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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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Author Archive
    

    The Seculosity Creed

    Thank you to 1517 for the opportunity to put this bit of sub-Nicene ridiculousness together and then have 400 people recite it in unison…! I’ve made a couple tiny tweaks since then. Probably goes without saying but this was written in a spirit of play and confession, not superiority. A big shoutout to Ben Maddison for his help:

     

    When Tara Isabella Burton Ran Out of Magic

    A remarkable essay by Tara Isabella Burton appeared last week on Catapult entitled “I Spent Years Searching for Magic—I Found God Instead” in which the esteemed religion journalist (and novelist) charts how her lifelong fascination with magic led her to Christianity. She covers a lot of ground, and the sum is a conversion narrative par […]

    The Utter Strangeness of Christ’s Divinity

    Making my way through Tom Holland’s new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (or as it will be known in the US when it comes out later this month, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World), and it is chock-full of tasty anecdotes and asides, all written in prose far more sparkling than one expects to find in work of history, popular or no. We’ll no doubt be posting from it quite a bit in the coming months. Here’s a portion of the preface:

    The utter strangeness of [Jesus’ resurrection and ascension], for the vast majority of people in the Roman world, did not lie in the notion that a mortal might become divine. The border between the heavenly and the earthly was widely held to be permeable. In Egypt, the oldest of monarchies, kings had been objects of worship for unfathomable aeons. In Greece, stories were told of a ‘hero god’ by the name of Heracles, a muscle-bound monster-slayer who, after a lifetime of spectacular feats, had been swept up from the flames of his own pyre to join the immortals. Among the Romans, a similar tale was told of Romulus, the founder of their city.

    In the decades before the crucifixion of Jesus, the pace of such promotions into the ranks of the gods had begun to quicken. So vast had the scope of Roman power become that any man who succeeded in making himself its master was liable to seem less human than divine. The ascent into heaven of one of those, a warlord by the name of Julius Caesar, had been heralded by the blaze across the skies of a fiery-tailed star; that of a second, Caesar’s adopted son, who had won for himself the name of Augustus, by a spirit seen rising—just as Heracles had done—from a funeral pyre. Even sceptics who scorned the possibility that a fellow mortal might truly become a god were happy to concede its civic value. ‘For the human spirit that believes itself to be of divine origin will thereby be emboldened in the undertaking of mighty deeds, more energetic in accomplishing them, and by its freedom from care rendered more successful in carrying them out.’

    Divinity, then, was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself: to nail them to the rocks of a mountain, or to turn them into spiders, or to blind and crucify them after conquering the world. That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque. The ultimate offensiveness, though, was to one particular people: Jesus’ own. The Jews, unlike their rulers, did not believe that a man might become a god; they believed that there was only the one almighty, eternal deity. Creator of the heavens and the earth, he was worshiped by them as the Most High God, the Lord of Hosts, the Master of all the Earth. Empires were his to order; mountains to melt like wax. That such a god, of all gods, might have had a son, and that this son, suffering the fate of a slave, might have been tortured to death on a cross, were claims as stupefying as they were, to most Jews, repellent. No more shocking a reversal of their most devoutly held assumptions could possibly have been imagined. Not merely blasphemy, it was madness.

    Those looking for a bit more to whet their appetite should check out the interview Holland gave to The Church Times in the UK.

    Another Week Ends: Capital-F Forgiveness, Gracious Depravity, Performative Wellness, #GettingReal, Useless Value, and IDKHBTFM

    1. It’s not every week we get to witness such a stunning display of capital-F Forgiveness, so let’s savor this one. I’m referring to Brandt Jean’s overture to his brother’s killer, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger at her sentencing: As far as I can tell, the clip makes everyone cry when they first watch it, […]

    Not a Product of Narrative or Moral Cause-and-Effect

    This is too fabulous to bury in a weekender, the conversation between poet Kaveh Akbar and essayist (and 2019 Mbird Conference speaker!) Leslie Jamison, published last week on The Paris Review. The occasion for the interchange is the release of Jamison’s new collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn, which also contains a version of the essay she read at our conference. No, er, surprise but fresh language for our favorite subject abounds:

    AKBAR

    Can we begin by talking about grace? One of the things I’m most drawn to in the book, and in your work more broadly, is the steady orbit you make around the idea of grace. There’s a moment in one of the early essays in this collection where you crystallize it, writing: “The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved.” I have been grappling with this idea in my own life, the notion that if I’m capable of doling out grace only to those obviously deserving of it, it isn’t grace exactly. It’s kindness or it’s pity or it’s maybe even just propriety. What is grace to you? And what can it do?

    JAMISON

    Starting with grace is like diving into the deep end of the swimming pool—so much better than slowly lowering each inch of thigh down the steps in the shallow end. Or maybe it’s really like diving into the deep end of an infinity pool, where you come up to the edge and see that below is a more infinite body of water than the one you’re swimming in. Which is part of what grace means to me, you feel the world get larger around you, feel yourself get smaller within it. And the world can get large around you in so many ways. As a bespoke digital wonderland, as the infinite hall of mirrors of your prior lives, as a big blue whale large enough to swallow us all. All of these things—mythic whales, past lives, digital waterslides—can be sources of grace. The vending machine of grace is vast and it never gives you exactly what you asked for. And that means we have to pay attention, because we’re not always aware that grace has arrived. As you wrote, “I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received.”

