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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
    Crying ABBA: An (Over-)Annotated Introduction to the Second-Best Selling Group of All Time

    Crying ABBA: An (Over-)Annotated Introduction to the Second-Best Selling Group of All Time

    Inspired by Ben Self’s wonderful Bruce Cockburn playlist the other day (pts 2-3 coming soon!), here’s what I’ve affectionately been informed is “the toughest sell” in A Mess of Help. No apologies:

    The Church of Wilson has drawn scores of worshippers over the years, including a disproportionate number of musicians. Those who are interested in the craft of pop music—writing, production, arrangement—invariably find themselves in The Beach Boys’ tractor beam sooner or later. There has been no more successful Wilsonite than Benny Andersson of 70s Swedish megastars ABBA. The influence is writ large on every one of their records, even their…

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    March Playlist

    I think I speak for everyone who was in Tyler when I say, do yourself a favor and check out some Josh White! I’ve had Pilgrim on repeat since we got back…

    Grace in the Age of Fentanyl

    Grace in the Age of Fentanyl

    “[Karl] Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses, but these days opiates are the opiates of the masses.”

    That’s the first variation of this observation I came across last week, via Tim Kreider’s new I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. The second run-in occurred a couple days later, toward the middle of Andrew Sullivan’s mammoth “The Poison You Pick” essay in New York Magazine. He writes:

    “If Marx posited that religion is the opiate of the people, then we have reached a new, more clarifying moment in the history of the West: Opiates are now the religion of…

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    'S' Is For 'Swaddle': On Baby Anxiety and New Parents

    ‘S’ Is For ‘Swaddle’: On Baby Anxiety and New Parents

    There we were, him holding his newborn son and me with my 1.5-year-old clinging to my legs. We were talking, as men do these days, about baby books, and I was trying to remember the last two of the “Five S’s”. I had “Swing,” “Swaddle” and “Shush,” but couldn’t for the life of me remember the others. (Note: “Side” and “Suck”).

    It’s not as though I lacked experience. My wife and I are currently cruising through month 90 of uninterrupted “diaper life”; babies have been our M.O. for what feels like forever. I should’ve had the lingo down cold. My friend…

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    The Gift of Fork and Knife Earrings (from Ruth and Billy Graham, RIP)

    Sad but also not-sad to hear of Billy Graham’s death this morning – if ever there was someone who had “the sting” in perspective… Feels like the right time to post this wonderful anecdote from his grandson Tullian Tchividjian’s One Way Love:

    One-way love is often what distinguishes a warm household from a cold one. Children often move across the country to get away from a toxic home life where two-way conditionality has come to rule the roost via the judgments of parents and other siblings. A house full of conditions feels like a prison. Rules are one thing—take out the trash; don’t hit your brother. They govern the day-to-day and protect us from one another. Conditions are different and more emotional in nature. “If you really loved us, then you wouldn’t spend so much time with those people.” “We will approve of whatever career choice you make, provided it’s between medicine, law, and business.” “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Even small differences between family members can be the source of tremendous friction. Yet grace has the power to bind generations together.

    I am fortunate to have experienced the power of one-way love not just from my parents but my grandparents as well. In fact, whenever people learn that I was kicked out of the house at sixteen, they invariably ask how my grandparents responded. What they usually mean is “How did Billy and Ruth Graham respond to actual sin in their midst?” People looked up to them, not just as spiritual leaders, but as role models for how to raise godly children and grandchildren. “Weren’t you shaming the family name?” The truth is, my grandparents never said a single word to me about getting my act together. They never pulled me aside at a family gathering and told me about how I needed to submit myself to Jesus, etc. Never. Only God knows what they were thinking or feeling, but I never picked up on a shred of judgment from them. They treated me exactly the opposite as how I deserved to be treated.

    For example, I wore earrings back in those days. One in the left, and one in the right. It used to drive my parents nuts. Every time my grandmother—Ruth Graham—came down to visit, she would bring me a fresh set of earrings to wear! They were always funny. At Christmastime, she would bring me ornament earrings and make me put them in and take a picture. At Thanksgiving, she brought fork and knife earrings, and she took a picture. She made light of it. She wasn’t making fun of me. She was saying, “This isn’t that big of a deal. He’s going to grow out of it.” It may sound pretty trivial, but it meant the world to me. Everyone else was on my case, and instead of giving me one more thing to rebel against, my grandparents drew me in closer. (pg 151-52)

    See also: Carrie’s post about The Crown from last week. And this momentous meeting of the minds in 1968. And bubblegum maestro Tommy James’ jaw-dropping testimony about the man’s influence on his hit “Sweet Cherry Wine.”

    Another Week Ends: Rebecca's Reformation, Mr Rogers' Pneumatology, Male Shame, New Love Languages, and Lenten Fasting Biohacks

    Another Week Ends: Rebecca’s Reformation, Mr Rogers’ Pneumatology, Male Shame, New Love Languages, and Lenten Fasting Biohacks

    Before we dive in, a quick reminder that next Friday and Saturday (2/23-24) we’ll be in Tyler, Texas for our fourth annual conference there! Speakers include John Zahl, John Newton, Charlotte Getz, Aaron Zimmerman, yours truly, and a bunch of others. Would love to see you – just be sure to register beforehand.

