Should we talk about politics in Church? What do we make of the latest Pew Report on the rising numbers of the “religiously unaffiliated?” Why is Progressive Christianity still so invisible to the general population?
These were some of the questions I asked Brian McLaren and Nadia Bolz-Weber in the first part of my interview with these progressive Christian luminaries this week. Brian was here in Denver promoting his important new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? and Nadia, pastor of the emergent liturgical Lutheran church House for all Sinners and Saints, was hosting. Here is second half of our conversation, in which we pick up again on politics, as well as Christian identity in a multi-faith world, what recharges these two when they’re discouraged, and who would win in an arm wrestle.
Nadia: I don’t write about politics much, but I did write recently about how I don’t think our political sensibilities should ever be the thing that unites us in church. My church is pretty progressive, but we had this couple who came to the faith at House (House for All Sinners and Saints), and I think they’re Libertarian. They’re definitely not Obama fans. And it really worried me that they were going to feel uncomfortable here. And I realized that what we do — like when the healthcare debate was going on — what we do is we say “I’m for Obamacare because I want more affordable access to quality healthcare for people who are lower income.” And then we say, “So anybody who’s against Obamacare, it means that they do not care about lower income people having more access to quality healthcare.” Well, same with the other side, they say, “I’m against Obamacare because I really cherish our liberty and freedom.” And then what isn’t fair is for them to look at me and say,”So if you’re for it, you don’t care about liberty and freedom.” That what’s we tend to do. And it dawned on me a few months ago that that’s what I do, and how wrong-headed that is and lacking in generosity.
Brian: And in our discussion about politics, we haven’t even talked about this other huge reality of corporate money corrupting our democracy, but that’s another subject.
So what do you do when you get discouraged, about politics or anything else for that matter?
Nadia: I lift really heavy weights. Getting discouraged — that’s not really cyclical for me, it’s sort of chronic. I am just sort of an innately angry person. So I spend an hour everyday, sometimes two, working out really hard and lifting really heavy weights. I’m competing in a power-lifting competition this Saturday! It just gets all of this stuff out of my body, and shuts my brain off for an hour, and makes me strong physically, and it allows me to withstand some of the weather.
Brian: As you say that, I’m thinking that maybe a lot of our problems are that we evolved over millions of years to have bodies that exercise, and it could be that when you have 300 million people who aren’t getting enough exercise…
Nadia: …and eating things that aren’t food … our bodies aren’t meant for that. You want to know what the source of a lot of angst and depression and anger is? It’s that we’re just not living the way we were meant to live … and I’m not talking about morality, I’m taking about eating things that are actually food, and our bodies being active in the way they’re meant to be active. It changes you emotionally and spiritually.
Brian: It’s like we’ve made survival so easy, and we’re set up to have a certain amount of survival-related stress and so we have to expend that energy somehow. I think there’s a lot to that. So from a theological perspective, we’ve got to remember we’re creatures with certain limits and we have to acknowledge that.
For me, even though my work is very much public work, I’m an introvert by nature, so getting time alone is essential for me. I think everybody has to learn what re-charges them. The outdoors, live music and doing something creative always is re-charging for me.
And I think we all have to give ourselves permission to have a bad day, or a bad week … maybe even a bad year, because life comes at us that way sometimes. If we can allow for that – other people might not give us that permission — but I think we can be a friend to ourselves and give ourselves that permission. Then it becomes our responsibility to indulge in the things that recharge us.
Nadia: As I have an increasingly public life, I’ve had an increasingly private life. I am not available to everybody all the time. My parish yeah, but I’ve drawn a lot of clear boundaries around my life. There are very few things I’d rather do than be at home at night with my family. I see on Facebook all this stuff that people are doing. I really don’t do that. I write, I do speaking, I pastor my church, I have my kids, and then I don’t really do a lot much outside of that. I want to be at home.
I was on the road recently and did five different talks and sat on two panels, in three different cities in two states in four days, and when my plane landed back in Denver, somebody picked me up and I went straight to church ten minutes before it started. And I was too exhausted for there to be any barrier between myself and the experience, and my heart was just filled worshipping with my community. I was so grateful, and I continue to actually like being with my church more than I like talking about my church. That is a huge source for me. I love it.
Brian: Can I say one more thing? I don’t claim to do this all the time, but I sure do it a lot more now that I’m older. I try to ask myself, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?” Whether it’s anger or depression or whatever. And usually there’s something that it’s trying to tell me. Like you, I took it really hard when I watched the presidential debate last week. Something about it affected me deeply. And I’ve been asking myself, what’s that about?
Nadia: And that’s really important work to do. As somebody who’s pretty passionate; I can get really angry, and get really happy … and that’s great, but if I think that’s it… I have to be able to get down into stuff … or else that’s just effect. And there’s no gift in that for other people necessarily. And If I can’t, as a religious pastoral leader, do the work of excavating some of that … and then putting language around it… That really does help model that for other people.
Brian: You do great at that, Nadia. You talk about all your brokenness, and all of your stuff and in so doing you make it way easier for other people to do it.Nadia: I just have a lot of material to work with! (laughter)
Brian, you’ve been on the road about a month now promoting your new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? How is it going? How has the book been received?
Brian: When you write a book, you feel like you’re sending your kid off to first grade. You don’t know if he’s going to get beat up, or made fun of. But when I finished this book, I felt very confident about it. I’ve been working toward writing this for a long time. So what has been extremely gratifying to me is the number of people are really getting it.
