Theologian-in-Residence Explores Faith in the Age of Anxiety

David Zahl, Episcopal’s Theologian-in-Residence for 2020, spent last week on campus promoting a simple message: Though teenagers today face enormous pressures, they can find respite and acceptance in grace, love, and faith.
Zahl, the author of several books on Christianity’s place in the modern age, is the director of Mockingbird Ministries. He founded the organization in 2007 because he saw faith weakening among young adults struggling to find its relevance in their lives. Mockingbird produces an array of media — including a website with daily content, a literary magazine, and podcasts — that explore how Christianity has a role in everyday life, from movies and sports to politics and relationships.

Zahl preached at chapel services on Monday and Friday as well as at Wednesday’s Vespers’ service. In his messages, he described a 21st-century culture in which teenagers must climb never-ending ladders of achievement in pursuit of affirmation, acceptance, and happiness. In his opening chapel talk, he pointed to what he called “performancism” as an unwritten dogma of life for high school students.

“It is the idea that there is no distinction between your performance and yourself, that there is no difference between your transcript and you,” he said, “And the underlying message is always the same: Accomplishment precedes acceptance. Achievement precedes approval. Love is a reward; it’s something you win.”

In his Vespers message, Zahl said that Christianity delivers a more hopeful message and promises a love that is unconditional. Jesus, he said, descended from heaven to a world “killing itself trying to ascend ladders to nowhere and to free us from the bondage of scorekeeping so that we might see those around us not as obstacles or competitors but as fellow children in need of help and compassion.”

Students gave Zahl a standing ovation at Vespers and responded thoughtfully to his message throughout the week. During his lunch with the Vestry, students discussed the tendency of seniors to see their success in college admissions as a measure of their individual worth. “The constant comparisons can really take a toll on you,” said Rob Deaton ’20.

Zahl also met with several writing classes and discussed Mockingbird’s literary magazine and his most recent book: “Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It.” He told the editors of The Daemon literary and art magazine how the Mockingbird staff assembles each issue’s stories and art and offered advice on writing. “Most of my favorite writers say that you have a breakthrough when you stop trying to be clever or impress people and you start trying to talk to people,” he said.

Jane Durden ’20 said she enjoyed the chance to speak with a professional who understands the Daemon's goals and missions. “The advice that he gave us was extremely helpful and included some that I will remember for a long time.”

The Theologian-in-Residence Program was established in 1993 by Reginald E. Rutledge Jr. '51 in honor of his wife, the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, and his family members who have attended EHS.