Sunday, like I often have to do for my job, it sounds arduous but I’ve found it can be really nourishing. The passivity runs counter to my nature and helps me a lot. I pray and rest and receive and feel engaged in the liturgy. I sing from my heart. I listen to the messages without sifting through them. Truth is, I miss church when I’m gone. I miss that vertical connection that I have with God on Sundays.