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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 (christchurchcville.org).

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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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    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 postsecret.com 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