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Posts tagged "A Mockingbird Publication"

Mockingbird at the Movies: Intro (and Final Edition)

As this year’s Oscar buzz revs up, be sure to take a look at our latest publication, Mockingbird at the Movies, an anthology of film essays collected from many of Mockingbird’s contributing writers. Last week, we quietly released the fully-polished final edition, which consists of a few less typos but all of the same thought-provoking, Gospel-centered content. See the full […]

Now Available! Mockingbird at the Movies

Thrilled to announce our latest publication, Mockingbird at the Movies, just in time for a certain holiday. It’s a collection of over 40 essays about some of our favorite films, from all over the cinematic map. Edited by CJ Green with David Peterson, half the entries are brand-new, half appeared in some form on this site–and have […]

Law & Gospel: News from Across the Sea

The following is excerpted from Mockingbird’s newest resource, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), which is available here. This comes from the beginning of the Gospel section: ‘News’ expresses something different from ‘knowledge.’ We live in a time of unprecedented knowledge: a day’s worth of new data now would, in terms of […]

Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel: A Brief Guide

This handy guide comes from the first appendix to our newest book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), coauthored by Will McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl. Hope you enjoy:

The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
–Martin Luther

Mbird LAW AND GOSPEL Cover options4A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines. This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:

1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.

2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.

3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.

4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.

5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.

7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:

Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)

If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.

Grab your copy of L&G today!

Law and Gospel on Kindle (and YouTube)

Good news! Our new book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) is now available on Kindle. We’re also excited to debut a little promotional video we made for the project (thank you Mark Babikow!) and invite you to share it as you see fit. Oh, and let’s not forget: those Amazon reviews aren’t going to write themselves.

A Mess of Answers about A Mess of Help

An exciting day for yours truly! My brand-new book A Mess of Help is finally available for order on Amazon (and Createspace, where Mbird keeps more of the revenue). To celebrate, we put together a little Q&A about the project below. There’s also an interview about the book over at Key Life, along with a sample chapter (MJ!). Help us spread the word!

What is A Mess of Help and how did it come about?

A Mess of HelpMoHwebcover is a book of essays that split the difference between music, memoir, and theology. I’d been encouraged to collect some of my writing, and when I looked back at seven-plus years of it on the site, the subject of music had inspired much of what I was most proud of. So almost all of the eighteen chapters (click here for the table of contents) started out as posts for Mockingbird in some form or another. I took those as the skeleton, and then spent that last year rewriting and expanding everything, doing my best to weave it all together like an album. The end result is more than twice as long as those original posts, roughly 80,000 words, and a whole lot more polished, thank God.

When I reread it as a whole, a number of non-musical plumb-lines stuck out. This is a book about creativity and grace, identification and sympathy, law and pressure, hope, religion, self-sabotage, success, sin, as well as my own life and faith. Also, since most of the characters I deal with are pretty eccentric, a certain amount of humor was inescapable. I suspected it would be a fun project, and it was.

What does the title mean?

The title refers to one of my favorite Beach Boys songs, “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone”, which hopefully speaks for itself. The subtitle “From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll” refers to how many of the artists profiled in the book point to some sense of strength being found in weakness, of inspiration being bound up with suffering rather than apart from it. The more precise word would probably be “cruciform” but that’s too academic to go in the title.

Will I enjoy A Mess of Help even if I don’t like music that much (or the music you write about)?

That’s certainly my hope! The task of an essay is to make its subject interesting to those who might not be otherwise drawn to it, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. Again, I think if you appreciate the Mockingbird “voice”–the breadth, the perspective, the playfulness–you’ll enjoy this book greatly. Of course, it won’t hurt if you like some of the music already, but it’s not a prerequisite by any means. Here’s how I explain the focus in the introduction:

“For better or worse, pop music became my way of making sense of both myself and the world around me… So perhaps it should come as no surprise that when Christianity took root in my life, I not only found its core message of grace so exciting and enlivening as to be compelled to write about it, but music would become one of the primary lenses through which I came to do so. Not just music but culture itself—high, low and in between (T. Van Zandt).”

So it’s a book about Christianity and culture? Or a Christian approach to popular culture?

the-beach-boys-you-need-a-mess-of-help-to-stand-alone-1972-7Not really. I hate to say it but that phrase “Christian approach” often implies an agenda, unspoken or unconscious, that culture is valuable only insofar as we can harness it in some way, or how it stacks up against the standards of our faith. But to quote someone I admire, I’m convinced that “any goodness, beauty, truthfulness, or enlivening candor we have the wit to discern is something for which we have God to thank.” That is, that it’s already been harnessed. So this isn’t a Christian “take” on secular music, at least as I see it. The artists I wrote about are the ones that have spoken and continue to speak to me rather than vice versa; I talk more about what I’ve learned from them than how their work filters through a pre-existing framework. That said, I gave myself plenty of room to explore, so who knows–“preacher brain” is not the easiest thing to shut off. Again from the introduction:

“It wasn’t that I set out to write about the intersection of Christianity and culture; it was simply that music was the most honest language available to me—the lingua franca of my inner life, my immediate vocabulary for understanding what was happening to me. In fact, so immersed in it was I, that to avoid pop culture would have been to embrace precisely the kind of phoniness that permeates so much religious “engagement” with it these days.”

