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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

    The Secret History of the World

    Exciting news: one of our favorite writers, Tim Kreider, has a new book coming out on Valentine’s Day, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. (Word has it, he gives us a little hat-tip in there…!) For a refresher on why this is exciting, consider this timeless little passage from his essay, “The Creature Walks Among Us”:

    Whenever I overhear someone talking on a cell phone about an illicit affair or excruciating divorce, or read the anguished confessions on or the hopeless mash notes in the “missed connections” ads, it feels like a glimpse into the secret history of the world. It belies the consensual pretense that the main thing going on in this life is work and the making of money. I love it when passion rips open that dull nine-to-five facade and bares the writhing orgy of need underneath…

    My friend Lauren once told me that she could totally understand–which is not the same as sympathize with–those losers who kill their exes and/or their exes’ new lovers, that black, annihilating If-I-can’t-have-her-no-one-else-will impulse, because it’s so painful to know that the person you love is still out there in the world, living her life, going to work and laughing with friends and drinking margaritas. It’s a lesser hurt than grief, but, in a way, crueler–it’s more like being dead yourself, and having to watch life go on without you. I loved her for owning up to this. Not that Lauren or I–or you–would ever do any such thing ourselves.

    But I sometimes wonder whether the line between those of us who don’t do such things and the few who do is as impermeable as we like to think. Anytime I hear about another one of us gone berserk, shooting up his ex’s office or drowning her kids to free herself up for her Internet boyfriend, the question I always ask is not, like every other tongue-clicking pundit in the country, how could this have happened? but why doesn’t this happen every day? It makes me proud of all of us who are secretly going to pieces behind closed doors but still somehow keeping it together for the public, collaborating in the shaky ongoing effort of not letting civilization fall apart for one more day.

    Improve Thyself! On the Fantasy Person You're Failing to Become

    Improve Thyself! On the Fantasy Person You’re Failing to Become

    If you go to an American bookshop, by far the biggest section is self-help and improvement. The idea that life is refine-able and that you can learn a technique for anything, whether it’s love-making, being a businessman, marriage, cooking, losing weight, whatever it is. There’s a Tony Robbins way of doing it, there’s a things-they-didn’t-teach-you-at-Harvard way of doing it. There’s an unbelievable sense that life is improvable.

    These are the words of Stephen Fry, on his way to explaining the difference between British and American comedy (clue: Adam & Eve). While I’m not sure I buy his ultimate point, there’s no…

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    When the Diagnosis Is the Treatment

    We’re slowly but surely rolling out the list of confirmed speakers for this year’s NYC Conference (4/26-28) and somewhere very close to the top of the pile sits Alan Jacobs, a writer, teacher, and thinker who has been an invaluable influence on–and help to–our work these past couple years. Alan’s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds dropped this past Fall, i.e. not a moment too soon, and the book is as short as it is essential. (NY Times readers may remember it inspiring a particularly strong Brooks column back in October.) Here’s a small taste of the intro:

    Everyone today seems to have an RCO [Repugnant Cultural Other], and everyone’s RCO is on social media somewhere. We may be able to avoid listening to our RCO, but we can’t avoid the realization that he or she is there, shouting from two rooms away.

    This is a profoundly unhealthy situation. It’s unhealthy because it prevents us from recognizing others as our neighbors–even when they are quite literally our neighbors. If I’m consumed by this belief that that person over there is both Other and Repugnant, I may never discover that my favorite television program is also his favorite television program; that we like some of the same books, though not precisely for the same reasons; that we both know what it’s like to nurse a loved one through a long illness. All of which is to say that I may all too easily forget that political and social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience. The cold divisive logic of the RCO impoverishes us, all of us, and brings us closer to that primitive state that the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man.”…

    Once, years ago, I started having chest pains, and my doctors couldn’t isolate the problem: I exercised regularly, my heart seemed healthy, nothing was evidently wrong. But the pains kept coming back, and that scared me. Finally, one doctor asked some probing questions and discovered that I had had, before the pains began, a lingering heavy cough. It seemed that coughing had strained a muscle in my chest, and that was the source of the pain; and when I started worrying about it, the resulting anxiety tensed the muscle and increased the pain–which then led to more anxiety. It was the classic vicious circle of reinforcement. When I asked the doctor what treatment he thought best, he replied, “The diagnosis is the treatment. Now that you know you don’t have a life-threatening illness, you won’t worry so much, and less stress in your mind will mean less stress on your chest muscles. That’ll give them a chance to heal.”

    p.s. Click here to pre-register for the NYC Conference (4/26-28)!

    What Russell Brand Used to Think of as Happiness

    On the Mockingcast this past week, we talked a bit about our favorite books of 2017. For me, Russell Brand’s Recovery was right up there, in part because it’s so funny but mainly because it cuts through so much of the baloney (read: reactivity) surrounding the G-O-D question these days and grounds it in the reality of lived experience and desperation. Here are a few more cases in point:

    I have heard 12 Step support groups referred to as a cult and it could be argued that any group with a system of beliefs is a cult. In working a 12 Step program I don’t feel like I’ve joined a cult, but that I’ve been liberated from one. The cult that told me that I’m not enough, that I need to be famous to be of value, that I need to have money to live a worthwhile life, that I should affiliate, associate and identify on 
the basis of color and class, that my role in life is to consume, that 
I was to live in a darkness only occasionally lit up by billboards and screens, always framing the smiling face of someone trying to sell me something. Sell me phones and food and prejudice, low cost and low values, low-frequency thinking. We are in a cult by default. We just can’t see it because its boundaries lie beyond our horizons. (pg 67)

