October 21, 2020

David Zahl Talks About Mockingbird Ministries: The IM Interview

mockingbirdUPDATE: Baptists might want to read this post on semi-Pelagianism, and enjoy the Tom Petty video 🙂

If you’ve been paying attention, you should have noticed that the most interesting blog out in the Christian/Reformation blogosphere is Mockingbird, the front page to the world of Mockingbird Ministries. Dead on, provocative stuff with the strong scent of Luther’s Law/Gospel cookbook in every post.

In addition to being Lutheranized Anglicans, Mockingbird has a major connection to my current theological hero, Paul Zahl. I’ve been enjoying the blog and all the resources available at Mockingbird, and I believe we’re looking at the ground floor of something very important and significant: the beginnings of a significant voice that balances engagement of the culture at many levels- not just as fans, but as thoughtful communicators and observers- with Lutheran flavored Reformation Christianity.

I asked Mockingbird posse member David Zahl- yeah, that Zahl- to answer five questions and get all of the IM audience up to speed. (David will point out some resources at the web site. You MUST download and enjoy the 2009 Conference audio. Priceless talks and not the same old same old.)

I’m very honored to have David Zahl from Mockingbird Ministries here at the IM Interview today.

1. Speak to the uninitiated: What is the entire Mockingbird empire, what’s the name, who are you, what are you trying to accomplish, and how are you doing it?

Haha, you flatter us! The minute we become an “empire”, let me know and we’ll disband… This is how I would define Mockingbird: we are a ministry that is seeking to connect the truths of the Gospel with the realities of everyday life in as down-to-earth a way possible. I realize that those are some loaded terms, so I’ll try to explain.

If you read our blog, you know that we like to throw around words like Justification, Law and Gospel, Imputation, Theology of the Cross, etc. These are concepts that we felt were self-evidently true, and the outworkings of which could be seen everywhere in the world around us, from the lives/music of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose to the ups and downs of the stock market to the latest Hollywood (and non-Hollywood) movie to the difficulties of marriage to the history of the church, etc. As you know, the power of the Law to crush and of the Gospel to give life – and their secular equivalents – touch us all where we actually live: which for some of us is pop-culture, some of us is relationships, or psychology, or economics, or theology, etc. We wanted to start a ministry where we could expose those connections and maybe even break down some of the walls between real people and Jesus “the friend of sinners”. Of course, we also wanted to have some fun in the process.

It began as a group of friends, some ordained and some not, and has grown into a larger network, which has been exciting to watch. The name was inspired the bird itself, i.e. we’re repeating the message we’ve heard over and over again – though hopefully not in an irritating way. But we definitely believe that we never move beyond our need to hear the basics. We’re also fairly obsessed with the historical distinction between the Law and the Gospel and are committed to making it more accessible, always searching for new illustrations, metaphors or synonyms like “judgment and love” (not perfect but you get the point).

I should add that we hold the unpopular belief that there’s not a whole lot that differentiates Christians from non-Christians, which I think makes it easier to connect with both groups. I suppose we’re just not that impressed with most Christians in the way that we’re apparently supposed to be, and we are interested in the historical theology that accounts for that discrepancy. The classic Anglican example of this comes from Article IX of the 39 Articles of Religion, that “(original sin) doth persist yea in them that are regenerate”. We see that playing out all over the place, from Ted Haggard all the way down the line to the Christian Joe Blow (e.g., us).

As we see it, much of the American evangelical landscape has its head in the ground with regards to the (obvious) fallen-ness of believing, devout Christians. So we gravitate toward Luther’s description of the Christian as simultaneously sanctified and sinful, rather than, say, the idea that the Christian life is characterized by some kind of growth process. It just rings true.

So part of Mockingbird is a response to the tendency described above of Christians “splitting” their lives into their “Christian life” and their everyday one, implicit being the fact that you cannot be a Christian and a human being at the same time. Coming to understand the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel has been a freeing and inspiring experience for us in this regard, and we believe it could be for others too. Naturally we get painted with the “antinomian” brush occasionally, but that doesn’t bother me – who doesn’t that’s preaching the Gospel?!