    It makes me think of a beautiful sentiment I once heard from a stranger, Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with the problem. I think surprise is an important part of grace. You thought you wanted cookies, but you really needed seltzer. Grace isn’t the thing you planned, it’s what you get instead. Which is maybe connected to the ways you and I want to uncouple it from a sense of contingency or deserving it. It’s not a product of narrative or moral cause-and-effect. It catches you off guard…

    Surprise is sometimes my working definition of God. Or grace.

    October Playlist

    Click here to listen to (a smaller portion of the playlist than usual) on Spotify. Also, be sure to check out Jenny Anne Mannan’s terrific, Mbird-influenced(!) new record Carnies & Cowboys.

    What We’re Watching and Listening To: October Edition

    Kicking off a new monthly column, surveying various members of the Mockingbird community on what they’re watching and listening to. We start this month with recommendations from a couple of the ‘HQ’ staff: Ethan Richardson Chernobyl. In preparation for the Future Issue of our magazine, this one had been on my list for a while, […]

    On the Seculosity of Fandom, or How I Almost Got Beaten Up at a Guns N Roses Show

    If you don’t move, I’ll f&%*-ing make you move, he said. I was standing in a stadium, watching the reunited Guns N Roses perform. A dream I’d harbored for actual decades, finally realized. Our seats were decent but a few rows up a large-ish party hadn’t shown, so me and my friend did what serious […]

    Another Week Ends: American Simultaneity, Protestant Mercies, Melancholy Summers, Freedom Rock, Obvious Plants and more Daniel Johnston

    1. Let’s start by heading straight to the jugular this week with “The Age of American Despair” by Ross Douthat in the Times. There’s not a whole lot to say that we haven’t said before, but hot on the heels of the tragic headlines about pastor Jarrid Wilson, it felt irresponsible to lead with anything […]

    Daniel Johnston Has Taken Off His Worried Shoes (RIP)

    Saddened to hear the news of cult singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston’s death yesterday. Such a dear spirit and such a deep well of fractured beauty, Daniel gave us so much more than “True Love Will Find You in the End”–though that would have been enough. His songs don’t always seep in immediately but when they do, watch out. It’s hard to imagine a less contrived prayer than his “Lord Give Me Hope”:

    “I know that you’re there / And you are a friend / So Lord give me hope / For the road I walk upon / The road it is long / And I fear.” Damn.

    Those wanting more would do well to seek out the excellent documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. May he rest in peace.

    Why Tom Holland Was Wrong About Christianity

    Last week saw the UK release of the much-anticipated new volume by hotshot British historian and author Tom Holland (not that Tom Holland), Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It arrives officially on our shores in late October with a different subtitle, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. While we wait for our copy to arrive at Mbird HQ, one doubts we’ll get a better opportunity to revisit the remarkable column Holland penned for The New Statesman a couple years ago, “Why I Was Wrong About Christianity”. By way of context, at the time Holland was finishing publicity for his 2015 blockbuster, Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar. Get a load of this:

    The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable…

    “We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

    Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.

    Thou Shalt Think Like a Proton

    A follow-up to our recent discussion on The Mockingcast of the (non-)virtue of niceness, a couple paragraphs from Mariana Alessandri’s fabulous essay “Cheerfulness Cannot Be Compulsory, Whatever the T-Shirts Say” that appeared on Aeon recently:

    If you have to tell someone to be cheerful, they aren’t feeling it. Cheerfulness spontaneously felt and freely given is brilliant, but it is no more virtuous than acting courageously when one isn’t scared…

    Cheerfulness conceived as a virtue – à la Boy Scout Law – instead of a spontaneous feeling is a pretense. It’s not an action but it is an act. Whistling while you work might be worth defending, but forcing yourself to smile when you don’t feel like it amounts to lying to the people around you. ‘Fake it till you make it’ has brutal consequences when applied to the emotions. When conceived as the attempt to trick others into thinking that you feel cheery, cheerfulness is far from a virtue. It’s a vice. It falls on the deficiency end of the spectrum of trust. Too much trust is called naïveté, and is a vice of excess. But cheerfulness is just as bad. It confesses: I don’t trust you with my darkest feelings; I don’t think you are responsible enough to handle my inner life. Forced cheerfulness is a denial of life. All experiences taste different, and if we force a smile through the sour ones, we are not living honestly. We might want to lock out certain people from our fragile hearts, but cheerfulness is an equal-opportunity vice; it keeps even my loved ones out of reach. Whoever gets our cheery selves does not get our true selves.

    Cheerfulness also unwittingly cancels out the Christian virtue of faith. It says: you can’t handle the expression of my feelings, and I deny you the chance to prove me right. Since it is built on the certainty that others will disappoint, cheerfulness lacks faith. It denies possibility. In real life, others probably will disappoint us. If we show them what we are really feeling, they will probably screw it up. But given the emphasis on cheerfulness in the US, as etched into Boy Scout Law, it’s no wonder that they screw it up. Still, a botched attempt at compassion is better than being denied the chance to fail. Here’s an anti-cheerful but virtuous attitude: expect others to fail but give them the chance. Also, recognize when someone is giving you a chance to fail them. Vulnerability is a risk and a gift.

    I’m reminded of the extremely sad irony of who co-starred in the video for Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy”… ht RT:

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