In the straitlaced, mostly white male, buttoned-down and collared world of Lutheran clergy, Nadia Bolz-Weber stands out. From her tall, lanky, heavily-tattooed frame to eyes that bulge from her lifelong battle with Graves’ disease, the ELCA pastor cuts an impressive presence.
No one seems more surprised by the turn of events that led this former hard-drinking stand-up comic into the ranks of the clergy than Bolz-Weber herself. In her new spiritual memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Bolz-Weber writes about going from “trying to attain a rock-and-roll early death,” to becoming founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA mission church in Denver, Colorado.
In the book, she likens herself to “a Lutheran Nikita,” the fictional teenaged drug addict whose death was faked by the government so she could do their dirty work. “I was allowed not to die in exchange for working for God,” Bolz-Weber writes, “I’d have to become God’s bitch.”
I had a chance to talk with Bolz-Weber about her journey and how she now finds inspiration not just in the Bible, but in her critics who still find it hard to accept the tough-talking, tender-hearted shepherd of spiritual misfits into their orthodox fold.
Tell us how you became a Lutheran pastor.
I have a checkered past so it really felt like it was something that was thrust upon me, it wasn’t something I was seeking. That’s when you really know it’s grace, when it’s really disruptive.
If 15 or 20 years ago someone had said to me, “You’ll eventually be a Lutheran pastor.” I would have said, “Oh, my God, I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong girl. Clearly, I’m not.”
It’s strange to say that God had a purpose or God was using me in some way because it can feel like a form of spiritual self-flattery—but I do feel very much used.
Who is this book for?
I really did write it for people who have a Christian background but left the church for completely valid reasons but maybe are open to the gospel again—the gospel doesn’t always have to be wrapped in the church wrapping paper they are accustomed to. I know, in my case, the gospel of Jesus Christ is simply the most true thing I’ve ever heard in my life and I think that, unfortunately, that message has been packaged in ways that are alienating to a lot of people. I wrote this as an attempt to say, “Here’s another way to talk about what this whole thing can mean and can be.”
I also definitely had my fellow alcoholics and addicts in mind. People who are in a position of having really experienced death and resurrection and having to pray and rely on God. You can be that person and still access that particular story of Jesus.
Surveys are showing that young people—those millennials—are leaving the church in droves.
Well we’re thinking of starting a second site because we have so many young adults.
Do you think you’ve found a way to re-engage those young people?
There are generational realities and cultural realities. Most of the time if someone from a mainline church says, “We have young people who come,” they’re probably “old” young people who are not necessarily postmodern even though they are chronologically young. Post-modernity has created a very particular worldview and mindset and a particular set of critiques and cynicism, as well as a particular hunger. People who have all of those are drawn to the congregation that I serve.
Tell us bit about your church.
We’re active participants instead of passive consumers of the religious experience. Liturgy means “work of the people,” so when you walk in you’ll find us totally in the round—to democratize the space—and all the music comes out of the bodies of the people that show up. There’s nothing sacred performance-y about it. The liturgy is led by 15 to 18 different people who, when they walked in, took one of the reader cards off the table. It’s self-selected. No one has to deem them worthy or good enough.
Just that alone makes a huge difference.
Additionally, we’re very deep into the ancient practices of the church. The ancient liturgy of the church has its own integrity. For people who are prone to cynicism, to have something that’s 1,300 years old, we don’t feel like we have to constantly be looking behind the curtain to see if it’s the Wizard of Oz or a scared little man. We don’t have to be as cynical about it because it has its own integrity; it doesn’t demand a particular emotional experience from us; it doesn’t demand that we intellectually assent to it—it works upon us like water on a rock. I think people are drawn to that.
My congregation is a place where difficult truths are spoken out loud about ourselves and about the world. And beautiful truths about God are spoken out loud as well.
There’s so much pretending out there. We have to pretend that we’re not smarter than our boss. We have to pretend we love our partner more than we do. We have to pretend that everything is fine. There’s just so much pretend in our lives we have to muster up, I think the church needs to be a place where that doesn’t have to happen. Just for one hour during the week, they can exhale and the truth about everything can be spoken in a sacred space.
Does that emphasis on honesty stem from your background in 12-step meetings?
Yes, the honesty and transparency comes from the fact that I came of age in a 12-step program. I came of age in church basements listening to drunks tell the truth about themselves and about themselves.
That seems to be the power in it even if people don’t have classic addictions like drugs or alcohol. We can all become addicted to that daily pretending that you’re talking about.
The book is vulnerable, to have all these stories about myself and these truths about myself out there. It’s not like the book is going to impress anyone—nobody’s going to say, “Wow, Nadia Bolz-Weber is a fucking spiritual giant.”
But, my hope is that rather than writing a spiritual memoir that in some way elevates me as a spiritual leader, writing a theological memoir that puts my own crap out there is a way to help shed light on the grace of God.
