The witness of a “Lutheran Nikita”

Candace Chellow-Hodge reviews Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Life of a Sinner & Saint by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber a Lutheran pastor with an unusual story.

Religion Dispatches:

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, and ELCA mission church in Denver, Colorado.

She interviews Pastor Bolz-Weber:

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…

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.”

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6 Comments
  1. Jeffrey Cox

    I find it shocking that people so love the Emergent Church. They write stories about it. I worship periodically in an Emergent Church (The Gathering in Salem, MA). It is very true to the Gospel; however, it is also pretty poor, currently homeless congregation, and the pastor makes little. It is anti-Episcopalian. How can such a structured church become unstructured? These stories do not speak of the compensation or national missional funding if these places. In many cases, without funding or a missional pastor, they would fold.

  2. barbara snyder

    You have to wonder how the church has survived for so long, given that a new generation comes along about every 20 years or so.

    How did it keep itself from being “outdated” for the past 2,000 years, as new people in their teens and twenties came of age? Even more: how did it ever get to the current 2 billion adherents worldwide without hip young pastors figuring out the new questions we need to be asking?

    Definitely a mystery….

  3. Geoffrey McLarney

    The short answer is that we haven’t been “without” successive generations (hip or otherwise) of pastors and lay baptised ministers to renew and reshape our expression of the timeless faith. If we had been, you’re quite right that we would not have grown to two billion. But the way you frame the question makes it sound like we haven’t had such leadership and if we could make do without it for 2000 years, why can’t these congregations? But of course we didn’t and could not have done any more than they can.

    The demographic at places like House for All may skew younger, but as you say people grow up. The question – and the challenge for “emergent” and other alternatives ministries to the traditional parish – is whether these people will still be Christians when they’ve hung up their (supposed) hipster accoutrements. As Gamaliel knew, only time will tell, but certainly I think HFASS’ is better poised for longevity than some of the cafe churches and skate parks out there. And part of that is because of their attachment to a wider polity with a liturgical and sacramental tradition (in this case, the ELCA) – in contrast with the “anti-Episcopal” example my fellow Jeffrey cites above.

  4. barbara snyder

    Sorry, Geoffrey – I was just being snarky about one particular aspect of the article: the idea that the new generation is somehow unique in all of world history, and requires an entirely new approach (including “asking new questions”). And, worse, that we all need to worry about being “outdated” every 10 minutes because we simply can’t keep up with the pace of change.

    I just don’t buy this at all; the Gospel has attracted all sorts and conditions of people in every kind of culture and in every nation for 2,000 years. People have followed Christ under some of the worst conditions – and under some of the best. Slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female, rich, poor, old young, etc. I don’t know why we’re supposed to be any different. There have been many times in history, too, when “renewal” was necessary. I think I just get exasperated with the overemphasis on us and our conditions – as if nothing has ever happened before we were born or something. And then, the thought that somehow the 2 billion other Christians in the world somehow didn’t count? Aren’t they all part of our “postmodern” world, too?

    But I have no other beef with this article, and probably I shouldn’t have been snarky about it – or at least should have expressed myself better.

    I have to say, though, that I don’t understand why this church is considered “emergent”; it seems like any church anywhere, anytime, in which the Gospel is preached. Ancient liturgy, sacraments, the preaching of the Gospel; what’s “emergent” about any of that? I completely agree that what matters is “sticky” faith – and I have a hunch you’re right that this church may be one in which that happens. Again: it’s the Gospel that matters; that’s the “sticky” part…..

  5. Scott Lybrand

    I loved this answer from Nadia. It gets at the heart of what she seems to be doing. TEC needs some folks like her to shake us up a bit while reminding us about the beauty of our own tradition:

    “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.””

  6. Scott Lybrand

    I loved this answer from Nadia. It gets at the heart of what she seems to be doing. TEC needs some folks like her to shake us up a bit while reminding us about the beauty of our own tradition:

    “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.””

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