I would say that books like David Zahl’s A Mess Of Help make me feel less alone in the world, if there were any other books like David Zahl’s A Mess Of Help to be found. The fact is, there are not. Conversations such as these are too often relegated to pubs, festivals and backstage green rooms. Few are we who equally obsess over things cultural and theological with this level of passion and borderline neurosis.
With great humor, candor and spiritual insight - and an insanely passionate musical vocabulary - Zahl crafts rant after rant that would be equally at home in the film High Fidelity as in a Bible study. It’s like he’s having a long, funny, interesting and rambling conversation with all of the voices in his head. That some of those voices seem also to be the ones in my head is overwhelmingly comforting.
This collection of essays, many pulled from the Mockingbird blog Zahl oversees, dares to plumb the world of mainstream pop music for echoes of the Gospel. He’s not searching for clues as to whether this pop star or that rocker might actually be members of the Christian club, though. He simply considers their work and connects the dots alongside stories and observations from his own life. In this way he is much more interested in what, say, Paul McCartney’s body of work suggests about his heart and soul, and ways in which his art might inspire others to serve their audience well, than whether or not he is a “Christian artist.” The book is far more satisfying as a result.
A Mess of Help would be equally at home in the film High Fidelity as in a Bible study.
Sure, many have riffed on the spiritual undertones of The Beatles - as Zahl effectively does here - but Abba? Really? Of course! As the robust Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper declared, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'’” As Zahl explores the lyrics of a wide range of pop and rock artists, Kuyper’s words ring in the background. The work of icons such as Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson, The Who, Elvis, The Rolling Stones and Nirvana are examined alongside critical darlings like The Replacements, Big Star and Belle and Sebastian. And all are organically connected to the collection’s central theme: Zahl’s own journey as an obsessive fan of the music and the ultimate tune behind all things true.
Some may suggest that the book is a bit long or that it could use a good editing job. Those are normal people, though. They don’t understand the appeal of diving this deeply into something as exciting and comforting as rock and roll. They, like most people these days, probably prefer singles over albums. This isn’t a book for normal people. Like many of the works that inspire Zahl’s essays, this is not about getting to the chorus as quickly as possible. There’s joy in this journey, and the rambling, the asides and the personal confessions all function like the instrumental solos, ambient segues and “album tracks” that made LPs more than just a selection of singles.
Let the normal people nod along to the latest, vapid pop ditties on the radio. But to Zahl and the rest of my borderline OCD pilgrim friends who look between the grooves for glimpses of hope and an elusive sense of community and belonging, I raise my glass and bellow a hearty “Turn it up!”