The word “connection” is an important one for us. Mockingbird is looking mainly to connect, rather than, say, convert or convince. We want to demonstrate, to observe, to comment – that sort of thing – and let the Holy Spirit take it from there. If people are converted or convinced, that’s awesome, but it’s not our primary motivation. So there’s no hidden agenda and hopefully no patronizing attitude, which I think folks find refreshing, regardless of their background.

As far as “how” we’re doing this, we’re using as many mediums as possible: thus far it’s been primarily via blogs, books and conferences, and we’re planning to expand on that (see below).

So we are a message-driven ministry, albeit with a message that is deeply relational. And it seems to be resonating, praise God. Of course, there are some risks involved: growing too disembodied, or becoming pharisaical about Pharisees or just plain smug – it’s a slippery slope, so please pray for us! And if you’re in New York City and want to say hello, please drop us a line.

2. If we were going to locate Mockingbird on the theological map, with a few meaningful reference points (names, books, churches) where would you be?

Oh man. It probably sounds naïve, but we try to shy away from labels whenever possible. But when we have to spell it out we call ourselves Cranmerian Lutherans, or Anglo-Lutherans(!). That is, we’re pretty much all Anglicans of some stripe who share a commitment to Luther’s Law/Gospel distinction and his understanding of Justification. Calling us Reformation Protestants is probably the best catch-all.

As far as touchstones are concerned, off the top of my head I’d claim my father’s Grace In Practice, Gerhard Forde’s On Being A Theologian Of The Cross and Luther’s Bondage Of The Will as our “top three”. Rod Rosenbladt’s “The Gospel For Those Broken By The Church” was a big influence as well.

3. What is Mockingbird’s official and unofficial connection to any congregations around you?

Mockingbird has no official connection to any church or congregation, which is very much intentional. Given where we’re coming from denominationally, part of our founding had to do with the desire to be free of ecclesiological distractions and constraints of any kind. That said, we’re not anti-clerical. Our website has a list of where our contributors are serving or attending, Mockingbird-friendly congregations if you will.

Unofficially, here in New York we are quietly involved with Calvary St George’s Episcopal Church and St Paul’s Anglican Church. Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville has also served as a home-away-from-home.

I should also say that as our network has grown, so have the number of denominations involved, which has been really encouraging.

4. Tell us about the 2008 conference, why it was important and why we all need to download and listen to it?

Thanks for asking! So far, our conferences have provided much of our ministry’s life-blood and pulse. We’ll be doing more, and I hope people reading this will consider coming to the next one in Fall ’10 as they’re a total blast. This last one, the one you’re referring to, took place over three days this past March here in New York and the theme was “Grace in Personal Relationships”. Dr Steven Paulson (a noteworthy Lutheran theologian and a personal favorite) flew in to give three frankly amazing talks about the implications of a Law and Gospel understanding for all aspects of everyday life. His talks were accessible enough for people off the street, while sophisticated enough for all the armchair theologians in the audience. We heard from Dr. Dorothy Martyn, an extremely wise psychoanalyst, about how such an understanding might inform child rearing. Then my father treated us to a groundbreaking lecture on Grace in Literature, using Jack Kerouac, Thornton Wilder and Leo Tolstoy as his primary examples. Oh, and there was a stunning session on Grace In Addiction, exploring how the insights of Alcoholics Anonymous and the realities of addiction relate to the bondage of the will and Justification by Faith. And that’s not all – there were also great presentations on Grace and The Self and Grace in Marriage – we really couldn’t recommend it more! You can download it all (including some notes and handouts) for free on our website.