    1. To begin, we couldn’t ask for a more wondrous February dispatch than Dante Stewart’s re-telling in Christianity Today of early African-American Christianity and “The Black Reformation of 1736”. At the heart of the piece lies the key question of why (and how) an enslaved population would not…

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    The Immensely Disconcerting Truth About Our Adversaries

    I honestly cannot say enough good things about Alan Jacobs’ How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. And that’s not just cause he’s speaking for us in NYC this year (though that doesn’t hurt). He’s put together something that’s both simple and hopeful, gently prescriptive in a way that’s more matter-of-fact than guilt-inducing, grounded in humility and refreshingly non-rationalistic (despite what the title may imply). Indeed, this short book–really a guide to uncovering the ideological blindspots and biases that’ve allowed us to turn our neighbor into an “other”–oozes compassion for our fractured culture and selves. It has helped me immensely, and continues to do so. If I had to pick a favorite chapter, it would probably be the one on “Repulsions,” from which the following paragraphs are taken. Quick note is that Jacobs is riffing here on Roger Scruton’s understanding of “unscrupulous optimism” AKA the core belief, either stated or un-, that “the difficulties and disorders of humankind can be overcome by some large-scale adjustment”:

    When you believe that the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest it in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia. (An “adversary” is literally one who has turned against you, one who blocks your path.) Whole classes of people can by this logic become expendable–indeed, it can become the optimist’s perceived duty to eliminate adversaries. As a nineteenth-century pope notoriously commented, “Error has not rights.” Caught up by the momentum of his or her cause, the Optimist can easily forget the vital addendum to the papal statement made by Orestes Brownson: “Error has no rights, but the man who errs has equal rights with him who errs not.”

    Over the years, I’ve had to acknowledge that some of the people whose views on education appall me are more devoted to their students than I am to mine; and that some of the people whose theological positions strike me as immensely damaging to the health of the church are nevertheless more prayerful and charitable, more Christlike, than I will ever be. This is immensely disconcerting, even when it doesn’t mean that those people are right about those matters we disagree on. Being around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid; and that alone is reason to seek every means possible to constrain the energies of animus.

    Pity, Compassion, and the Emotional Prison Where She Kept Her Parents

    Pity, Compassion, and the Emotional Prison Where She Kept Her Parents

    To be loved is to be known, the saying goes. Or as Tim Kreider memorably puts it, “if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” This is what we believe makes God’s love so miraculous, so fundamentally gracious.

    Of course, when it comes to other human beings, this kind of thing is risky business. Because getting to know someone in all their unkempt reality, i.e., beyond the surface facsimile, often provokes a feeling opposite to love. The problem comes when we think we know someone fully but don’t, as is…

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    From The Onion: Neurologists Find Brain Still Shows Signs Of Self-Criticism Minutes After Death

    America’s Favorite News Source delivers once again! Click here to read the whole thing:

    PASADENA, CA—“Using the latest neuroimaging techniques, we have been able to confirm that the brain can still produce thoughts about being worthless and unlovable even when the body is clinically dead,” Professor Ellen Garoza [of CalTech] said Wednesday, noting that up to four minutes after death, scientists have observed neural activity in the parts of the limbic system where phenomena such as low confidence, inner ridicule, and crippling doubt are believed to originate. “Research is still in its early stages, but it’s possible that after you die, you can actually berate yourself for not having accomplished more while alive, and feel guilty for making anyone dumb enough to care about you feel sad.” The researchers emphasized, however, that they had not yet determined if brains in heads severed from their bodies could momentarily reflect upon how stupid and embarrassing their torsos must look.

    February Playlist

    Shadows of the Brothers Gibb hang heavy over this one, as well they should. Also, RIP Mark E Smith:

    Truly Beyond Deserving: Remembering Dorothy Martyn

    Truly Beyond Deserving: Remembering Dorothy Martyn

    This past weekend I learned that the pillar of grace known as Dr. Dorothy Martyn died after suffering a stroke at her home in North Carolina. An accomplished child psychologist (of the Freudian persuasion), Dorothy possessed a rare gift for helping the sufferers of the world, and I include myself in that number. We talk a lot about “grace in practice” on here. Dorothy Martyn was grace in practice. To me at least.

    Every other week for about five years, I would drive out to the home she shared with her husband, Pauline scholar Louis Martyn, in Bethany, CT, where she…

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    Another Week Ends: Denhollander's Statement, Frozen Miracles, Norwich Parents, Le Guin's (Anti-)Maturismo, and Billboard Controversies

    Another Week Ends: Denhollander’s Statement, Frozen Miracles, Norwich Parents, Le Guin’s (Anti-)Maturismo, and Billboard Controversies

    1. First off, we cannot dodge–and wouldn’t want to–the story that’s dominated the media these past few days, however stomach-turning it may be. I’m referring to the trial of Larry Nassar, the doctor convicted of abusing female gymnasts. You hear a lot these days about “the prophetic voice,” whether it be that of church leaders or late-night TV hosts or actors on the red carpet, and it’s a fuzzy concept–at best a way of baptizing unpopular but necessary truths with religious significance, at worst a megaphone of rationalized unforgiveness. Definitely a case where overuse breeds cynicism. Then you hear the…

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