Grace in Practice


PZ’s Podcast: Summer Rain

EPISODE 181: Summer Rain

It’s pathetic how little we know. And that’s not just some “secular” concession to the Uncertainty Principle. I’m talking about ourselves, about other people, and about what God is “up to” in our lives.

Not only do we not know a lot, but what we think we know is often wrong at root. At best it is partial.

I had an acute example of my colossal ignorance fall on my life recently — about ten days ago, in fact. Some old documents from college days dropped out of a book. They were primary sources about something that mattered to me. They revealed beyond a “Shadow of Doubt” (Alfred Hitchcock/Thornton Wilder) that I had mis-remembered something important, and mis-remembered it from stem to stern.

I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. (In fact I am typing this in a cave near Lake Tahoe. But you know that.) Yet I didn’t, and I won’t. Which is mainly because the 51st Psalm was also in that book. I’ve got a place to go, my knees for lack of a better term, with some damaging new info. If I didn’t have Psalm 51 (King James Version, please), well, then I really would die. I’m actually not expecting to.

This podcast is dedicated to Adrienne Parks Bowman.

Living By Grace (and According to Frankenstein) – Matthew Fenlon

Watch out, here comes another session from the Houston Conference:

Living by Grace (and According to Frankenstein) – Matthew Fenlon from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

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.

I Feel Like I Win When I Lose – David Zahl

The closing talk (pre-bagpipes!) from Houston. More videos on their way:

I Feel Like I Win When I Lose – David Zahl from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

For more about The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, go here.

Grace in Parenting: I Have No Advice – Sarah Condon

This one will have you in stitches (when you’re not tearing up). Enjoy:

Grace in Parenting: I Have No Advice – Sarah Condon from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

The Risk of Grace, Pt 1 – Tullian Tchividjian

Just in time for Thanksgiving, here’s Tullian’s first talk from Houston. The man does not shy away from vulnerability! PtL:

The Risk of Grace, part one – Tullian Tchividjian from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

p.s. She said yes.

Risky Business: Jesus Meets a Control Freak – RJ Heijmen

The second of our Fall Conference videos is here!

Risky Business: Jesus Meets a Control Freak – RJ Heijmen from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

Smoke and Mirrors and Romans 8

Smoke and Mirrors and Romans 8

This one comes to us from Emily Price:

I recently started working for my husband.

This may not be the wisest career or marriage move, but it was borne of necessity. My husband just opened his own law firm. Rather than hire an associate to help, he looked across the breakfast table to yours truly. So, I dusted five years worth of spit-up and Legos off my law degree and set to writing.

Working toward my first deadline, I grew anxious. Like any self-respecting sinner, I projected that anxiety onto someone I love. I started snapping at my husband over every little thing….

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The Good News of a High Risk God – Aaron Zimmerman

The first video from our Fall Conference in Houston is ready for blastoff! Enjoy:

The Good News of a High Risk God – Aaron Zimmerman from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

Once again, huge thank you goes out to Mark and David Babikow for making this happen.

PZ’s Podcast: Ere The Winter Storms and Metropolitan Life

PZ’s Podcast: Ere The Winter Storms and Metropolitan Life

Episode 179: Ere the Winter Storms

I wonder as I wander: How come people are changed so little by the roadblocks of life? Sure, they make short-term adaptations, and “take emergency measures” in order to survive. But lasting change? Change of heart, change of character?

A telling example of this comes in the Broadway play and later movie entitled “I Never Sang for My Father”. Robert Anderson wrote the play, and also the screenplay for the 1970 Hollywood version, which turned out to be extremely good — the word is “shattering”. “I Never Sang for my Father” concerns the relationship of a…

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Another Week Ends: Life in Psychiatric Records, Faith as Ambiguous Blessing, Evangelical Women, Relentlessly Positive Millennials, Flawed In-Laws, and Friends of Sinners

Another Week Ends: Life in Psychiatric Records, Faith as Ambiguous Blessing, Evangelical Women, Relentlessly Positive Millennials, Flawed In-Laws, and Friends of Sinners

1. If anyone thought that medical records couldn’t be riveting and deeply touching, you’re not alone. But George Scialabba, an acclaimed thinker, writer, and book reviewer, voluntarily posted his psychiatric medical history in the current issue of The Baffler. Apart from the courage and vulnerability  such a move shows, as well as the compassion for fellow sufferers which presumably undergirds his release, Scialabba’s post offers a curious mixture of elements as a reader: self-reproach for such intimate voyeurism combined with a feeling that you’re really seeing yourself; wonder at how far short even highly accomplished people can fall far short of…

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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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