By Shawn Lazar
As a preacher and as a writer, I am always trying to find new and better ways to communicate the gospel of grace to the people who need it most.
That brought me into contact with a ministry named Mockingbird (mbird.com). I came across them because they publish books by Paul F. M. Zahl and Robert Farrar Capon, two theologians who wrote about grace in creative ways.
To be clear, Mockingbird is not a Free Grace ministry. They are approaching grace from a different perspective. There are obvious areas of disagreement. But I have found their work to be helpful, especially in looking for ways to illustrate how a works salvation mindset can manifest itself in a secular culture.
In October 2018, I decided to attend a Mockingbird conference held in Oklahoma City. There I interviewed Mockingbird’s founder and director, David Zahl.
An Opportunity for Grace
Shawn Lazar (SL): David, what is Mockingbird?
David Zahl (DZ): We like to say that Mockingbird is a ministry that tries to connect grace to everyday life. What that means is that we’ve become a media platform where we do everything we can to trace where the gospel of God’s grace touches down in unexpected and tangible ways. So we have a magazine, an active website, and a new app. We also do conferences and a podcast.
SL: Why emphasize grace? Doesn’t everyone already know about grace?
DZ: Not at all! The world is full of mercilessness and law. I think Christians use the word grace a lot. It’s a positive word. But different Christians use it in different ways—Catholics use it differently than Protestants. Megachurches use it differently than mainline churches.
SL: To build on that: a lot of people think about grace as a divine “push”—that little bit of extra energy that helps you make it the rest of the way on your own.
DZ: Totally. Or it’s like you’re trying to get on a plane, and maybe you make it all the way to the gate, and then that last little bit that gets you on the plane is grace. Grace makes up whatever you lack in yourself.
And that’s a nice idea. But I don’t think that’s what grace is.
I think grace is one-way love. It’s love to the loveless. It’s the opposite of what you deserve. God does it all, and we receive. That’s grace.
SL: So you saw a need for that message to be clearly presented and connected to daily life?
DZ: Yes, but I also think we saw an opportunity. When we started, we had a crowd of people, especially young men, who were captivated by an uncontaminated vision of God’s grace for sinners that they found enlivening and exciting. They felt they had never heard that before, even though they had been Christians their whole lives. And so, whether it was novel or not, we had the energy to do it.
And this is what we want to do, too. A lot of us felt—and I can speak for myself—that God’s grace releases you to do—not what you have to do—but if I can do anything, what would I do? For us, it was to start Mockingbird.
There’s some arrogance in that. Some hubris. But we’ve had a lot of fun.
Grace and Sanctification
SL: When people think about spirituality, they often think about programs of introspection. They emphasize techniques to look at your life to see if you’re really saved or really growing, and that usually makes people worried about their standing before God. What would you say to those people?
DZ: Well, I usually want to listen before I tell them much. But Steve Brown has this slogan, “God is not mad at you.” You point to the cross—this complete sufficiency of imputed righteousness.
But at a basic gut level, everyone is worried about judgment of some kind. They may not think of it as God’s judgment. It may be judgment from their parents or from society. I think that being able to confess, express, that in a way that is not met with more judgment, but instead is met with patience, humility, and a word of absolution…Mockingbird is trying to
create places where that message can be heard, and those things can be expressed.
SL: How are people responding to that message?
DZ: Occasionally, you get people who say, “That’s not Christianity. That’s terrible. You’re telling people they can do whatever they want and that God loves them no matter what.”
You also get those who’ve been beaten up by life who find it to be—well, they’ll travel from Australia to be here. They’ll come anywhere to hear about grace.
I’d say this message makes some people nervous.
And for some people, it makes them indignant that they’d never heard this before. They feel like they’ve been lied to, and they feel upset about that. A lot of times you’ll see that when people hear the gospel, they feel that indignation. Steven Paulson talks about how that should be tolerated. You simply have to allow people to have their reaction and be mad at other Christians and be Pharisaical about other Pharisees. You sort of have to allow it.
SL: I love the phrase, “Pharisaical about other Pharisees.” People might have that reaction initially, but you have to move beyond that and learn to minister grace gracefully.
DZ: That’s so true.
Reaching Young People
SL: One question that always comes up in ministry is “How do we reach the young people?” Our ministry [GES] tends to skew a little older. And we want to reach younger people. It looks like your ministry is doing that. I have heard some people say that young people want to
be challenged by a rigorous, ascetic, rule-based spirituality. But do you think young people are hungry for grace?
DZ: Yes. I think young people are full of themselves. I am. I’m not young anymore, but I think if you say “are you looking for grace?” they may not know what you’re talking about. But are they under a huge amount of pressure? Scrutiny? Do they feel like everyone else is happy,
but not them? Social media is creating this pressure cooker environment. They are dying for some release.
SL: Because they are living under law—not the Mosaic law—but the law of the American dream.
