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About David Zahl

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


Author Archive
    Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad (and Him, Too)

    Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad (and Him, Too)

    You can’t time this stuff. At least, if you did, it wouldn’t pack half the punch.

    I’m referring to the release of The Rentals’ song “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” a few short weeks before Rolling Stone published a full-length profile of the man in question. We’ll take them one at a time.

    The Rentals, which at this point is really just the moniker for Matt Sharp (of early Weezer fame), haven’t released a record since 2014’s excellent Lost in Alphaville. Then, on October 5th, “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” appeared out of nowhere, a seven minute gospel pop opus…

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    From The New Yorker

    The Possibility of (Actual) Dialogue Between Atheists and Christians

    The Possibility of (Actual) Dialogue Between Atheists and Christians

    Hooray! The much-esteemed Francis Spufford has a new book out this month, a collection of essays entitled True Stories & Other Essays. Highly recommended for anyone interested in language and literature, to say nothing of thoughtful Christianity (or, curiously enough, the Arctic!). The earliest piece in the “Sacred” section takes the form of an open letter to atheists–not surprisingly perhaps, given that it was published in 2012, at the height of the New Atheist hubbub. The whole thing overflows with characteristic wit and eloquence, and despite the title, aims to move beyond categories of antagonism. Its stirring final paragraphs are…

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    Incurvatus in Se(x)

    Another quote from Mark Greif’s essay, “Afternoon of the Sex Children”, taken from the collection Against Everything. While he may put a few more eggs in the cultural agency basket than I would, the core observation, when considered alongside an incurvatus in se-/AA-derived estimation of human libido, can’t help but illuminate our moment. You have to ask, in other words, are today’s headlines the awful yet inevitable fallout of decades of rephrasing/selling sex as self-fulfillment? Or is the everything/nothing-ness of our sexual schizophrenia an expression of a deeper bind? You tell me. Ghastly either way:

    The reason it seems a sex of pure politeness and equal access does not work is that the constant preparation to imagine any and every other person as a sexual object (something our culture already encourages) proves to be ruthlessly egocentric and antisocial, making every other living body a tool of self-pleasure or gain. At times I wonder if we are witnessing a sexualization of the life process itself, in which all pleasure is canalized into the sexual, and the function of warm, living flesh in any form is to allow us access to autoerotism through the circuit of an other. This is echoed at the intellectual level in the discourse of “self-discovery.” The real underlying question of sexual encounter today may not be “What is he like in bed?” (heard often enough…) but “What am I like in bed?” (never spoken). That is to say, at the deepest level, one says: “Whom do I discover myself to be in sex?”–so that sex becomes the special province of self-discovery.

    Meanwhile, the more traditional way of de-emphasizing sex, by subordinating it to overwhelming romantic love, has diminished as an option as the focus on self-discovery has increasingly devitalized romantic love. Self-discovery puts a reflecting wall between the self and attention to the other, so that all energy supposedly exerted in fascination, attraction, and love just bounces back, even when it appears to go out as love for the other.

    Another Week Ends: Happy Misconceptions, Pietist Flavors, MLK's Debts, WeWork Cults, Pixel Artists, Misery Filters and Dylan's Gospel Years

    Another Week Ends: Happy Misconceptions, Pietist Flavors, MLK’s Debts, WeWork Cults, Pixel Artists, Misery Filters and Dylan’s Gospel Years

    Before I dive in, I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to everyone who made the DC event last weekend such a smash, especially the wonderful people at All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase and the super talented Meaghan Ritchey. It was everything we could have hoped for! The audio files should be up in the next few days. They’ll drop first on the Mockingcast feed, so be sure you’re subscribed (speaking of which, the program itself is coming back! More soon).

    Okay, a ton of strong material this week. At the top of the pile…

    1. “Happiness is Other People”…

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    November Playlist

    Not easy to find tracks that fit the quincentennial theme…

    The Hidden Link Between Martin Luther and… Peter Parker?

