Interviews


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.

Sisyphus Says: Listen to John Davis (An Interview)

Sisyphus Says: Listen to John Davis (An Interview)

Many thanks to Josh Encinias for arranging, carrying out, and writing up this interview with one of our all time favorites, John Davis. 

John Davis doesn’t just shred on guitar.

Last Wednesday was Christmas morning for true believers. John Davis (The Lees of Memory, Superdrag) dropped demos for his scrapped third LP. While the 20 demos on Heart Medicine: Hypothetical Solo Jamz Vol. III: 2007-2013 aren’t a cohesive bunch — ranging from gospel tunes to hardcore — Davis didn’t pick these tracks from the musical scrap heap.

I was introduced to JD when he opened for the OC Supertones’s “final” show back in 2005…

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From Issue Three: An Interview with Modern Love’s Daniel Jones

From Issue Three: An Interview with Modern Love’s Daniel Jones

Now that the Relationship Issue is out the door, we couldn’t wait to give a little sampling of the amazing conversation we had with NYT Modern Love Editor, Daniel Jones. The full interview can, of course, be read by ordering the magazine, here, but why stop there? A subscription sounds more like it! And, while the pocketbook’s out, check out Daniel Jones’ new book, Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject with the Help of 50,000 Strangers. You shan’t not be disappointed.

When the Grief Index Backfires

When the Grief Index Backfires

The church I attend is trying to reboot their “pastoral care ministry”, which is one of those amorphous seminary terms for something that could (and maybe should) mean more than it intends. Isn’t the job of a pastor to care? I got a little worried when I heard ours needed rebooting! I haven’t gone to seminary, but it doesn’t take long in a tour of church websites to see what is generally meant by pastoral care: hospital visits, home visits, prayer shawls, marriage counseling, baptisms, funerals. In other words, pastoral care has a lot to do with the church sharing…

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Issue 3 of The Mockingbird Out Now!

Issue 3 of The Mockingbird Out Now!

The Relationship Issue (No. 3) is here! Let it be known: you will not be disappointed. Interviews with Modern Love editor Daniel Jones, and the Oscar-winning team behind Undefeated. Essays on marriage, parenthood, relationships with bandmates, relationships with God. A short story from Welcome Wagoner Vito Aiuto, brand new poems by Brad Davis. We have spot illustrations by the famous Jess Rotter. It’s all a little hard to believe.

Find below the Table of Contents and Introduction. If you’re not subscribed, subscribe now!

CONTENTS

My Relationship with God Is Better than Ever by Will McDavid

The Confessional

James and Me: Dispatches from the Bottom by Jim O’Connor

The…

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Liv Ullmann on Something Better Than Violence

While we’re on the subject of social media, a highly unusual interview came across my desk this week, with Swedish actress-director Liv Ullmann, widely known for her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman. If at first it sounds like the rant of a septuagenarian, keep reading–would that we all could be so frank. It’s almost enough to make a person want to go rewatch Scenes from a Marriage (which is really saying something!):

Liv+Ullman+2012+IIFA+Awards+Day+2+1gzfVbxS37Il“What is this chatting? And then they Twitter, and I understand the Twitter can be so mean and horrible and people are killing themselves because of what they’re reading about themselves. A lot of evilness comes when you are anonymous.” It’s a false democracy, [Ullman] thinks, a veneer behind which powerful groups can slip in and assume power.

Maybe being famous means she can’t understand why others might want to be celebrities. It’s true, she can’t fathom it – why people would set their self-worth by such a measure. “We should tell them what is really to be cared for. It’s not because you’re suddenly famous, it’s really when you’re sitting one person to another and you are listening to each other and the other person is seeing you and then you have maybe a strange thought and you say it and suddenly see some understanding in the other person. Or you go to a movie and things you didn’t have words for are there. That is the communication I prefer.”

Ullmann apologises. She’s gone off topic, she says. Her eyes are gleaming. She’s made this screamingly mean movie [an adaptation of Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’, starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell] to try to show people how not to behave. People ought to feel bad more than they do, she says, to try to make amends. “If you have a row with your husband and you see them lying down trying to sleep and you see they’re so scared, instead of saying: ‘You have to change or I’ll leave’, you should say: ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’” When Jesus hung on the cross, he asked forgiveness of the brutes. There’s something that is better than violence. ‘Forgive me’, you should say, even if you have been wronged.”