The Bible is full of imperfect people. Moses was a murderer. David was a philanderer…
Right. All God’s favorite people are fucked up.
But, too often, churches today expect us to be perfect. To dress right and act right and not track our muddy boots into the sanctuary.
That comes from the fact that the locus of authority has shifted in our culture. Human experience has authority in a way that it never has before in human history so if I am experiencing something about myself or the world and I go to church and it’s either not acknowledged or it’s contradicted, why in the world would I go back? Why would the church or Christian community have anything to say to me?
Is there a chance of being too vulnerable, though?
I only preach from my scars, not my wounds. I don’t mind putting my stuff out there. It doesn’t bother me, but if I do that with a wound and my parishioners respond by wanting to bring me bandages, so to speak, I have failed. Then it is about me.
A lot of preachers from previous generations were taught not to talk about themselves in sermons because “it’s not about you.” Well, nobody wants to hear about your addiction to internet pornography from the pulpit because that makes them uncomfortable in a way that’s not going to illuminate the gospel, it’s only going to point to you. I’m very careful about that.
If I’m going to reveal something about myself in a sermon—which I almost always do—the purpose has to be to show the people how much in need of God’s grace we are. If you aren’t convicted by something how are you ever driven to the foot of the cross? If nothing can convict me, if I’m great and I have all of my shit together then we just leave Jesus idling in his van on the corner.
Why did you call the book Pastrix?
Pastrix is a made-up term that unimaginative sectors of the Christian church apply to women who are clergy because they don’t consider them to be actually pastors, since they’re women. Some of my detractors who write shit about me will not call me pastor, they started calling me pastrix, so I just took it on. Anytime you can take an insult and make it your own, you win.
How do you deal with the critics? You have been attacked pretty hard by those who don’t like you.
When I am attacked from the liberal flank it bothers me. But, when I’m attacked from the conservative side, that’s just jet fuel. I feel like I can keep going for another couple of months. I have such a defiant personality that if you’re going to take the time to put it out there, I’m going to take the time to convert it into jet fuel for myself. If my detractors have a problem with what I’m doing, they should shut the fuck up.
The chapter where you talk about doing chaplaincy work at a hospital was quite powerful. Tell me about that experience.
One thing I learned there is that I’m fairly comfortable in an emergency room or an ICU. I have no idea what the fuck to say to someone who just had shoulder surgery. I can’t do the nice chit-chat, but I realized that I can be present during to some pretty wrenching pain and reality of life. I think that being present to that type of suffering made me a theologian of the cross in a way that nothing else could have. As a Lutheran, I confess that it is God who is hanging from the cross—not God’s little boy. God is still present in the suffering we endure in this life. God is not absent. I think that having that experience forged that in me in a real way.
You met an atheist during that time.
Yes, it was this old lady with her hair stacked high and I just thought for sure she’d have some cheesy Christian prayer books that she’d want me to read from. I asked if there was anything I could do for her and she said, “Oh, no, dear, that’s all nonsense. I’m an atheist.” I said, “Good for you. I wish I could pull that off.”
You also talk about your patron saint, Mary Magdalene. What does she mean to you?
Being raised in a Christian tradition where women were not even permitted to pray out loud in front of men, much less be an usher or a preacher, there was a process for me of sort of claiming my authority as a preacher. The more I studied the gospels the more intrigued I was by Mary Magdalene and how she seemed to always be around. I called her “the patron saint of just showing up,” because she’s always there.
I love that—this woman, who had been delivered from so much, is chosen by Jesus to be the first witness to the resurrection. It could have been somebody else, but Mary Magdalene was chosen to be the one to tell the men of the resurrection.
I love that text in John 20 where she doesn’t recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener—which I suspect she never lived down. I’m sure her friends, for the rest of her life, when they’d be drinking, they’d be like, “Hey, Mary, remember when you thought Jesus was a gardener?” I absolutely love the fact that she didn’t recognize him until he spoke her name. I relate to that. I don’t think I recognized Jesus until it seemed like he was speaking my name. When that happens, we turn at the sound of the voice.
That’s my story of being confused and hearing my name and turning over and over again. Not just like it happened once, this is a daily thing for me. That’s the life of death and resurrection that I end up undergoing on a regular basis.
What do you see as the future of the church?
What defines church to me is where the gospel is preached and sacraments are presided over and handed out. In that way, I don’t think the church is going anywhere. I think people will still gather in the name of the triune God and tell the story of Jesus and talk about the night before he died and share bread and wine. They’ll still baptize in the name of that same God. What that looks like changing and I think it will continue to change.
I think, any minute now, my church will be outdated. There will be people in their teens and twenties saying, “You guys are out of it and you don’t know which questions you should be asking.”