5. What is coming up with Mockingbird that we all need to know about?

We’ve got a lot happening right now. We’re about to release an expanded edition of our first book, Judgment & Love, a collection of 35 mini-testimonies about the power of Love in the face of deserved Judgment: marriage, car accidents, eating disorders, depression, legalism, the stories are varied enough that we believe something in there will speak to everyone. Then we’ve just sent the meatier counterpart off to a bunch of publishers, The Two Words Devotional. It brings our understanding to bear on the entirety of scripture in the form of over 250 daily devotional readings (from 40 contributors) in a way that seeks to speak especially to sufferers. You can order the preview, or teaser, on our website. We’ve also been fortunate enough to make two of our favorite out-of-print, “give-to-anyone” books available again this year, Who Will Deliver Us? by Paul Zahl and The Useful Sinner by J. David Hawkins, and we hope to find a couple more. Any suggestions?

If we can raise enough capital, we’re hoping to start a magazine this Fall, something like a cross between Paste and Modern Reformation (contact us if you want to help!) and get some regular podcasts going. We haven’t set a date for our third annual conference but it should take place in NYC sometime in the Fall of 2010. It’s worth saying too that our blog and website provide all kinds of stuff for those who are interested: talks and bible studies and sermons and tons of other great resources. We’re adding stuff to that side of our ministry daily. Stay tuned.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to share!

David Zahl


  1. Dan Allison says

    Thanks, Michael, for exposing this great website and ministry to your IM audience. I’ve deeply appreciated the pop culture reviews and recommendations. I’m on my way to show “The Red Balloon” to our Presby youth group tonight, for example, and I was really moved by the short sermon on Michael Jackson and the essays on Kerouac and George Harrison. Like the IM blog, there’s always something new, fresh, stimulating, and Christ-focused at Mockingbird.

  2. To be fair to the Anglicans, isn’t it concupiscence not original sin that remains after baptismal regeneration?

    It’s my understanding that us Catholics hold the same, and I would have thought Lutherans did too – or is this one of the sticking points between the Continental Reformers and the Anglicans?

  3. Thanks for doing this interview. I am a HUGE Mockingbird fan and so excited to see a connection to IM.

  4. Martha: here’s most Article 9. sounds like it’s original sin…

    Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated…

  5. “If you’re paying attention…”

    Nobody can pay as much attention to the blogosphere as you do Michael, but thanks for bringing this to our attention. I haven’t clicked over to the site yet, but many of the statements in the interview sound encouraging. Of course, even if Mockingbird turns into my new best friend, I can’t post on it anytime soon.

  6. paying attn = many recommendation here in the past, esp on the podcast

  7. Man, I really love it:

    ” I should add that we hold the unpopular belief that there’s not a whole lot that differentiates Christians from non-Christians, which I think makes it easier to connect with both groups. I suppose we’re just not that impressed with most Christians in the way that we’re apparently supposed to be, and we are interested in the historical theology that accounts for that discrepancy.”

    This is something I’ve been saying. The timing was great for your post IM as it has been one of those weeks when you feel like you are alone on Mars and everyone else is on Earth. It is so nice to know that there are others who have come to the same conclusions as yourself. Thanks.

  8. another beggar says

    Sounds to me like Mockingbird is trying to apply the recommendations of Barna Group’s David Kinnaman in “unChristian”. The Barna research cited in this book reveals what younger outsiders, think about Christians: Hypocritical; Insincere; Antihomosexual; Sheltered; Too Political; and Judgmental. Sadly, the research proves those images to be true. Kinaman’s advice is for Christians hold fast to their values, but learn to communicate and love the outsiders as Jesus would. Great book — I hope you’ve read it Michael.

  9. Thanks iMonk. A new website with excellent content!

  10. “…we definitely believe that we never move beyond our need to hear the basics.”

    I’m sure someone is going to interpret this as never moving beyond milk and onto meat. The truth is that we never spiritually outgrow the need to hear those words, “you are forgiven, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”.

  11. R-J, yes, that is unclear. Anglican theology (I had assumed) followed the sacramental nature of baptism as regenerative, cleansing the stain and guilt of original sin from the soul.

    However, concupiscence (the effects of our fallen nature, which are a weakened will, a darkened understanding, and a tendency to seek the bad rather than the good) remains, affecting our appetites (as opposed to our reason) and though not sinful in itself, tending towards sin (when we give the assent of the will to the gratification of our appetites either in a wrongful way, or wrongful ends).

