About David Zahl

David Zahl is the director of Mockingbird Ministries and editor-in-chief of the Mockingbird blog. He and his wife Cate currently reside in Charlottesville, VA, with their two sons, Charlie and Cabell, where David also serves on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church.

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    The Best of the Year in Television 2014

    The Best of the Year in Television 2014

    Another phenomenal year on the small screen, and thankfully not one where we can come even close to being comprehensive. Series that’ve gotten raves that we’re waiting to binge on would be The Good Wife, The Americans, and You’re the Worst. Here’s our best shot at rounding up what we’ve watched this year. I had some serious help with this (ht McD, EKR, HE).

    Top Twelve Television Series of 2014

    12. Parenthood. The Bravermans didn’t make it terribly easy to keep watching this year–what with the Joel and Julia debacle–but even after four-plus years, the show can still bring the waterworks like…

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    The Office: Middle Earth

    As we brace ourselves for the final Hobbit film hitting screens this week, SNL produced a truly funny parody:

    For more along these lines, check out Stephen Colbert’s interview with Smaug.

    Come Down to the Manger and See the Little Stranger

    Come Down to the Manger and See the Little Stranger

    There’s one particularly ‘seasonal’ portion of A Mess of Help, and here it is (minus the copious footnotes). Longtime readers may recognize portions, but this is the published and much-expanded version, which comes in the book’s final chapter, track nine of “Sing Mockingbird Sing: The Alpha and Omega of Annotated Playlists”. Enjoy:

    I am quite proud of my office. It has taken a decade or two, but I finally feel like I’ve collected a suitable constellation of mementos to display. There’s the foldout from the ET: Picture Book record, which has Michael Jackson posing for what appears to be a school…

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    What Happened at the Debut of Handel’s Messiah

    Priceless anecdote from the beginning of The Smithsonian’s rundown of “The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah”, published in 2009, ht PNW:

    George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” in order to make “Room for more company.” Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.

    The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” So moved was the [Anglican clergyman] Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

    A Mockingbird Gift Guide (2014 Edition)

    A Mockingbird Gift Guide (2014 Edition)

    Last year’s gift guide was so popular that we’ve decided to make it an annual tradition. Apologies in advance for once again not straying too far from our books/movies/music wheelhouse.

    For Those About to Host a Christmas Party: A Very Love and Mercy Christmas by Sam Bush and Kathryn Caine

    For Your Friend Who Is Always Complaining About How Bad the Sermons Are at Their Church: Sermons of Grace by John Zahl

    For Anyone Looking to Spice Up Their Office or Bring Their Inner Child to Work: An assortment of Funko’s “Reaction Figures”. Recommendations include Chunk from The Goonies, Zoe from Firefly, Kane…

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    A Mess of Answers about A Mess of Help

    An exciting day for yours truly! My brand-new book A Mess of Help is finally available for order on Amazon (and Createspace, where Mbird keeps more of the revenue). To celebrate, we put together a little Q&A about the project below. There’s also an interview about the book over at Key Life, along with a sample chapter (MJ!). Help us spread the word!

    What is A Mess of Help and how did it come about?

    A Mess of HelpMoHwebcover is a book of essays that split the difference between music, memoir, and theology. I’d been encouraged to collect some of my writing, and when I looked back at seven-plus years of it on the site, the subject of music had inspired much of what I was most proud of. So almost all of the eighteen chapters (click here for the table of contents) started out as posts for Mockingbird in some form or another. I took those as the skeleton, and then spent that last year rewriting and expanding everything, doing my best to weave it all together like an album. The end result is more than twice as long as those original posts, roughly 80,000 words, and a whole lot more polished, thank God.

    When I reread it as a whole, a number of non-musical plumb-lines stuck out. This is a book about creativity and grace, identification and sympathy, law and pressure, hope, religion, self-sabotage, success, sin, as well as my own life and faith. Also, since most of the characters I deal with are pretty eccentric, a certain amount of humor was inescapable. I suspected it would be a fun project, and it was.

    What does the title mean?

    The title refers to one of my favorite Beach Boys songs, “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone”, which hopefully speaks for itself. The subtitle “From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll” refers to how many of the artists profiled in the book point to some sense of strength being found in weakness, of inspiration being bound up with suffering rather than apart from it. The more precise word would probably be “cruciform” but that’s too academic to go in the title.

