Communicating God's message through pop culture

By Elizabeth Paulsen
Posted Mar 13, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Daisy, an early 20th century servant girl on the popular PBS period drama “Downton Abbey,” struggled at the end of the show’s second season to understand and accept the love of another.

After the loss of her husband, Daisy questioned her grieving father-in-law’s request to adopt her as a daughter, wrestling to reciprocate his love fully for myriad reasons.

For David Zahl, one of the founders of the non-profit organization Mockingbird, this storyline presents a Christian allegory, mirroring the struggle Christians endure to accept, without question, the grace and love of God.

“That God relates to you and me not according to feelings or attributes that we bring to the table, but those that His Son brought. As a result, we are adopted as children, receiving the same benefit, the same care, the same inheritance, the same love as the Son,” Zahl wrote on Mockingbird’s website

Illuminating God’s message of grace in popular culture, including in television shows like “Downton Abbey” and others like “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” is the cornerstone of Mockingbird, which strives to connect Christianity with everyday life.

Through, contributors, including Zahl, analyze film, music, television, literature, social science and humor, dissecting the contents through a Christian understanding.

“We are not trying to cover popular culture,” said Zahl. “But we are trying to reach people through both conscious and unconscious parallels in good art.”

Although the organization is not affiliated with any Christian denomination, Zahl is an Episcopalian and licensed lay preacher, serving on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. He founded Mockingbird in 2007 with the help of Jacob Smith, an associate priest at Calvary – St. George’s in Manhattan.

The pair wanted to start a non-denominational organization for those who had a negative experience with the church. After struggling to find traction through face-to-face gatherings in New York City, they eventually devoted the majority of their resources to the organization’s website.

“If you say Jesus died for your sins, many people will simply tune you out. It’s key to illustrate God’s love, using the people’s language,” said Smith, whose mentor is the Rev. Paul Zahl, David’s father and a conservative Episcopal priest.

The organization’s name was inspired by the mimicking nature of a mockingbird.

“We are repeating the message of God’s love,” Zahl said.

Mockingbird’s website now averages about 70,000 unique visitors a month. And one of its avid readers is Margaret Evans, an editor of a weekly newspaper in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Evans was reading the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a book club. While searching online about the book, she stumbled upon Mockingbird’s website and began reading.

“It grabbed me right away,” said Evans, who attends a Presbyterian church. “It’s intellectual writing that covers both high and low culture. It’s smart but not remotely arrogant.”

Looking at the Gospels through popular culture also is what drew Willis Logan, a seminarian at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, who plans on becoming an Episcopal priest. He had heard about Mockingbird through the rector at Zahl’s church in Charlottesville.

“The website is gravitating in the way it is presented – blogs, articles, studies. It’s really focused on what it means to play out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the everyday world,” said Logan, 33. “It appeals to anyone without watering down the Gospel.”

In addition to its website, Mockingbird hosts a yearly conference in New York City and other mini-conferences. This year’s New York conference, which will be held April 19-21, offers fellowship through small-group discussion, covering a range of topics including movies, parenting and life in local churches, in addition to guess speakers. Zahl is expecting at least 250 participants and hopes to expand Mockingbird’s conferences into other cities.

Logan attended the Mockingbird conference in New York City last spring, and although he won’t be able to attend this year’s conference, he found the experience engaging.

“The topics are very much the same as on the website, and it’s a great opportunity to meet new people,” Logan said.

One topic the founders and other contributors to Mockingbird intentionally stay clear of is politics, both secular and church politics.

“We don’t want to wade into the quagmires of politics,” said Zahl, who does a majority of the writing for the website along with a part-time employee, Ethan Richardson.

Richardson wrote a book, which Mockingbird plans to publish this spring, called “This American Gospel: A Companion to the Public Radio Series,” which examines some of the many human interest stories on the popular Public Radio series “This American Life.” This is one of several publications by the organization, which also has published “Grace in Addiction: What The Church Can Learn From Alcoholics Anonymous” and “The Gospel According to Pixar.”

Whether it’s through television shows like Downton Abbey, movies by Pixar or radio shows, Zahl and Smith said they hope the organization they founded five years ago will continue to resonate.

“It’s God’s grace, and everyone needs to hear it,” Smith said.

– Elizabeth Paulsen is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and member of Christ Church in Bay Ridge.