    The way it’s phrased in Article X makes it *sound* as if Original Sin remains, though I imagine by “infection of nature” they mean concupiscence. Any Anglicans out there to clarify? 🙂

    • Aha! I see that I am mistaken! Such an unusal occurence, you all hasten to declare 😉

      According to the “Catholic Encylopaedia” of 1910, the Anglican articles follow Lutheranism, which is *not* the Roman Catholic understanding:

      “The Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially Luther, proposed new views respecting concupiscence. They adopted as fundamental to their theology the following propositions:

      •Original justice with all its gifts and graces was due to man as an integral part of his nature;
      •concupiscence is of itself sinful, and being the sinful corruption of human nature caused by Adam’s transgression and inherited by all his descendants, is the very essence of original sin;
      •baptism, since it does not extinguish concupiscence, does not really remit the guilt of original sin, but only effects that it is no longer imputed to man and no longer draws down condemnation on him. This position is held also by the Anglican Church in its Thirty-nine Articles and its Book of Common Prayer.”

      See how educational this site is? 🙂

    • Anglicans are much more Reformation in their theology than they might appear.

      They also aren’t confessional, which means bishops really do need to clarify.

      • And see where being all ecumenical and charitable-minded gets you. When I was all “Godless heathen heretics”, I’d never have assumed a commonality of theology with the Anglicans and been left with egg on my face 🙂

        Yes, I am ashamed to admit, I was all “Godless heathen heretics” up until well into my teens. Only until I became aware that the Popes were insisting we had to treat our separated Christian brethren as, well, our separated Christian brethren did I start changing my mind with a lot of grumbling. Hey, blame Irish history for a lot of it.

        So something good does come of slavish adherence to blindly obeying the Pope of Rome sometimes 😉

        • cermak_rd says

          Most of the Episcopalians I know consider the 39 Articles to be a quaint measure by which the first Queen LIz managed to hold her church together. They are not a Creed or required to be followed by anyone but I suppose the state Church of England. You’ll also find pretty much a condemnation of the Real Presence in them.

          The Oxford movement consisted of various theologians who decided that too much had been thrown out of Anglicanism so the Anglicans moved more Rome and less Zurich.

          Then you take the average Episcopalian church which will have a lot of converts in it, many of them former Roman Catholics (especially in Catholic cities like my native Chicago and by Roman I mean Latin Rite, you really don’t see many Eastern Rite converts), and you get a heavy, heavy Catholic influence. The parish I was part of at one time even used Catholic Missallettes from a Catholic supply house and had the sacrarium (hence a presumed belief in the Real Presence), the tabernacle lamp and all the smells & bells.

          SO when trying to figure out what Episcopalians believe, don’t go by the 39 Articles, they aren’t normative.

          • One quibble, the articles do not condemn the real presence, but transubstantiation and specifically the idea of venerating the host (lifting it up, gazing upon it and carrying it about, as at Corpus Christi) rather than eating it. This practice stemmed from the belief in ocular communion, which in turn came from a belief of pholosophers during the middle ages, that when one gazed upon something, tiny bits of it (simulacra) entered one’s eyes; because of this, people believed they were communing when they looked upon the host. Gradually people stopped receiving altogether and believed the host was something to be reverenced rather than eaten. There were even little Mass books in Germany which helped people time their runs from one church to the other so that they could get there at the precise moment of the elevation. Anglicans and other reformers reacted against this, declared it superstitious and unfaithful and said that one should properly reverence the sacrament by doing with it what was commanded, i.e. eating it. Contrary to what is sometimes said, Cranmer was not a Zwinglian and in the broad history of Anglicanism memorialism is a much a ditch on one side as transubstantiation is on the other (though of course there are examples of Anglicans believing each, such as the ritualists and some contemporary Sidney Anglicans).

            That being said, you’re right that the Episcopal Church has never required assent or subscription to the articles, except for article VI, a form of which all clergy must subscribe to in their ordination, i.e. that we believe the Holy Scriptures to contain all things necessary for salvation.