    Can’t say I was expecting the following (timely!) illustration to pop up in the Substitution chapter of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, ht RS:

    A substantive argument against the motif of atonement and substitution is that people in other cultures around the world do not see themselves in the categories we have been discussing–guilt, incapacity, bondage, shame, failure, defeat. Yet the more one hears this, the more the categories seem to pop up. Here is an example that originated in American comic-book culture and spread around the world. In a highbrow essay review of Spider-Man, the blockbuster movie of 2002, Geoffrey O’Brien, editor in chief of the Library of America, harks back to the original comic of 1962:

    The crucial plot point in the original episode was that Peter Parker’s initial burst of unwonted arrogance on receiving his spider powers led… to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. The notion of a moral lapse (his momentary hubris) that could never really be atoned for gave the comic book its air of perpetual dissatisfaction; being Spider-Man was… a perpetual reminder to the hero of his own shortcomings, a kind of penance. There was always the possibility that he would fail again, and so he was condemned to a vigilant monitoring of his own reactions and impulses. In such a situation an unqualified sense of triumph was by definition impossible. In its goofy way, The Amazing Spider-Man acknowledged the tragic sense of life.

    This remarkable paragraph from a secular journal incorporates much of what we have been trying to say all along. Moreover, it mirrors in an almost uncanny way the struggle of Martin Luther to monitor his behavior and his consequent discovery that an “unqualified sense of triumph” is “by definition impossible,” and can only be experienced through the victory of Christ…. In his reference to the “tragic sense of life,” O’Brien means to set the guilt of one individual into its context, that of ubiquitous human failure. In great novels of universal significance such as those of Joseph Conrad, the same dynamic is revealed. Conrad’s narrator Marlow tells stories showing that the guilt and shame of one man (Lord Jim) are made to stand for us all, and the guilt of the British Empire (Heart of Darkness) is drawn into the larger saga not only of the individual soul but also of cosmic entrapment in the infernal stream… of darkness.”

    If this be “Western,” make the most of it. (pg 491-92)

    What Happened After Mister Rogers Visited Koko the Gorilla

    What Happened After Mister Rogers Visited Koko the Gorilla

    A lot going on in this wonderfully upside-down excerpt from the profile of Mr Rogers that Esquire ran in 1998, the sort of thing that if it hadn’t actually happened, no one would believe it. A beautiful reminder that grace and law do not follow a linguistic formula, thank God, ht G&AP:

    Once upon a time, there was a boy who didn’t like himself very much. It was not his fault. He was born with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is something that happens to the brain. It means that you can think but sometimes can’t walk, or even talk….

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    Some Other Power At Work in Russell Brand’s Life (Inadvertently)

    Great little passage from the comedian’s far from (merely) comic new book Recovery:

    These are secular times. I just went to see a priest with my girlfriend to discuss getting married in his church and God wasn’t mentioned, as if doing so might cause embarrassment and I feel some of the same tension when writing. It’s not like the atheists have all the best tunes, though some people who I really admire are devout atheists, but it is the time we live in, the mechanical dome that umbrellas us from the eternal that causes me consternation. The unwillingness to open our hearts to the mystery. Even a sentence like ‘open our hearts to mystery’ makes me feel a bit queasy with its sincerity but nothing has given me a stronger sense of the great unknowable than listening to scientists, some spiritual, others not, confessing to the limitations of understanding being through material analysis.

    I (like the saints and sages and prophets on my earlier list of heavyweights [Augustine, Shakespeare, MLK, Ghandi, etc] that this time I’m too shy to repeat in case it seems that I’m trying to edge myself onto the inventory of greats, which I am) feel there is some other power at work here. I feel too that in my journey to freedom from active addiction, undertaken basically for selfish reasons, I have inadvertently been connected to this power. I also believe that anyone can do it. That is what is at the heart of this book, that addiction, however severe or mild, is a sincere attempt to address a real problem, the lack of fulfillment to which the material world cannot cater. Therefore the solution to this problem is a spiritual connection. This is not my idea. (pg 231)

    From The New Yorker

    Thomas Merton on Hate, Love, and Worth

    From New Seeds of Contemplation, emphasis in the original, ht MM:

    Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death.

    But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardon, and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor. (pgs 73-74)

    Another Week Ends: Vegas Silence, Branded Recovery, Facebook Likes, Robinson's Calvin, Authentic Pressures and Tom Petty

    Another Week Ends: Vegas Silence, Branded Recovery, Facebook Likes, Robinson’s Calvin, Authentic Pressures and Tom Petty

    1. First up, it’s not every day you come across the theology of the cross in The Washington Post, so you’ve got to hand it to Michael Gerson for taking the risk in his brief rumination on How We Should Pray After Las Vegas earlier this week. He writes:

    The Christian faith involves a whisper from beyond time that death, while horrible, is not final — that the affirmations of the creeds and the inscriptions on tombstones are not lies. And for many, this hope is a barrier against despair.

    Yet faith also encompasses something deeper and more difficult — what theologian…

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