Any parts you’re particularly proud of?

I’m really happy with the whole thing, actually–mainly cause I had such a great editor in Will McDavid. But if you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked which sections I like best, the 15,000-word annotated playlist that closes the book (“Sing Mockingbird Sing”) is probably a favorite. It gave me an opportunity to be a bit outrageous, going on long tangents about ecclesiology and aging and failure and addiction, to name a few. The Michael Jackson essay was the most ambitious, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. The Beach Boys may be the funniest, with ABBA and Elvis tied for second.

Can you decipher the cover for us?

elvis-steves_RJ_33Sure. Stephanie Fishwick, who’s designed a number of our covers, really outdid herself with this one. All the elements of the crest allude to bands that are covered in the book. The surfboards and “woody” wagons refer to The Beach Boys. The “TCB” lightning bolt was the slogan and logo (“Takin’ care of business”) of Elvis Presley’s entourage, also known as the Memphis Mafia. Michael Jackson’s sequined glove occupies a central place. The surfboards are flanked by upside-down Hofner basses of the kind that Paul McCartney is known for. The dice are the “tumblin” variety, immortalized in song by The Rolling Stones. There’s some English mod regalia courtesy of The Who. The platform boots were added with Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and ABBA in mind. The guns and roses and big stars should be self-explanatory. And those flowers are gladioli, the kind that Morrissey would carry in his back pocket during the early years of The Smiths. Oh, the sunglasses are Phil Spector’s trademark. Finally, the (crowned) lamb of God presides over the whole affair with a banner that reads “Vobis Petrum Deus Dedit”, or “God gave you the Rock”, making a St Peter-Argent-KISS triple entendre.

Why this book now?

Well, as cliched as it may sound, it’s the book I most wanted to write because it’s the book I most wanted to read. I genuinely don’t think that something like A Mess of Help exists, something that combines music and theology and coming of age in a way that’s both honest and entertaining. My fear is that it’s overly niche—too much of a stretch for religious audiences and too theological for secular ones. But that’s out of my control. Plus, Mockingbird has put out quite a few books at this point, but almost none about pop culture–which is a tad ironic, since “pop culture” is a term that’s often used when people describe our work, even though I don’t see Mbird like that at all (which I spell out in the book). Still, it was time for that part of our scope to be represented in the publications, and the MoH direction was where the inspiration felt most genuine and free. The next one will likely be about social media, we shall see.

Order your copy today on Amazon or Createspace! And by all means write a review if you feel so led.

Now Available! A MESS OF HELP: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll

In his debut book, Mockingbird founder and editor-in-chief David Zahl riffs on the intersection of music, memoir, and theology to create a fresh and colorful series of essays that truly stands alone. Constructed like an album, A Mess of Help surveys some of pop’s most eccentric icons in hopes of finding answers to both the small questions (“Who am I?”) and the big ones (“What about Michael Jackson?”), unearthing timeless wisdom even as it entertains. So if you’ve ever wondered how fundamentalism sparked Guns N’ Roses, what ABBA can do for your marriage, or why Brian Wilson built his sandbox, open your heart and drop the needle.

Order your copy today on Amazon or Createspace!* And by all means write a review if you feel so led.

Table of Contents


I. Introduction
II. Teenage Angst Paid Off Well: Growing Up with Nirvana
III. Get Back: The Ever Present Past of The Beatles
IV. “You Need a Mess Of Help To Stand Alone”: Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys
V. Crying ABBA: An Annotated Playlist
VI. Belle and Sebastian Go Off and See a Minister
VII. Searching Low and High For the Who Behind The Who
VIII. The Secret History of William Axl Rose
IX. Jesus Rides Beside The Replacements
X. Even The (Rolling) Stones Cry Out: An Annotated Playlist
XI. Big Star Talks to God
XII. Lindsey Buckingham Walks a Thin Line
XIII. Paging Dr. Carpenter: Elvis Presley’s Change of Habit
XIV. Scott Walker Is Dead! Long Live Scott Walker!
XV. Hated for Loving: The World According to Morrissey
XVI. What About Michael Jackson?
XVII. Confessions of a Former Music Critic
XVIII. Sing Mockingbird Sing: The Alpha and Omega of Annotated Playlists

“David Zahl writes like a true believer in the healing power of music, and one with a deep understanding that, at its most sublime, what music wants most is to mimic God’s voice. Each chapter of A Mess of Help reads like one side of a lengthy discussion with an old friend… who might be even more obsessed with your favorite band than you are! His passion for the subject is infectious. Highly recommended!” – John Davis, musician and songwriter (Superdrag, The Lees of Memory)

Pre-order your copy today!

* Mbird keeps more of the revenue if you order via Createspace.

Introducing Eden and Afterward – Will McDavid

Another gem from our conference from Will McDavid, discussing his new book, Eden and Afterward.