          • RE: “Most of the Episcopalians I know [don’t subscribe to the 39 articles]…”

            You may need to broaden your horizons, as nearly every orthodox Episcopalian I;ve ever known does indeed affirm these.

    • As our host says, Anglicans aren’t really confessional. To the extent that one can pin down a traditional Anglican theology, it’s probably at least as well expressed in the Book of Common Prayer as in the Articles. *There*, a form of baptismal regeneration is taught, although it’s often muted or down-played nowadays.

      • Okay, if I’m going to slag off the Anglicans for their lack of confessionalism, I might as well do it in style. The 18th century comic song, “The Vicar of Bray”, shows the, um, broad-minded accommodating style of theology popular in certain circles 😉

        In good King Charles’s golden days,
        When Loyalty no harm meant;
        A Zealous High-Church man I was,
        And so I gain’d Preferment .
        Unto my Flock I daily Preach’d,
        Kings are by God appointed,
        And Damn’d are those who dare resist,
        Or touch the Lord’s Anointed.

        And this is law, I will maintain
        Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
        That whatsoever King may reign,
        I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

        When Royal James possest the crown,
        And popery grew in fashion;
        The Penal Law I shouted down,
        And read the Declaration:
        The Church of Rome I found would fit
        Full well my Constitution,
        And I had been a Jesuit,
        But for the Revolution.

        And this is Law, &c.

        When William our Deliverer came,
        To heal the Nation’s Grievance,
        I turn’d the Cat in Pan again,
        And swore to him Allegiance:
        Old Principles I did revoke,
        Set conscience at a distance,
        Passive Obedience is a Joke,
        A Jest is non-resistance.

        And this is Law, &c.

        When Royal Ann became our Queen,
        Then Church of England’s Glory,
        Another face of things was seen,
        And I became a Tory:
        Occasional Conformists base
        I Damn’d, and Moderation,
        And thought the Church in danger was,
        From such Prevarication.

        And this is Law, &c.

        When George in Pudding time came o’er,
        And Moderate Men looked big, Sir,
        My Principles I chang’d once more,
        And so became a Whig, Sir.
        And thus Preferment I procur’d,
        From our Faith’s great Defender
        And almost every day abjur’d
        The Pope, and the Pretender.

        And this is Law, &c.

        The Illustrious House of Hannover,
        And Protestant succession,
        To these I lustily will swear,
        Whilst they can keep possession:
        For in my Faith, and Loyalty,
        I never once will faulter,
        But George, my lawful king shall be,
        Except the Times shou’d alter.

        And this is Law, &c.

      • As an episcopal anglican, and as one of the “Cranmerian Lutherans” over at Mockingbird, perhaps I can shed some light: Episcopalians believe their theology is summed up in the statement “Lex orandi, lex credendi”, or “What we pray is what we believe”. So rather than a confession, we look to the Book of Common Prayer as our source of guidance much as other denominations look to their confessions, and of course the BCP points to, not replaces, the guidance of Scripture.

        And I would agree with our host that Epsicopalians are much more reformation in our theology than some might believe. But you are right about the 39 articles: some churches swear by them, while others sweep them under the rug based on the fact that they are in the back of the BCP as “historical documents”.

  12. …appreciate the interview as I have been checking in periodically on their blog since hearing you recommend it on your podcast Michael. Love the blog and enjoyed the creepy Petty (big fan myself so thanks for the link) video with my 3rd cup of coffee here this morning. The video brings to mind Sprouls dead in the bottom of a river in need of resuscitation (digging for the right word here) vs. our merely drowning and needing a life jacket to reach out and grab analogy which has stuck with me for years and years.

    Particularly appreciate the way Mockingbird uses pop culture to highlight the gospel without confusing the two–or worse yet glorifying pop culture while minimizing the gospel as so many preachers and bloggers tend to.

    On a side note: I didn’t know who Paulson was until I picked up his book “Luther for Armchair Theologians” last week and am enjoying it big time–Paulson seems to have a real grasp of Luther’s theology and thought process that few understand.