    Will I enjoy A Mess of Help even if I don’t like music that much (or the music you write about)?

    That’s certainly my hope! The task of an essay is to make its subject interesting to those who might not be otherwise drawn to it, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. Again, I think if you appreciate the Mockingbird “voice”–the breadth, the perspective, the playfulness–you’ll enjoy this book greatly. Of course, it won’t hurt if you like some of the music already, but it’s not a prerequisite by any means. Here’s how I explain the focus in the introduction:

    “For better or worse, pop music became my way of making sense of both myself and the world around me… So perhaps it should come as no surprise that when Christianity took root in my life, I not only found its core message of grace so exciting and enlivening as to be compelled to write about it, but music would become one of the primary lenses through which I came to do so. Not just music but culture itself—high, low and in between (T. Van Zandt).”

    So it’s a book about Christianity and culture? Or a Christian approach to popular culture?

    the-beach-boys-you-need-a-mess-of-help-to-stand-alone-1972-7Not really. I hate to say it but that phrase “Christian approach” often implies an agenda, unspoken or unconscious, that culture is valuable only insofar as we can harness it in some way, or how it stacks up against the standards of our faith. But to quote someone I admire, I’m convinced that “any goodness, beauty, truthfulness, or enlivening candor we have the wit to discern is something for which we have God to thank.” That is, that it’s already been harnessed. So this isn’t a Christian “take” on secular music, at least as I see it. The artists I wrote about are the ones that have spoken and continue to speak to me rather than vice versa; I talk more about what I’ve learned from them than how their work filters through a pre-existing framework. That said, I gave myself plenty of room to explore, so who knows–“preacher brain” is not the easiest thing to shut off. Again from the introduction:

    “It wasn’t that I set out to write about the intersection of Christianity and culture; it was simply that music was the most honest language available to me—the lingua franca of my inner life, my immediate vocabulary for understanding what was happening to me. In fact, so immersed in it was I, that to avoid pop culture would have been to embrace precisely the kind of phoniness that permeates so much religious “engagement” with it these days.”

    Any parts you’re particularly proud of?

    I’m really happy with the whole thing, actually–mainly cause I had such a great editor in Will McDavid. But if you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked which sections I like best, the 15,000-word annotated playlist that closes the book (“Sing Mockingbird Sing”) is probably a favorite. It gave me an opportunity to be a bit outrageous, going on long tangents about ecclesiology and aging and failure and addiction, to name a few. The Michael Jackson essay was the most ambitious, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. The Beach Boys may be the funniest, with ABBA and Elvis tied for second.

    Can you decipher the cover for us?

    elvis-steves_RJ_33Sure. Stephanie Fishwick, who’s designed a number of our covers, really outdid herself with this one. All the elements of the crest allude to bands that are covered in the book. The surfboards and “woody” wagons refer to The Beach Boys. The “TCB” lightning bolt was the slogan and logo (“Takin’ care of business”) of Elvis Presley’s entourage, also known as the Memphis Mafia. Michael Jackson’s sequined glove occupies a central place. The surfboards are flanked by upside-down Hofner basses of the kind that Paul McCartney is known for. The dice are the “tumblin” variety, immortalized in song by The Rolling Stones. There’s some English mod regalia courtesy of The Who. The platform boots were added with Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and ABBA in mind. The guns and roses and big stars should be self-explanatory. And those flowers are gladioli, the kind that Morrissey would carry in his back pocket during the early years of The Smiths. Oh, the sunglasses are Phil Spector’s trademark. Finally, the (crowned) lamb of God presides over the whole affair with a banner that reads “Vobis Petrum Deus Dedit”, or “God gave you the Rock”, making a St Peter-Argent-KISS triple entendre.

    Why this book now?

    Well, as cliched as it may sound, it’s the book I most wanted to write because it’s the book I most wanted to read. I genuinely don’t think that something like A Mess of Help exists, something that combines music and theology and coming of age in a way that’s both honest and entertaining. My fear is that it’s overly niche—too much of a stretch for religious audiences and too theological for secular ones. But that’s out of my control. Plus, Mockingbird has put out quite a few books at this point, but almost none about pop culture–which is a tad ironic, since “pop culture” is a term that’s often used when people describe our work, even though I don’t see Mbird like that at all (which I spell out in the book). Still, it was time for that part of our scope to be represented in the publications, and the MoH direction was where the inspiration felt most genuine and free. The next one will likely be about social media, we shall see.