And I think part of it is just the urgency of the subject. As a writer, I’m responding to issues and questions we all really have. How do I hold my own faith, without it needing to marginalize or invalidate other people’s faith that they hold with equal passion and commitment? And how do I acknowledge the passion and commitment they hold for their faiths without marginalizing my own?
So going back to the first question about the Pew Survey results on the rising number of the “religiously unaffiliated” in this country, how do you think your book relates to that trend? I imagine many of the people who identify that way might do so in part because they don’t always see Christianity as allowing them to be in this multi-faith world in a very hospitable way.
Brian: Yes. I had a funny experience a couple of weeks ago when I was speaking about the book. I had a lady come up to me in tears and she said, I only came here by accident and I haven’t read your book yet, but hearing your talk, she said, “I left Christianity in my 20s, but if I had heard this talk in my 20s, I could have spent the last 30 years in the church. I feel like I might able to go back now.”
Nadia: But Brian, that’s been your thing your whole career. You have consistently invited people into the Chrisitan faith in a way they didn’t know they could be, and in a way that they feel like they can be. That’s how I see you being so important in these conversations that you’ve been in for a long time… I can’t tell you how many people I encounter who tell me, look, I left the church and didn’t want to have anything to do with the faith, and Brian McLaren’s books just made me feel like I wanted to be Christian again and nothing else did. I think you’ve opened the door to say, “this can be really beautiful, and it can be yours, and you can be you.”
Brian: That’s encouraging. You know, I was with a Muslim friend who said to me, “This generation of Muslims is making Islam uglier than it’s ever been.” And I thought to myself, that’s the problem. It the problem with Christianity, too. We have religious leaders who are making our faith ugly. And re-discovering the beauty and joy is pretty darn important.
Nadia, you’ve just finished a book too, be published in August. Tell us about it.
Nadia: It’s like me in a book (laughter). It’s sort of a memoir. I just don’t have anything except for the confession of my own brokenness and the confession of my own real faith and how God continues to reach into the graves I dig myself and love me back to life again. It really is about death and resurrection and how that narrative is what Christianity is about to me. It’s my story.
Did you have somebody in mind when you were writing the book?
I did. I thought a lot about my friend Melissa Febos, who is a memoirist who wrote a brilliant book called Whip Smart, about her being a dominatrix in New York and high on heroine and an honor student at The New School. And she’s in recovery now and prays everyday… and she’s a very spiritual person, but she’s not religious. And so I wanted to tell her my story so she could see the beauty in this tradition that maybe the only portrayal of it she sees is like Brian said, the ugly stuff. So it’s definitely for people who have left the church or who have never been a part of it, or are looking for something beautiful that is unafraid to speak the truth about despair and about hope, at the same time, and hold those in each hand. I don’t feel like I wrote a Christian book. It just happens to be my story, and I happen to be Christian. You know me, I swear like a truck driver, so it’s me, I didn’t “nice up” anything. I don’t buffer the edges on this. So some people will continue to not like that. And some people, hopefully, will love it.
Is there a final question you’d like to ask each other?
Brian: I have one we could both answer, if you’d like. What is a passage in the Bible that you’ve enjoyed preaching or thinking about lately?
Nadia: There is a passage I used throughout my book … the resurrection act in John 20. Mary Magdaelne is a really significant figure to me. I got a tattoo of her on my forearm when I first felt a call to ministry. I had to borrow Mary Magdalene … I had to borrow her strength … to preach. She was healed of seven demons, and yet still was the one who was told to “go and tell.” I love the fact that she mistakes Jesus for the gardener . Well first of all, I don’t think her friends ever let her live that down, like, forever they teased her about it — but it tells us that resurrection isn’t always as pretty as the church makes it up to be on Easter. There’s something that still has the dirt from our graves under our nails. Anyway, I love the fact that she doesn’t recognize him until he speaks her name. There’s something so moving and beautiful about that, and that she turned when she heard the sound of her name. It tells us that every other thing in the world will try and tell you who you are, and nothing else gets to. Only God gets to tell you who you are, and you know it, and you turn. I love that passage.
How about you?
Brian: Last Sunday was a rare Sunday where I just got to attend church, in my little Episcopal church in Florida. And we were singing the hymn, All Hail The Power of Jesus. And the whole time I’m singing this song, something is bothering me. I think it was that the organist was going to town, and it was regal, really regal. And I’ve always loved that hymn and how regal it is. But all I could think of was, how would we sing this song if we were singing about Jesus as the one who wants to wash people’s feet, and as the one who wants to be a servant? And, do we subvert Jesus the servant? So I went home after church and re-read Phillippians 2. And the reason it says Jesus was lifted up by God is because he went down to servanthood and finally suffered and died. So I’ve just been thinking about this strange struggle we have about the way we lift Jesus up … We almost want to lift Jesus up as our mascot, or our tribal deity that goes and defeats all the other deities … but he keeps climbing up that pedestal to go down … to serve.
So there was one last Facebook question I was asked to give you, and it was, “Who would win in an arm wrestle?”
Nadia: I think we’ve established that. (laughter)
Brian: She would win. Although I am a kayaker…
Nadia: Oh, that’s right. So you do have that.
Brian: But I think a weight-lifter beats a kayaker.
Nadia: I could lift him over my head if you’d like.
Ha! Thanks so much, you two. What a gift to be with you.
Deborah Arca is the Managing Editor of the Progressive Christian Channel at Patheos.