  13. Steve in Toronto says

    Thanks for the link Michael it wonderful to see that there is still some rich fruit growing on the withered tree that is the Episcopal Church USA (I say this as a member of the Anglican Church of Canada a church that is running a close second in the race to alienate the global Anglican Communion). What the Zahl’s and company are up to looks amazing. I am curious as to what you think the impact of NT Wright and the new perspective will have on this very “Lutheran” take on the Gospel. Much as I love Wright a lot of what he has to say seems to under mine the clear Law/Gospel dichotomy that is at the root of so much Lutheran Theology.

    God Bless

    Steve in Toronto

  14. John Zahl says

    Dear Steve, it’s probably fair to say that we’re not Wright’s biggest fans. You might check out the following article from Ligon Duncan for a better understanding of the areas where the New Perspective runs into friction with some the Mockingbird train of thought:


    Also, thanks Mike for spreading the word about Mockingbird, and, more importantly, for spreading The Word!

    best, JAZ+

  15. “So part of Mockingbird is a response to the tendency described above of Christians “splitting” their lives into their “Christian life” and their everyday one, implicit being the fact that you cannot be a Christian and a human being at the same time.”

    Is that what they’re teaching in churches these days? … Come to think of it, yeah.

    “Of course, there are some risks involved: growing too disembodied, or becoming pharisaical about Pharisees or just plain smug – it’s a slippery slope …”

    whoa, you can be pharisaical about Pharisees? That’s ironic.

  16. Steve in Toronto says

    Thanks for the link John. (It’s dead but I am familiar with Ligon Duncan critique of the NPP) that’s part of the reason I asked my question. As a non-theologian it hard for me to know what to think about Dr. Wright not only do I enjoy both his books and his preaching (I got to spend some time in Durham last year) but he also a forceful advocate for “Mere Christianity” and he seems to be a central figure in the ascension of the evangelical “faction” in the Church of England. I also really like the way the new perspective seems to point to a possible reconciliation between Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism. On the other hand I don’t want to give up on the truly transformative effect my discovery of the Lutheran understanding of the Gospel has had on my own faith. I look forward to reading more of your (and fellow Mocking Birds) stuff and if you are in Charleston any time soon give my regards to my old Priest Dr. Peter Moore.

    God Bless

    Steve in Toronto

    • John Zahl says

      Steve, I appreciate the thoughtful response, and, yes, I’m in Charleston and will tell Peter hello the next time I see him. Are you aware that his son-in-law, Sean Norris, is the other main guy behind Mockingbird besides DZ, and that DZ worked for years (along with many other mockingbirds) for FOCUS, which Peter started? Small world! JZ

      sorry about the dead link. Maybe this one works? http://www.alliancenet.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086|CHID560462|CIID1660662,00.html

  17. Steve in Toronto says

    Peter was my first Anglican priest and I yet to sit under a better preacher. I also know about FOCUS (one of my old high school friends used to work for them). I am afraid the world of Orthodox Episcopalian is a small one (for the simple reason that there don’t seem a lot of them). Where do you guys stand on the High vs. Low Church spectrum? I have often found that the more evangelical the Anglican the less emphases was placed on traditional liturgy (Peters old church Little Trinity would not even let us have candles at our wedding). I hate having to choose between rich historic liturgy and clear articulation of the gospel.

  18. John Zahl says

    Can’t speak for the whole Mockingbird conglomerate obviously, and we’re all a little different, but I think most of us veer in the low-church direction.

  19. Chad Rushing says

    For those having trouble with John Zahl’s hyperlink, you have to cut and paste the entire URL into the Address field on your browser in order to access it. For some reason, everything after the first “|” is left off of the direct link when clicking directly on it.

    Reading the article right now … so far, I agree with the author wholeheartedly in his criticism of NPP.

  20. Rob Eaton+ says

    This is the kind of the forerunners that we will be seeing more of in this season.
    Good to know John+ hasn’t worked you to death, John+.