Love in Creature Form

Love in Creature Form

This week, I had the privilege to interview the man responsible for one of our favorite sources of grace in practice, the Editor of the Modern Love column in the New York Times, Daniel Jones. In a ninety-minute conversation we talked about some of the favorite Modern Love columns, about the reasons couples fall in love and the reasons couples cheat, as well as some of his thoughts on online dating and the new delusions of control offered us in the tech-savvy and convenience-seeking age. (We will be publishing the interview in the next issue of The Mockingbird, which is…

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NBW on the God Hanging From the Cross

The first in a series of excerpts from our recent interview with preacher and author Nadia Bolz Weber. The full interview can be found in the new issue of The Mockingbird. Suffice it to say, this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

PT-and-NBWMBIRD: It seems like what you’re describing most churches doing is theology of glory, rather than theology of the cross. Can you describe what you feel the difference is, theologically?

NBW: Yeah, the theology of glory is a lot of times the God that we project and expect. Basically, God is just as fear-mongering and spiteful and violent as we are. And theologians of glory stand above the cross looking down on it, sort of condemning the world.

But theologians of the cross, we see God where we don’t expect it. It is not the God we’ve created in our image. It is this completely unexpected, almost disturbingly counter-intuitive, totally offensive inversion to what we call power. Right? So, that is disturbing. Ultimately, the only thing that can save us is a God we couldn’t just concoct ourselves—a bigger version of us. And this God is not standing over the cross in condemnation of the world but actually hanging from the cross.

I feel like the theology of the cross—this idea that God is most present in human suffering, and these places where we wouldn’t expect any self-respecting God to show up—is uniquely poised to speak to this generation right now… I think people are aware of their suffering. They are aware of the suffering of others, the trauma of modern life, knowing about every single natural disaster and school shootings. They are carrying that around, and I feel like theology of the cross has something to say to that in a way that super-duper, cheerful, positive, human-empowerment Christianity never can.

For more, click here to order or subscribe to The Mockingbird.

Another Week Ends: Evil Without, Fitness Within, Gilbert and Sullivan, Jesus and “My Wife”, Relentless Popes, Concessive Friends, Bad TV Fans and Worse Tinder Dates

Another Week Ends: Evil Without, Fitness Within, Gilbert and Sullivan, Jesus and “My Wife”, Relentless Popes, Concessive Friends, Bad TV Fans and Worse Tinder Dates

1. Sarah Palin this week let loose another of the brand of comments she’s known for – offensive or courageous or whatever, depending on your politics. The exact line was something along the lines of, “If I were in charge they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” It would be a mistake to blame Palin too much; it’s hard to win primaries as a moderate these days, right or left. The more sobering news comes from the world of Stats: reporting on Palin’s comments, The Dish noted the following:

[The best recent research] reveals that vast swathes of American Christianity are…

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Infidelity in the Age of Transparency? But Why?

Infidelity in the Age of Transparency? But Why?

Slate interviewed (the fascinating) therapist Esther Perel a couple weeks ago, the new age Dr. Ruth, the “sexual healer” of Mating in Captivity, about her most recent project, Affairs in the Age of Transparency. In this new research, she speaks solely to patients involved in extramarital affairs, the vast majority of whom describe themselves as “content” in their marriages. In being asked whether or not her patients are interested in leaving their marriages, the vast majority say ‘no.’ Why, then, the infidelity? Why do we cheat, when today we are asked to be more honest than ever about our lives—more…

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Another Week Ends: Walser’s Wounds, Diet Supremacists, Homeless Christ, Hart’s Lament, Flat Circus, Mad Men, Parenthood, and The Secret Sisters

Another Week Ends: Walser’s Wounds, Diet Supremacists, Homeless Christ, Hart’s Lament, Flat Circus, Mad Men, Parenthood, and The Secret Sisters

1. Much of value comes across one’s desk during Holy Week, and this year was no exception. But the sources are seldom the expected ones. What stopped me in my tracks this week was an interview The European conducted with prominent German intellectual Martin Walser on “Kafka, Faith and Atheism” (and Karl Barth), which was picked up by The Huffington Post in 2012. Don’t gloss over! Despite the somewhat confusing allusion to Martin Luther–a generous read of which would surmise he’s referring either to the -ism that followed the man, or the way the Reformer’s understanding of vocation was culturally…

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A Cure for Our Self-Knowledge: Why We’ll Always Want Our Milk in the Same Sippy Cup

A Cure for Our Self-Knowledge: Why We’ll Always Want Our Milk in the Same Sippy Cup

The Paris Review’s (stunning) most recent issue features interviews with quite the coupling: Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and our favorite psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips. Both men talk about the art of writing, Phillips using a lot of the dialectic idioms you seem him using on paper all the time. Things like, “Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge.” Or, “Analysis should be the need not to know yourself.”

That being said, Phillips covers a lot of ground, including his own childhood, the books that formed him, the initial interests that brought him to the analysands’ chair. But mainly the conversation covers the breadth…

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