    Order your copy today on Amazon or Createspace! And by all means write a review if you feel so led.

    Another Week Ends: Secular Salvation Myths (and Martyrs), Two Joels, Gingerbread Genius, and more Chris Rock

    Another Week Ends: Secular Salvation Myths (and Martyrs), Two Joels, Gingerbread Genius, and more Chris Rock

    1. If there’s an overriding theme this week, it would have to be the increasingly unavoidable dogmatism which seems to be driving our social and political discourse at the moment. What Chris Rock noted in relation to resurgent ‘political correctness’ rings true: as awful as recent headlines have been–and here in Charlottesville, they have been pretty awful (if not altogether trustworthy)–one wonders whether the ideological fervor almost detracts from the events themselves, whipping us instead into righteous frenzy. I mean, anyone wanting a primer on heresy-hunting need only check Twitter these days. There’s enough apocalyptic jargon, demands for repentance, and assertions about salvation to make the…

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    A Quick Non Sequitur

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    Leszek Kolakowski on Inevitable Defeat and the Order of the Sacred

    Interesting piece by Jack Miles in the new issue of The Atlantic Monthly about “Why God Will Not Die”, worth reading in its entirety, though what struck me most was the quote he included from Polish thinker Leszek Kolakowski, from his essay “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture” (1973), ht AZ:

    Religion is man’s way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith. One can, of course, disperse one’s life over the contingencies of every day, but even then it is only a ceaseless and desperate desire to live, and finally a regret that one has not lived. One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if one accepts that there is sense beyond that which is inherent in human history—if, in other words, one accepts the order of the sacred.

    Another Week Ends: GiP, Skinny Law, Depressed Clowns, Motivational Luther, Hipster Businesses, Nickelback Hate, Father John Misty, and Penelope Fitzgerald

    Another Week Ends: GiP, Skinny Law, Depressed Clowns, Motivational Luther, Hipster Businesses, Nickelback Hate, Father John Misty, and Penelope Fitzgerald

    1. First, there’s Steve Hall’s remarkable podcast about one of our favorite books, Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. Thoughtful, heartfelt, and ingeniously brief, he manages to do the book justice–and capture something genuinely important–in a mere five and a half minutes:

    Those living in the tri-state area take note: Dr. Zahl will be presenting at Olmsted Salon in NYC this coming Monday evening, 11/24 at 7pm, on the topic of “An Odd Sighting of the Paranormal: ‘Penrod’ Crosses Over to the Great Beyond” Fans of The Magnificent Ambersons (those proto-Tenenbaums), both the Orson Welles film version and the original novel…

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    Lonely Ladies and Distracted Dudes: A Few Thoughts on Romantic (and Sexual) Illusion

    Lonely Ladies and Distracted Dudes: A Few Thoughts on Romantic (and Sexual) Illusion

    There’s a line toward the beginning of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona (above – 2:15 mark) where the protagonist, Ted Boynton, admits to having “a real romantic illusion problem”. He is frustrated that he seems to fall for women based almost exclusively on physical appearance, when what he really wants is “to see the real person, maybe even look into her eyes and see her soul.” He says these words with a completely straight face, and his cousin Fred responds incredulously. It’s a funny interchange, not the least because Ted sounds convinced that this phenomenon, of sexual attraction overwhelming better judgment, is peculiar to him…

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    The Hill and Wood Lets a Good Thing Grow

    With an icy breeze blowing through the East Coast, what say we warm up with a glimpse at the charming video for “Let a Good Thing Grow”, the main single off The Hill and Wood’s excellent, new Opener EP. Everyone is giving birth to something, indeed:

    LET A GOOD THING GROW from Charlotte Hornsby on Vimeo.

    The rest of the EP is just as breath-taking and exquisitely crafted, packed with beautiful harmonies and gorgeously unwinding melodies. Even after 100-plus listens, “Oil Spill” still gives goose bumps. And the second half of “The First Time” may be the most rapturous music these two have committed to tape (which is saying something).

    Full disclosure: The Hill and Wood is led by the ueber-talented Sam Bush, a name you may have seen on here before. Fortunately for us, Sam has also just recorded a side project with bluegrass singer Kathryn Caine, A Very Love and Mercy Christmas. I know it’s too early to bust out the carols, but when you do, this is our pick of the season.