Music, Truth, and David Zahl’s A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll

Last week I was revising an essay that’s in my thesis for my MFA in […]

Charlotte Donlon / 12.6.17

Last week I was revising an essay that’s in my thesis for my MFA in creative writing. It’s about music and memory, and I write about how music roots us to past, present, and future versions of ourselves. While I was revising that piece, my soon-to-be-15-year-old daughter asked me to review one of her essays. It was also about music and memory. It was about other things, too (essays are usually about other things besides the obvious things), but it was a sort of exploration of different seasons of her life and music was the vehicle that carried me through each time period as I read. We are drawn to music (and writing about music) because we find truth in music.

David Zahl’s A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll is a capsule of various truths arrived via a great mix of personal narrative and music history with some annotated playlists thrown in for those who want to connect even more with the musicians and Zahl’s ideas. Zahl also finds truth in music. And since all truth is Christian truth, he finds the truths of the Gospel in music while unraveling the tight cord of the Law to unleash the beauty of grace.

Zahl starts A Mess of Help with three essays full of heavy-hitters: Nirvana, The Beatles, and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. In these chapters, Zahl writes about seasons he associates with these groups, how their music and stories have stayed with him throughout his life, and how specific strands illustrate the dynamics at play between the Law and the Gospel.

In the chapter on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, Zahl responds to a quote by Wilson about his writing and recording the song “God Only Knows” and the links between spirituality and love. Zahl writes:

The truism that vulnerability is the birthplace of connection echoes the theology of the cross. It contradicts human intuition that our most impressive accomplishments and proudest attributes are what will win us the admiration of others (and of God). It affirms the reality that to love someone truly is to love them at their worst, not merely at their best. As Tim Kreider once memorably observed in The New York Times, “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” Meaning, we can know someone and not love them, but we cannot love someone if we do not know them: to know someone fully is to know them in their weakness and shame.

Zahl drops these insightful responses to music and musicians throughout the book. He listens to the music, he listens to his life and to the lives of those around him, and he replies to all of the music and stories with winsome wisdom.

Another one of my favorite chapters from A Mess of Help is “What About Michael Jackson?”

After examining some of Michael Jackson’s career and life experiences, Zahl again shines a light into his readers’ souls while simultaneously shining a spotlight on Jackson. He writes:

Again, Michael’s complicated relationship with judgment is not dissimilar to our own. Our circumstances may not approach Jackson-ite extremes, thank God, but all of us live under some form of perceived judgment. I know I do. The standard we are suffering under may not be that of platinum record sales or global reputation. It may be parental or spousal approval. Perhaps we are hoping for mercy from the job market or dating scene or the social register. Perhaps we see downward mobility as a fate worse than death. Whatever the venue—petty or not—who couldn’t use a little relief? From ourselves, if not others, to say nothing of a Creator whose “property is always to have mercy.” Thank God.

The burden of being Michael Jackson is something no one should ever have to bear. That he would crack up under that kind of pressure is not wacko in the slightest. It may be a small mercy that his talk did not abandon him during his struggles, but it is a mercy nonetheless—and in a life that contained far too little of it, “no message should have been any clearer.”

Throughout A Mess of Help, Zahl points out our shared humanity. He says pop stars are like the rest of us—we all experience the tragedy of human life and hold space for redemption that can enhance and broaden our faith. And he invites us to explore our shared humanity in deeper ways via music and its makers “to laugh and to cry and to play and be wowed and moved.”