Eden and Afterward: Introducing a Mockingbird Guide to Genesis ~ Will McDavid from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

Introducing Mockingbird’s Guide to Genesis

This piece originally appears as the Introduction chapter of Eden and Afterward, Mbird’s latest publication, which looks at Genesis through the lenses of literary commentary, theology, and everyday life. Contents include Adam, Abel, Noah, Babel, Abram, Hagar, Isaac, Jacob, Leah, Tamar, and Joseph. There’s an old story of a Jewish rabbi who once attempted to heal a […]

NOW AVAILABLE! Eden and Afterward: A Mockingbird Guide to Genesis

Mockingbird’s newest resource, Eden and Afterward, by Will McDavid, is available now! With imagination and deep empathy, the book brings to life some of the Bible’s oldest stories, looking at them through the lens of narrative. The symbols, motifs, situations, and characters explore the murky depths of human love, envy, pride, and need for deliverance. It’s a Bible commentary with surprising imagination, intellectually grounded but always approachable, and a guide to familiar work that  brings the unfamiliar to light. The book is available from our printer, Createspace, as well as Amazon. Mockingbird benefits more if you click the first – but each to his own. Excerpt from the introduction below:

EdenAndAfterward-331x500There’s an old story of a Jewish rabbi who once attempted to heal a blind man. After rubbing saliva in the man’s eyes and laying hands on him, the rabbi asked if the cure had worked. “I can see people,” the man ventured, “but they look like trees, walking.” Then, as the account of this healing in the book of Mark puts it, “Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

The most obvious way to look at the healing is as a partially botched job, the first time around, like when a character in the Harry Potter books tries to transfigure someone into a cat, but only succeeds in giving their human target whiskers and a tail. But the man’s fuzzy, only partially restored vision works as a potent metaphor for the way we view the world around us. We see other people through the lenses of expectations and grudges, biases and resentments. Or perhaps our lens is rose-colored, like the immovable love a parent has for a child.

These resentments and biases and blind spots impair our ability to live. The way we see the world deeply affects our ability to love and feel loved, to forgive others and forgive ourselves. Sin and self-justification often blind us to the way things truly are, and in so doing they damage our relationships with others and with God. Reconciliation in those relationships, giving and receiving mercy, and learning to love lie at the core of our desires as humans. These desires are frustrated by our blindness, so we pray, like another blind man, “My teacher, let me see again” (Mk 10:51).

Stories captivate us because the good ones sharpen our vision. They teach us about the world, about other people, and about ourselves. Good stories can be revisited over and over, throughout one’s entire life, and there is always more to see, more to take away. A good story’s reserve of truth is inexhaustible, because stories describe our ineffable human experience; we see the meanings of our lives and the things that happen to us blurrily—they appear like trees, walking. So as a story’s various images and characters and meanings come into focus ever more sharply, they simultaneously reveal how much meaning continues to elude us.

The stories contained in the book of Genesis are, at worst, brilliant bits of cultural mythology that endure, like the Greek myths, because they express an unspeakable something which lies near the essence of human experience. On the lowest estimation, Genesis has earned its place alongside such literary masterpieces as The Iliad, The Odyssey, or Othello. Like those works, Genesis has exercised an enduring power to shape one of the world’s oldest and most rich cultures, Judaism, to say nothing of its ongoing influence today. But on the highest estimation, Genesis presents something even greater: an exploration of the relationship between God and human beings, a work which cannot lead us astray because it is an authoritative revelation by God himself.


At its lowest common denominator, which is world-class literature, Genesis can be examined for how it works as a story, for its deep reservoir of truth about humanity and, just possibly, God. It can be appreciated by anyone as great literature, and yet it always resists being read as just great literature. To the three world religions which hold it in highest esteem, whenever we examine the literary merits of Genesis—just as we would with Faulkner or Hemingway—the book subtly prods us toward reading it as something more than just good literature. So although this companion to Genesis will focus upon the stories’ symbols, motifs, emotions and characters, the human experience distilled into these narratives will constantly raise new questions, questions of providence and blessing and judgment.

At the heart of these questions lies God’s relationship with Israel and, by extension, the way he relates to us today. But we must start with human experience, just as Christianity started with a series of concrete, grounded events, which doctrine then described. So the stories here must come before our ideas about them, must be allowed to shape those ideas rather than vice-versa. They ask us to imagine their sights, sounds and scents, placing us in their characters’ shoes and asking us to feel their emotions. When the Bible chooses to speak about God through story, imagination and empathy come first, and analysis comes second.

This companion to the stories of Genesis focuses on God’s gradual, messy, and often convoluted redemption of fallen humanity in history…

Get your copy today!

You Can’t Argue With Grace: Fathers, Sons, and This American Gospel

Another from Mockingbird’s most recent publication, This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God. Based on the evocative power of NPR’s This American Life, Mockingbird writer Ethan Richardson touches on the theological potency of selected episodes of the program. This excerpt discussses TAL episode 432, “Know When to Fold ‘Em” and the […]

Now Available! This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God

The wait is over! Ethan Richardson’s This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God, Mockingbird’s newest book on the market, is available online here. For those lovers of all things public radio, all things Ira Glass, those in love with a good story–all of the above, none of the above–looking for a […]