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A Visit to Another World: Modern Fiction and Life After Death – A Conference Breakout Preview

Christians have long puzzled over whether literary fiction is of any use to the remnant of believers in the world. Of course, most of the Western canon is essentially Christian; you can’t get anywhere in a lit course without some basic familiarity with the Bible. But many of today’s stories seem postmodern, remaining thematically ambiguous and unresolved. Even so, stories remain one of our surest avenues for (something like) transcendence.

Good fiction describes the reality of everyday life—describes, in the words of Flannery O’Conner, “what is.” But for many Christians this seems too earthly a goal. Where have the symbolic references to Calvary gone? How long do we wait for this character’s redemption? Good stories are not always innocent or sentimental, nor necessarily redemptive. O’Connor, a Catholic herself, seemed just fine with this: “We lost our innocence in the Fall,” she writes plainly, “and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.” Oof!

During this breakout session, we’ll spend some time looking at the work of 3 contemporary writers—Denis Johnson, George Saunders, and Ottessa Moshfegh—who I haven’t been able to get out of my head this year. Their stories relate, sometimes brutally, sometimes humorously, “what is.” These writers are not Christians (actually one of them is), but they nevertheless “reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality” (O’Connor). These stories poke fun at the absurdity of our everyday reality and illuminate our desperate need for a life after life. My hope is that their words will help us put some fresh “skin on the bones” of the Christian message (in the words of John Zahl). It should be fun and maybe a little weird! Hope to see ya there.

Click here to register for the upcoming Mockingbird conference in NYC! And check out the incredible line-up of speakers here.

Inside the Bounds of Grace: The Not-So-Lovely Love Story of David and Michal

Inside the Bounds of Grace: The Not-So-Lovely Love Story of David and Michal

This piece was written by Stephanie Matthiessen.

I’m writing a novel about Michal, the first wife of David and the daughter of Saul. Don’t worry, no one else has heard of her either, unless maybe they’re from Israel. Someone recently asked me what the book is about and, instead of giving my usual, vague, I’d-rather-not-say answer, I actually told them. Spoiler: it’s about forgiveness. Unconditional forgiveness. I added the qualifier for fear one would assume it’s about personal atonement and self-improvement. It’s not. It’s not a self-help book in disguise. It’s a love story.

Michal and, of course, her much more famous…

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Everything Happens for a Reason ... And Other Lies I've Loved

Everything Happens for a Reason … And Other Lies I’ve Loved

My mom has a very useful phrase that, because she’s our mom, my siblings and I use to mock her mercilessly: “Gently but firmly.”

“Gently but firmly” works for closing the microwave door, breaking up with a bad boyfriend, and asking for a raise. It doesn’t work for everything — sometimes a person has to be more firm than gentle, or vice versa, but it works for a surprising number of situations. It works so well in Kate Bowler‘s new memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, a graduate…

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True Belonging and the Perils of Braving the Wilderness on Social Media

True Belonging and the Perils of Braving the Wilderness on Social Media

In the most recent On Being interview with Krista Tippett and Brené Brown, they discuss Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness and many of Brown’s concepts.  Early in their conversation, they talk about how we are made for connection. Brown says, “It’s partly because we are neuro-biologically hardwired for belonging and connection. We’re hardwired to want it, and need it so much, that the first thing we do is sacrifice ourselves and who we are to achieve it.”

Brown’s claims here align with my research on social media and my personal experience with social media. Many of us engage social media…

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A New Chapter

A New Chapter

One of the most memorable moments in all of Western literature is in Augustine’s Confessions. In 383, the future Bishop of Hippo was 29 years old, and not yet a baptized Christian. He was, however, a brilliant and earnest inquirer after truth, and Christianity was a young thing with many sharp competitors. Augustine had traveled from his birthplace in North Africa to Rome: the capital of its time and world, if not yet of gelato. He sought learning there in the schools of rhetoric, supported by his holy mother Monica, and working as a teacher to patrician Latin-speakers. In attitudes…

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"A Broth of False and True": Frederick Buechner's Godric

“A Broth of False and True”: Frederick Buechner’s Godric

My friend John and I are the sole members of an organization we call “The Nerd Book Club.” Once a month or so, we grab coffee and talk about books we’ve always wanted to read but lacked the self-discipline to finish on our own. Recently, we committed to read a novel that has been on my bookshelf for nearly two decades: “Godric,” by Frederick Buechner. After finishing it, I warmly recommend its perusal at any Mockingbird-sanctioned soirée.

