Set aside the pastor being a woman. Set aside the tattoos. Set aside the social justice stuff. Well, you’ll have to set aside quite a bit. But what’s striking here is that the latest star of the “emergent church” (congregations trying to reach trendy postmodernists by being trendy and postmodernist) employs traditional Lutheran theology and liturgy:
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a dichotomy wrapped in a paradox covered in tattoos.
Creation, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost — practically the entire liturgical year — unfurl in technicolor ink from her shoulder to her wrist.
That’s just her left arm. Mary Magdalene and Lazarus rising from the dead are on the long right arm of this 6-foot-1 Christian billboard.
The 42-year-old came to Jesus later in life but then pursued a vocation in Christ full throttle. In a state where Focus on the Family and other strands of evangelical Christianity have long grabbed most headlines, a progressive Lutheran is now stealing the marquee.
On the strength of her preaching, Bolz-Weber received the invitation to sermonize Sunday at Easter sunrise services for roughly 10,000 people at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
In the few years since ordination in late 2008, she has become famous within her denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and achieved international acclaim.
She has a wide audience for her sermons and blogs, touted by the likes of progressive Christianity torch-bearer Jim Wallis. Her blog is under the heading “Sarcastic Lutheran: The cranky spirituality of a postmodern Gal. Emerging church ala Luther.” . . .
Bolz-Weber sums up her own small mission church as “a group of folks figuring out how to be liturgical, Christo-centric, social-justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient-future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination.”
Bolz-Weber makes it seem reasonable and fun to be simultaneously traditional and innovative, ancient and postmodern, devout and irreverent, brash and humble, flip and profound, and so on. . . .
While she shatters all stereotypes of Lutheran pastors, [ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark] Hanson said, she is “absolutely grounded in the heart of Lutheran theology.”
Bolz-Weber herself bristles at the notion she is a “rogue Lutheran” or that her church is niche marketing.
“I’ve never asked myself what do young adults want on church,” she said. “I’ve never tried to fill a market niche by producing a particular religious product.”
She just wanted to start a church her friends didn’t have “to commute to spiritually and culturally” from the context of their normal lives. . . .She tried out the Unitarian Universalist Church, where they have “a high opinion of humans” that didn’t fit with her experience. People are flawed, she said.”It’s dark in there,” she said tapping her chest over her heart. “We’re all simultaneously sinners and saints. We live in response to God’s grace. Nobody’s climbing the spiritual ladder.”
She chose the Lutheran denomination, she said, “because I met this really cute guy playing volleyball.”
He’s now her husband. Matthew Weber is also a Lutheran pastor, but of a more mainline stripe. Married in 1996, the couple have two children, 10 and 12.
Bolz-Weber also fell in love with the Lutheran liturgy, she said. “The Lutheran Church is the only place that gave me language true to what I’d experienced, true to my life,” she said. “I want to give people what I got out of that.”
James Wall, a self-described coat-and-tie Episcopalian who co-founded “The Wilderness,” an emerging church within the church at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, serves as contemplative-in-residence at House for All Sinners and Saints.
“She works within a mainstream denomination, yet her congregation is nearly all young people,” Wall said. “The liturgy is traditional and sacramental, with ancient chants and traditional hymns. This is not some rock-band-led, happy-clappy church in the suburbs. And yet young, radical Christians come every Sunday.”
I have been critical of the emergent church movement, with its doctrinal revisionism, while saluting some of its criticisms of American Christianity. Emergent Christians, to their credit, want to bring back “mystery” into their beliefs and ritual into their worship, but they by-and-large reject Christian orthodoxy, which reveals the true mysteries of the faith, and they ignore the historical liturgy in favor of made-up rituals, even though the former is so much better by any standard. They seem to be groping for the sacramental, but they lack the theology and the doctrines for a genuine sacramental spirituality. I have often thought that Lutheranism is the true emergent church, addressing its valid concerns without falling into its mistakes. So maybe the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is onto something. But are postmodernists so shallow that they need so much coolness and progressive trappings in a pastor? Why wouldn’t a regular congregation with traditional theology, liturgy, and sacraments do just as well?
HT: David Halbrook