Grace in Practice


The Lame Shall Enter First: Grace and Weakness in Flannery O’Connor

Getting close to the end of our video rollout. This one comes from the incomparable Mr. McD:

The Lame Shall Enter First: Grace and Weakness in Flannery O’Connor – Will McDavid from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

Grace in Sports (and Practice): Jacob Jarvis and Ohio St. Football

In preparing a new series we’re offering at my church, I was reminded of this post from a few years ago about Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer. The man experienced a breakdown following his team’s loss to Alabama in 2009, enough to warrant him stepping away from coaching for a year. One recent interview indicated that indeed things have been going much better for him, personally, since coming back to coach at OSU. That he managed to win another National Championship on the other side of such a wake-up call, strikes me as fantastic news. Much better, at least, than hearing it was simply the product of a return to (old) form. His daughter even reports that they now speak on the phone “five times a day.” Which is to say, the support and connection to his family is apparently stronger than ever, and his work has not suffered for it. But best of all was discovering the video below, which displays just how much Urban’s new set of priorities have trickled over into the lives of his players and, especially, Jacob Jarvis and his younger brother. As Jacob wheels onto the field, holding hands with the players on the team, I couldn’t help but think: “Now that’s imputation, which is love.”

The Cost and Benefit of Forgiveness (Class)

The Cost and Benefit of Forgiveness (Class)

I remember a conversation some years ago where a friend was voicing her chief objection to Christianity. It had nothing to do with science, or politics, or even suffering (at least not explicitly). What she found offensive about the faith was the notion/assertion/accusation that one of our primary needs as human beings is for forgiveness. In her view, the Christian emphasis on forgiveness was part and parcel of a defeatist anthropology that undermined human dignity, perpetuating negative self-understandings that we would be better off without. Furthermore, it set people up as guilty by default, which, when it came to systemic…

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Mining Netflix: Performancism and The School of Rock

Mining Netflix: Performancism and The School of Rock

Did you watch the Golden Globes on Sunday? One of the biggest stories from this year was the accolades given to Boyhood, an epic-of-the-ordinary that took 12 years to film. We wrote about Boyhood back when it came out, and if you read that post you’ll get a sense of why its director, Richard Linklater, won top honors on Sunday. Oddly enough, though, as Linklater was bestowed his award, my twitter feed was not filled with applause for Boyhood, but for another project of his: 2003’s School of Rock.

Why in the world would School of Rock be so well remembered over a…

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“Excuse Me, Ma’am, But That’s TMI”: Four Favorite Moments of 2014

“Excuse Me, Ma’am, But That’s TMI”: Four Favorite Moments of 2014

With three young kids, one who’s a toddler, I don’t get out to the theater much. Being absolutely exhausted at the end of the day, I can barely finish a glass of wine let alone a good novel. I solely rely on Pandora for my music selection and Netflix for TV programming ideas, so I’m not quite “up-to-date” on what’s hot and what’s not in the entertainment industry. But, what I can give you as a year-in-review is, well, me. Before we get any further into January, what follows are some of the moments from this past year when I…

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Why I Spent Last Year Writing a Book About Pop Music

Why I Spent Last Year Writing a Book About Pop Music

Thought I’d kick off the new year with the introduction from A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll (minus the footnotes), something of a personal essay and one which spells out a bit of the thinking behind this whole Mockingbird project.

It was the kind of question that sticks with a person, especially when they’re seventeen. My father asked me one day, out of the blue, “What do you think matters more to people your age—music or movies? Which has more influence?” Even then, I knew enough not to speak for ‘people my age’. But my…

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New Year, Old Me

New Year, Old Me

Maybe its just me, but after the final Candlelight Christmas service is finished, the last relative has gone home, and all of the gifts have been unwrapped, there I find myself staring the New Year right in her shiny, best-intentioned face. I’m the Ebenezer Scrooge of New Years. I loathe the pressure to make a resolution. Phrases like “goals for the year” or “Paleo Diet” make me feel short of breath.

Its not that I don’t get on the New Year’s bandwagon with everyone else. As I write, we have three healthy cookbooks on their way to my house. I plan on reorganizing my 7-month-old daughter’s nursery…

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2014: A Year in Review

2014: A Year in Review

I once was a fan of New Year’s resolutions–made a list (also a huge fan of lists!) every year. Every year, that is, until grace invaded my life and wiped the sheen off all my self-improvement projects. Now I’m more accepting of my constant work-in-progress state of being and the hand-in-hand partnership between my submission and God’s plan.

But if I had considered such a list twelve months ago, it would have been brief and it would have gone like this: Make 2014 less sucky than 2013. This time last year, I was finishing up a 2013 that included a suspicious…

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Another Week Ends: Exotic Magi, Histories of Christmas, More Elves on Shelves, Rand Reviews Children’s Movies, and More Messes of Help

Another Week Ends: Exotic Magi, Histories of Christmas, More Elves on Shelves, Rand Reviews Children’s Movies, and More Messes of Help

Housekeeping thing: a few copies of A Mess of Help sent out had lots of 5s in their tables of contents. Let us know if you got one of those, and we’ll send a new one.

1. As we’re getting into the Christmas spirit, The Economist makes a surprising contribution with a survey of the Magi’s reception history. Apparently the men were likely astrologers/sages of some sort, but people found kings more appealing. In medieval times, some strange theologians talk about massive royal retinues encamped outside Bethlehem, etc. And in other strains of the tradition, they were bumbling traveler types, something in between the…

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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.