DZ: Oh yeah. Do more. Be more. Get skinny. Have a lot of money. Thou shalt be successful. Thou shalt be authentic. Thou shalt be liked. And I think young people are tremendously anxious and lonely for that reason. Just as we all are. But they almost don’t know anything else. We have to translate grace differently in certain contexts.
I think it helps a young person if they’ve had a few defeats in life.
And I do see a lot of young people say, “Tell me what to do! Tell me what to do! I’m going to take over the world for God.”
Young people have become very moralistic around political things especially. Young people used to be “anything goes,” while older people were about rules. But now it’s the other way around. I think that grace is still the only answer.
SL: How does Jesus enter the life of a student who is feeling pressure to get into the right school, so he can get into the right company to earn the right salary, to live an upper-middle class life or better? How does Jesus bring rest to that kind of anxiety?
DZ: Ultimately, I think it is the Holy Spirit’s working in a person’s life that brings the rest. But I think the message that usually precedes that is some sense that Jesus paid it all, that Christ has done for you what you cannot do for yourself. There’s nothing that needs to be done that hasn’t been done. Ultimately there are tests to be passed, but the ultimate test has been passed. There’s that message of the gospel. And it is not a one and done thing. As Steven Paulson talked about today, we die every day.
SL: I believe the second speaker, Curt Benham, said, “Good trees produce good fruit but aren’t aware of it.” Do you think that is how sanctification works?
DZ: To go along with the imagery, a tree can’t grow if you dig it up every five seconds to monitor its growth. That sort of introspection can be really neurotic. I think sanctification is a beautiful thing and unselfconscious, as we talked about. People are being transformed in certain ways, not according to their own timeline or agenda. But you do see that certain twinkle in the eye. I believe in eternal life.
Seeing Grace in Art and Pop Culture
SL: One thing that I love about Mockingbird, and what I think you’re doing better than any grace ministry that I know, is that you’re connecting with people through aesthetics. The arts. Culture. You’re connecting the message of grace through what is beautiful. You’re mining pop culture for sermon illustrations. How did that aesthetic aspect of your ministry come out?
DZ: I can speak only for myself. I grew up with a father who is a theologian [Editor: Paul F. M. Zahl] who loved pop art and high art and whose love of art was never divorced from his spiritual life, whether it came to paintings of the Reformation, or post-Impressionism, or monster movies and flying saucers. He was integrating everything because it was just reality.
As we grew up, we were encouraged to like the things we liked in a way that did not see those things as divorced from God’s world.
And so, when I want to talk to people about the gospel, I grew up in a setting where culture—movies, music, TV, books—formed me. That’s the language I speak. So talking about the gospel without using that is like talking without my bottom jaw.
So it’s not contrived. It’s not like “Hey, I’m trying to use this art to get to you.” Art and culture are more like my reference point.
When you write like that, it’s “like calls out to like.” You start writing about these things, and people respond, “Oh, it’s ok to like this? I can talk about how this speaks to me?”
People are on screens all the time. So if you want to talk to them where they really live, some of that is going to come up. So you engage it. You come with the question, “What about that song, or movie, or show speaks to you? What heart strings is that plucking? Where does it coincide with reality?”
SL: You announced that you have a new book coming out?
DZ: Yes, it’s called Seculosity. That’s a combination of secular and religiosity. The subtitle is: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It. And it’s really about how, as conventional religion has declined, we’ve filled that hole with all kinds of—idolatry is not the right word—but we’ve taken all the things I mentioned and made them arbiters of “enoughness.”
People are still looking for justification. I’m justified according to the food I eat, how I vote, whom I’m married to, and we’ve turned all these things into religions of law. And as a result, we’re in bad church all the time. And people are exhausted.
In the book, I try to bring into context how these things operate. How do you turn your career into your religion? What does grace look like in that? What is the relief?
SL: I love the line, “we’re in bad church all the time.” You’re saying that the people who think they’re avoiding church are still seeking secular forms of justification and discover they can’t be justified by works.
DZ: Everyone is wired for righteousness. You might as well call it “enoughness.” People want to feel like they are enough. They need someone to tell them they’re enough because you can’t just tell yourself that. No one would believe it because we know the messenger too well. So I’ll try to wrestle that enoughness out of my spouse, my career, my bank account, the food that I eat, my children, the way I parent, and as a result you’re constantly being measured and falling up short.
That’s where the gospel meets us, of course, in our shortcoming.
But when you have no gospel, no grace, and its just people trying to justify themselves in every single aspect of their lives, and never hearing the word of pardon, I think that is inescapable. Hopefully, the message of grace will get through.
SL: So for someone struggling with enoughness, and finding that what they’ve surrounded themselves with is not enough, where will they find the real thing?
DZ: I think God is in the business of giving us enoughness. He bestows it on us. It’s not another roadmap to engineering it or earning it. The message of the gospel is the proclamation that you have been gifted with that enoughness—that God sees you as enough, through His Son, through the shed blood of Christ. That’s the real solution.
Shawn Lazar is Editor of Grace in Focus and co-host of Grace in Focus Radio, available on iTunes and Stitcher.