    When my last great romance combusted and I came fleeing from the inferno, looking for comfort and peace, it is to this community, assembled around the mutual wound, that I turned. Every time I reinvest in the material world as a potential source of happiness I am able to return to them when it fails. When religions talk of idolatry, I feel I know what they are saying; when I make something else,… my symbol of the divine, I get in trouble. If you take away the bombast, the sense that these edicts are being bellowed down from a purple cloud, ‘Don’t get too wrapped up in relationships or money’ sounds like the sort of thing a grandparent might say. I have an inclination to make these things my salvation. (pg 101)

    What I used to think of as happiness was merely distraction from the pain. (pg 218)

    How do you stop yourself from milking [a] situation for spiritual credit? Of course there is no such thing as spiritual credit, as soon as credit is sought you are in the domain of the ego. So even by writing about it the purity is compromised if not undone. How do you avoid making it about the result? You just do your best and let go of the outcome. It’s easy to become snared on each of these points. In the end, you just try your best. (pg 235)

    Another Year Begins: Gracious Mosques, Chaotic Normals, Blizzard Bingo, (Re-)Moralized Sex and Perfectionist Students

    Another Year Begins: Gracious Mosques, Chaotic Normals, Blizzard Bingo, (Re-)Moralized Sex and Perfectionist Students

    1. How about we kick off 2018 with a pair of fresh instances of grace? First, there’s the story of a Baltimore city councilwoman who has become a mentor to the two boys who carjacked her last year. Beautiful stuff. But merely a precursor to the story of “The Vandal and the Mosque”, which you can listen to here. The gist: in late 2016, a poor young man in Arkansas named Abraham Davis, along with a couple friends, deface a local mosque in the most ugly fashion imaginable. He is caught and convicted of a felony, which means community service…

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    January Playlist

    Can’t Stop the Signal: Enduring Hope for Divided Times

    Been waiting for the right opportunity to post a video of this talk, which I had the privilege of giving twice this past Fall. I actually prefer the San Diego one (from the Here We Still Stand conference – sorry, DC!), partly cause it’s a little more theological, partly cause the lighting was better–read into those signals what you will. But as I was ruminating on a possible ‘state of the union’-type New Years post, I realized it contained a good deal of what I’d want to say:

    p.s. As you’ll discover, you can hear but not see the clips I reference. The second one makes sense without the video (read a description), but the first one from Curb Your Enthusiasm is a lot funnier if you can see Larry’s face.

    Consuming 2017: Favorite Music, Media, Humor, and Books

    Consuming 2017: Favorite Music, Media, Humor, and Books

    Alrighty, my friends, it’s time for our annual round up of favorites, which I had way too much fun putting together. As always, these are predominantly personal picks, albeit ones with an eye toward Mocking-resonance. TV went live last week. (Click here to check out last year’s list). Here goes:


    Favorite Discoveries

    Jimmy Webb. This one counts as about 20 discoveries wrapped up into one. I had known the hits–“Galveston”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Macarthur Park”, who doesn’t?–but that was as far as it went. Talk about the tip of the iceberg! Webb’s is a gift that’s been giving for nigh on…

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    A Couple Seasonal Calvin and Hobbes

    To peruse our archive, click here.

    A Conspiracy of Hope and Light: Reviewing U2's Songs of Experience

    A Conspiracy of Hope and Light: Reviewing U2’s Songs of Experience

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of a U2 record that isn’t preceded by a lengthy prologue wrestling with the band’s stature, either in the culture at large or the reviewer’s upbringing or both. They’re the kind of band that provokes not just adulation and irritation but qualification, even from their most ardent fans. I guess when you court importance–and the record release as Event–as Bono and co have done so doggedly these past 30-ish years, you’re kind of setting yourself up for it. Whatever the case, people have baggage when it comes to U2.

    Earlier this year David…

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    A Mockingbird Gift Guide (2017 Edition)

    A Mockingbird Gift Guide (2017 Edition)

    That time again! Click here to check out last year’s guide. And to make sure all the gifts below look their best, we recommend using (w)rapping paper.

    For the grandmothers and grandmothers-at-heart in your life, or anyone you’d like to thank for being a friend: Golden Girls Clue board game. (“Who ate the last piece of cheesecake?”)

    For the high-energy first grader down the street whose parents are always hovering: My First Fire Gift Box. If you sense they’re an Anglo-Catholic in training, though, there’s always Wee Believers’ Mass Kit for Kids.

    For the foodie in your midst whose locavore commitments you suspect…

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    Another Week Ends: Justice and Revenge, Tiger's Comback, Fleming's Advent, 35 Year Old Thrillers, Avocado Toast, and Truly Terrible Movies

    Another Week Ends: Justice and Revenge, Tiger’s Comback, Fleming’s Advent, 35 Year Old Thrillers, Avocado Toast, and Truly Terrible Movies

    A bit of a truncated weekender today, as we recover from a flurry of activity here in Cville, most notably the relaunch of The Mockingcast and the sending of our year-end newsletter and appeal. If you’d like to find out more about what we’ve got planned for 2018 (#mbirdtwopointoh!) and how you can help, we’d love to put a copy in the mail to you. Just be sure we have you on our physical mailing list. And as a reminder, anyone who signs up for any amount of regular monthly giving receives an automatic subscription to The Mockingbird. We rely on…

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