Here’s why. The novel, loosely based on the historical account of a 12th-century Anglo-Saxon holy man, Godric of Finchale, narrates the story…

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Peace/Love/Elvis: The Death of Ambition, and Also of Denis Johnson

Peace/Love/Elvis: The Death of Ambition, and Also of Denis Johnson

It’s hard to say exactly when the plummet of Elvis Presley began. Some say in the late 60s, some say the early 70s. Some might say as early as 1958, when he was drafted into the Army. In any case, there’s no denying the devilish phase of physical and mental deterioration which carried him to his death, at age 42, in 1977. The last thing the King saw in this world was the cold tile, probably, of his bathroom wall.

During the height of his career, Elvis seemed a different man, if even a man he was. I need not say…

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Incomplete Math and the Paradox of Grace

Incomplete Math and the Paradox of Grace

Achilles: “Well, the best way I know to explain it is to quote the words of another old Zen master, Kyōgen. Kyōgen said: ‘Zen is like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and under the tree another person asks him: “Why did the Bodhidharma come to China from India?’ If the man in the tree does not answer, he fails; and if he does answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?”

Tortoise: “That’s clear; he should give up Zen,…

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On Anxiety Attacks and the Fiction of Scientific "Reality"

On Anxiety Attacks and the Fiction of Scientific “Reality”

This one, from our archives, remains every bit as relevant (and comforting!) as when Ethan wrote it in 2013.

A typical description of an anxiety attack or a panic attack goes something like this: a routine behavior suddenly and emphatically goes rogue. You are driving, you are eating an orange slice, taking a test, conversing at a party, and the moment becomes obstructed by an impossible–not just mental but also physical–and inimical weight. You suddenly feel you cannot breathe, that your chest is closing like one of those cavern doors in the Temple of Doom. Or maybe you feel like your…

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The Top Theology Books of 2017

The Top Theology Books of 2017

Were you given an Amazon or Barnes and Noble gift card, but don’t know what to spend it on? Or perhaps you’re a bibliophile like me and have an insatiable appetite for the latest and greatest theology books. In either case, I’ve got just the list for you: the top Mockingbird theology books from 2017. Click here to read last year’s list.

Books on St. Paul

Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology by Susan Grove Eastman

This is a fantastic book. According to Eastman, Paul believed that one’s identity is irreducibly social, determined by the influence of external powers—whether it be…

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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:

Music

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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The Very Persistent Pirate: A Thank You Note from Houston

Dear Mockingsupporters,

This isn’t a normal post. I’m not here to talk about the wonders of Martin Luther or to tell you that Advent could be more chill. I am writing to thank you.

Yesterday I visited our neighborhood school and talked with a room full of first graders about what it’s like to be a published author. This past fall, they worked for months writing and “publishing” their own books. The topics ranged from Pokémon to Cats to Jesus (“’cause it’s close to Christmas”). As St. Whitney profoundly sang, I do believe the children are our future.

I fielded questions about what it is like to be a published author. I wanted to share some of my favorites with you:

  1. Does your book have any explosions in it?
  2. Did you know that the Mockingbird is the state bird of Texas?
  3. I have a sister named Maddy.

Of course, in talking about being a published author, there was no way I could actually read from my own book. Not only is Churchy not public school safe, it’s not really “safe church” either. Besides, it didn’t seem like the place to offer the little girls a cautionary tale about the difficulties of being a mother and a priest.

Anyway.

When they asked me to spend some time with the kids I knew immediately the book I had to read: Mockingbird’s own The Very Persistent Pirate. It casts a picture of grace that is foreign to most of us in this frightening world. The Kid in the story keeps doing the wrong thing and the Pirate continues in his persistent generosity. They even have a party at the end. I needed to hear it more than the children did.

Plus, The Persistent Pirate has the word “booty” in it no less than 4 times. Which is a real riot when you are 7.

But these are not just any kids at any school. These are kids at a school in Houston. They are from neighborhoods that were hit particularly hard by Hurricane Harvey. Many of their houses flooded which meant that entire childhood libraries were lost. Many of you donated to make sure that every one of those first graders received their own copy of The Very Persistent Pirate. So thank you.

As one little girl exclaimed to me, “YOU MEAN WE GET TO TAKE IT HOME?!”

Yes. Yes you do.

Grateful,

Sarah